by Yvonne Bynoe

The dirty secret of the art world is that it’s rife with fakes. There are forgeries hanging on museum walls, forgeries being sold at auctions and, consequently, forgeries in private collections.

In the past, the concern about forgeries was confined to European artists such as Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso, and American luminaries such as Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock. In 2006, Pollock’s painting, “Number 5, 1948” sold at auction for 140 million dollars. However, in the last 25 years, as more White collectors have become interested in African-American art, market values have skyrocketed and so too have the incidences of forgeries of early 20th century works.

In early August, Jason Harrington pleaded guilty to selling $1.1 million dollars in forged art to at least 15 galleries and individuals between 2018 and 2020, according to the US Department of Justice (DOJ). Harrington also attempted to sell a forged Barkley L. Hendricks painting. Hendricks, who died in 2017, was a painter and photographer who transformed the tradition of portraiture in the 1960s and 1970s with his life-sized, realist oil paintings of everyday Black Americans.

Forged Barkley L. Hendricks

Barkley L. Hendricks, “Noir” (1978)

According to the DOJ, Harrington claimed to be a gallerist who had inherited the never before seen “Hendricks” painting from his uncle. The potential buyer, an art dealer, reportedly declined the work after Hendrick’s widow inspected it and said that it was a fake.

Forger, Phillip Bennet Righter duped art buyers looking for Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings on the cheap. In 2017, Righter listed a work that he claimed was a 1983 painting by Basquiat with the word “SAMO” written across it on an online art-sales website. The site sold the piece for $50,000. It should be noted that the least expensive Basquiat painting sold for $1.85 million in 1982. According to court filings, Righter also forged certificates of authenticity, which are letters that attest to the genuineness of artwork.

In 2018 the “Basquiat” painting was deemed to be a fake and the art-sales website was compelled to refund the full purchase price to the buyer. In 2020, Righter pleaded guilty to federal charges of art fraud after trying to sell $6 million worth of forged paintings attributed to Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Although forged African-American art is gaining more media attention, it’s not a new phenomenon. 

In the 1970s, folk artist Clementine Hunter became the target of artist William Toye who forged and sold fake “Hunters” for decades. Clementine (pronounced Clementeen) painted familiar scenes from her life at the Melrose Plantation where she lived and worked as a cook. Her paintings depicted people playing cards, going to weddings, doing laundry, and cotton picking. She initially sold her paintings for a dollar or less. However, when she died in 1988 at the age of 101, art dealers were selling her paintings for thousands of dollars. 

In 1974, Toye was arrested on twenty-two counts of forgery for making and selling “Hunter” paintings. The case, however, was never prosecuted. Thirty fives year later, in 2009, the FBI raided Toye’s Baton Rouge house that he shared with Beryl Toye, his wife and accomplice. The couple was suspected of selling about $100,000 worth of fake Clemetine Hunter paintings. In 2011, Toye pleaded guilty to conspiracy to sell counterfeit Clementine Hunter paintings, to misrepresenting the authenticity and origin of the paintings, and to painting the counterfeited Hunter artwork. William and Beryl Toye were sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to pay $426,393 in restitution to the victims of the fraud.

Forged art steals money from the estates of African-American artists who, like Hunter, earned very little money for their work while they were alive. However, perhaps more damaging is that the commingling of forged works attributed to African-American artists with their authentic paintings sullies their artistic legacies. This is particularly relevant since forged art can appear in museum exhibits and in galleries as true representations of these artists.

Clementine Hunter “Camite the Hair Fixer Doing Ceola’s Hair (ca 1940s)

African-American art is particularly susceptible to forgeries because most museums, galleries, and auction houses lack knowledgeable experts on the subject.

The Western art canon remains primarily focused on European artists, so graduates of art programs often have little or no exposure to influential African-American artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, Archibald Motley, Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, or Lois Mailou Jones. Without a solid background on early 20th African-American artists and their bodies of work, a curator or a gallerist wouldn’t be able to identify even obvious fakes. In the case of Harrington’s fake Barkley Hendricks painting, even a lay person familiar with Barkley’s work would have immediately questioned its authenticity.

Unfortunately, many collectors don’t realize that they’ve acquired a fake Basquiat or a fake Hunter until they attempt to sell it. It is therefore critical that collectors of African-American art educate themselves about the art they are purchasing and not get lulled into a false sense of security because they’re working with a prestigious auction house or a reputable art dealer. 

When it comes to fake art, it’s a game of hot potato.

Museums, auction houses, dealers, and collectors keep passing around questionable works amongst themselves because there is too much money and too many professional reputations at stake to do otherwise.

Starting in 1985, Mark Landis, posed as a philanthropist and donated 100 works of art that he forged to 46 museums in 20 states. It was an astute art registrar, not a pedigreed curator, who eventually unraveled the con. Since Landis didn’t receive any money for his fake paintings, he hadn’t legally committed fraud and wasn’t prosecuted. In 1987, Christie’s auction house sold “Sunflowers,” a painting attributed to artist Vincent Van Gogh, to the Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance Company of Japan for $39.9 million, which, at the time, was the highest sum ever paid for a work of art. Amongst art experts, the authenticity of the work remains in question this day.

In 2011, New York’s Knoedler & Co., the country’s oldest art gallery was brought down by numerous lawsuits asserting fraud. Knoedler sold more than 30 paintings for approximately $80 million, claiming they were by important Abstract Expressionist artists. In reality, the paintings were all created in Queens, New York by artist Pei-Shen Qian, a Chinese immigrant. When the fraud was exposed, Qian returned to China, where he wouldn’t be extradited. Anne Freedman, the Director of Knoedler, never admitted any guilt and she received no jail time. Furthermore, shortly after the trial, Freedman opened her own gallery in Manhattan.

Even when an auction house or art dealer is being shady, fraud is difficult to prove. Legally, fraud requires an auction house or an art dealer to knowingly sell a fake work. Often there is no “smoking gun” in the form of documentation, audio recordings, or eyewitness testimony that directly ties the auction house or art dealer to a forger or confirms that they knew a work was a forgery. Not conducting proper due diligence on a painting’s legitimacy before selling it isn’t a crime. Too often greed or a trusted associate vouching for a painting or a seller is enough for art professionals to ignore obvious red flags.

The onus is on art buyers to protect themselves.

Do your homework on the artist and don’t be afraid to ask questions. A warning bell should immediately go off if the asking price for a work is significantly lower than the sales prices of other works by the artist. Similar to reviewing comparable sales (comps) when buying a house, you should investigate why the painting is less expensive than the others.

Furthermore, can the seller provide verifiable information about the provenance of the work?  Provenance is the chain of ownership. Fake work often springs up out of nowhere as an “undiscovered’ or “never before seen”‘ work. If the seller doesn’t have any documentation about who has owned the work and/or shows that the artist even painted it, or, worse, cites confidentiality as the reason why they can’t furnish you with any information on the painting, you should probably pass on it.

Next, when you do decide to buy a painting, consider asking that a clause be inserted in the sales agreement requiring the art dealer or auction house warrant that they have never possessed any documentation, information or had any knowledge that the work is a forgery or that there were suspicions about the work’s authenticity.

Lastly, if you’re buying art as a financial investment, don’t spend more on a work of art than you can afford to lose. All investments are risky, and investing in art is no different.

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Yvonne Yvonne Bynoe is the founder of the online platform @shelovesblackart which highlights visual art from the African diaspora. She is a former attorney and the author of the acclaimed book, Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip Hop Culture.


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