As one of the few unregulated fields still left in the world, art tends to attract a host of unsavory characters who are eager to game the system. Since appreciating art to its true value is hard to do, throughout history, various frauds and scams have been perpetuated with the ultimate goal of enriching certain people at the expense of others. Here are just five of the most notable examples:
1. Wolfgang Beltracchi’s convincing forgeries
Few people in the art world have reached the degree of notoriety that Wolfgang Beltracchi currently enjoys. A self-described German hippie with flowing white hair, Wolfgang was the son of an art restorer and muralist who went to art school himself and caught the forgery bug early. Along with his wife Helena, he claims to have forged hundreds of paintings by more than 50 different artists. Some of the notable artists whose work Wolfgang has copied include Max Ernst, Auguste Herbin and Raoul Dufy. Finally arrested in 2010, Beltracchi was sentenced to six years in jail, while his wife was given four. After finishing his term, Wolfgang became something of a celebrity, giving numerous interviews about his technique and even having a documentary made about him.
2. Glafira Rosales and her Chinese henchman
Glafira Rosales made her debut on the NYC art scene in 1995, peddling what she claimed was a previously unknown work by none other than famed expressionist Mark Rothko. Later on, she would also unload pieces by the likes of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. It’s no wonder then that people took to it like hotcakes. The works sold for tens of millions of dollars. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to the people shelling out hard cash, these were actually the work of Chinese immigrant Pei-Shen Qian, who proved himself to be a master forger. Qian could successfully imitate the styles of the aforementioned masters, and was even able to age his pieces through the use of various substances including dirt and tea. The ruse was finally revealed in 2013, when Rosales pled guilty to fraud and was ordered to forfeit $81 million, but she still managed to avoid extradition by bolting to Spain in the nick of time.
3. The trailblazing forgeries of Elmyr de Hory
Probably the 20th century’s greatest forger, Elmyr de Hory’s work has become iconic to the point that some people intentionally collect his forgeries as a token of admiration towards his craft. Starting in 1955, de Hory made a business out of forging artworks, which are estimated to have fetched almost $50 million over the course of his career. Unfortunately, de Hory only received a fraction of this huge sum, and actually lived out most of his life in modest surroundings in an effort to hide from the FBI. Despite serving some time in Ibiza on charges of homosexuality, de Hory was never conclusively proven to be a forgery by the courts, and committed suicide before he could be imprisoned.
4. Sotheby’s complicity
Art frauds aren’t always committed by forgers. In fact, one of the most controversial aspects of modern art relates to the valuation of its pieces by auction houses. Since these institutions take a substantial cut out of every artwork they sell, they have quite a bit of interest in ensuring that what they auction commands as high a price as possible. Even auction giant Sotheby’s isn’t immune to this phenomenon, being accused by Russian art collector Dmitry Rybolovlev of artificially pumping up prices to deprive him of over $1 billion in total. The case is currently being litigated both in the US and in Switzerland, with Sotheby’s representatives fighting back against the accusations.
5. An inside job in Uzbekistan
Working in a museum has its perks, but stealing artwork isn’t typically one of them. That message definitely didn’t reach the employees of the Uzbek State Art Museum in Uzbekistan. Over the course of a 15-year period, several people used their proximity to the artworks housed in the museum to systematically pillage it. More than 25 precious pieces were stolen this way, including works by Victor Ufimtsev and Alexander Nikolaevich, and swapped with copies before anyone noticed. Fortunately, the bubble did eventually burst in 2014, with at least three former employees being convicted for their crimes so far.
All in all, it’s clear to see that modern art is a ripe field for fraudsters and scammers. The simple fact that art’s beauty is ultimately in the eye of the beholder guarantees that it will never be transparently priced like other consumer goods. This raises the risk for both buyers and artists, but even though fraud may still be rampant in the industry, the promise of owning or creating something timeless justifies the risk for most people.