​​The Art of Fake Masterpieces

U.S. federal prosecutors have charged a New York art dealer with allegedly selling counterfeit art. ​

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Fraud and money laundering

U.S. federal prosecutors have charged a New York art dealer with conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering, and tax offenses for selling counterfeit art over a 15-year period. The Boston Globe reports that the accused dealer allegedly sold two New York art galleries more than 60 paintings she promoted as undiscovered works by famous abstract painters such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko for more than US $30 million. The indictment alleges that the paintings were created by a New York painter hired by the dealer's boyfriend. The galleries that bought the paintings later sold them for more than US $80 million. Prosecutors told a federal judge in New York that more arrests related to the scam were expected.

Lessons Learned

Broadly speaking, this case represents a form of intellectual property fraud, with counterfeit art prints among the specific examples. Increased disposable income and interest in historical and cultural items have, in part, created greater opportunities for fraudsters to operate in this area. For auditors, this type of case is a particular opportunity to become more familiar with the most relevant forensic techniques that also can help in dealing with a wide range of fraudulent activities — not just those relating to intellectual property, but also financial, material, and other fraud categories.

How do auditors protect their organizations? To comprehensively detect and address this kind of fraud threat, the effectiveness of the legal and regulatory framework, business practices, and consumer awareness/education surrounding intellectual property are all elements that must be addressed. Begin with the more obvious actions: Seek professional advice — counterfeit prints are often so well produced that few laypersons can tell the real thing from a fake — so the opinion of a reputable art appraiser or museum curator may well be worth the effort before finalizing an expensive purchase. For example, ask the seller for specific information about the piece, such as the edition size, print medium, publication year, and printer/publisher. Also, be sceptical of authenticity claims that are not supported independently or that are not put in writing.

On a more systematic level, a thorough examination — sometimes referred to as Morellian Analysis — of an art piece will be needed to determine authenticity. For example, a sculpture may have been created obviously with modern or incorrect methods and tools, such as characteristic brushwork, perspective, preferred themes or techniques, paint colors not historically available, or chemicals to "age" artwork. Other tell-tale signs of fraud can include frames, either new or old, altered to make forged paintings look more genuine; new or old paper glued to a painting's back; and old nail holes or mounting marks on the back of a piece. Any of these may indicate that a painting has been removed from its frame, doctored, and then replaced into either its original frame or a different frame. Another indicator is signatures on paintings or graphics that look inconsistent with the art itself (e.g., either fresher or bolder).

Perhaps most useful to auditors as a guiding logic, investigations may attempt to authenticate the object using some, or all, of these forensic methods:

  • Carbon or "white lead" dating to pinpoint the age of an object.
  • Conventional X-rays to detect earlier work present under the surface of a painting — an apparently older painting on top of a newer one may indicate fraud.
  • X-ray diffraction to analyze the components that make up the paint an artist used.
  • X -ray fluorescence — bathing the object to cause it to emit X-rays — to reveal whether the metals in a metal sculpture or composition of pigments are too pure or newer than their supposed age. This technique also can reveal the artist's, or forger's, fingerprints.
  • Ultraviolet fluorescence and infrared analysis to detect repairs or earlier painting present on canvasses.
  • Atomic absorption spectrophotometry and inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry to detect anomalies in paintings and materials. If an element is present that investigators know was not used historically in objects of this type, then the object is not authen​tic.
  • Stable isotope analysis to determine where stone, such as the marble used in a sculpture, was quarried.
  • Thermoluminescence (TL) — the light produced by heat — to date the age of older pottery, which produces more TL when heated than a newer piece.
  • Newer methods, such as the statistical analysis of digital images of paintings, to detect forgeries using a technique called wavelet decomposition. With this method, a picture is broken down into a collection of more basic images called sub-bands, which are analyzed to determine textures, assigning a frequency to each sub-band, that in turn can be compared to those typic​​ally employed by artists in older times.​



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