Powerful committees that decide if art works are genuine are attracting controversy. The stakes are high – submit a work that’s judged a fake and it could go up in smoke. Georgina Adam reports.

This month, Christie’s was forced to halt an online sale of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat after being accused of trying to sell fake works. Two of the artist’s sisters brought a lawsuit against the famed auction house, questioning the authenticity of many of the 50 or so pieces in the sale: they are demanding $3m. “The sale may resume at a later date,” said a statement on Christie’s website.

This is just the latest in a growing number of cases involving the authentication of art and the boards that hold sway over the market. These boards, which were generally set up in the wake of the artist’s death as part of a foundation to protect and promote his or her legacy, bring together specialists of the work. They examine pieces submitted to them and issue the all-important ‘certificates of authenticity’. With the certificate, a work can be worth millions – but without it, the piece is virtually unsaleable.

The disputes go both ways – the owners of rejected works are attacking boards, while the boards have in some cases targeted owners trying to sell works they consider inauthentic. In the recent case of a Chagall painting, the Paris-based Chagall committee is preparing to destroy a work that it says is a forgery.

In the US just last month, the Keith Haring Foundation was hit with a $40m claim concerning 63 works that the owners said were genuine, but the foundation claimed were not. Hot on the heels of that case, a dealer sought $3.6m from the estate of the American sculptor Alexander Calderbecause it had said his sculpture was ‘incomplete’.

Some claimants have been so aggressive that a number of authentication bodies have simply disbanded, saying they don’t want to devote the time and money to these court battles. In recent years the Warhol, Motherwell, Pollock, Lichtenstein and – yes – the Basquiat committees have all been wound up.

In the case of the secretive Warhol committee, disbanded in 2011, those sending in a piece had to sign a contract agreeing not to sue if it was rejected. And the committee had a large red indelible stamp –“DENIED”  – to brand on the back. In one famous case, a portrait of Warhol was “double denied” with a second stamp slapped over the top – despite many in the art world thinking it was genuine. Its owner, Joe Simon, finally gave up trying to get it authenticated after being outgunned by the deep-pocketed Warhol board.

Conflicts of interest?

The problem is that there are potentially vast sums at stake and owners – even with dodgy artworks – are racing to court. They are even getting around the ‘no suing’ rule by accusing the boards of operating like cartels to promote the prices of their own works and shutting out everyone else.

This is the case with the Haring complaint. A group of owners of his work say the foundation, which disbanded its authentication committee last year, “limited the number of Haring works in the public domain… [inflated] the value of works owned by the Foundation…by rejecting [other] authentic Haring works.”

Some of the disputed works were indeed turned down by the committee before it was closed, and the owners say it ignored new evidence of authenticity. Because of these “malicious and wrongful tactics”, they say, they cannot sell the art and want $40m as compensation. Significantly, the lawyer for the owners say that the case “is not only about the Keith Haring Foundation, but also the art world in general and how it operates.”

The Calder case lays out the same arguments: a Swiss dealer Gérald Cremer, who bought the mobile Eight Black Leaves directly from Calder in 1948, accuses the Calder foundation of making decisions that are: “fuelled by the foundation’s conflict of interest – and its self-interest –as both the arbiter of authenticity and the owner of numerous Calder works worth hundreds of millions of dollars.” While the foundation doesn’t issue certificates, it does give inventory numbers – and it turned down Cremer, saying the mobile was incomplete. Cremer says the work is now unmarketable and wants $3.6m in compensation.

As for Basquait, his sisters, who are administrators of his estate, say they had only authenticated six of the items offered for sale; they further claim that Christie’s should know that the authenticity of many of the others was questionable. Christie’s, which had put the three best pieces into a live auction, was forced to pull one, although two others sold below estimate. Both had the precious certificates from the now defunct committee.

Up in flames

In France, the powers of these committees can go beyond giving an opinion – they can even have fakes destroyed. A media storm erupted in Britain last month after it emerged that the owner of a fake ‘Chagall’ who had sent it to the Chagall Committee for authentication was unlikely ever to see it again. It was destined to be destroyed, and the committee was within its rights for demanding this as part as its fight against forgery.

As always, there are two sides to every story. British businessman Martin Lang  had paid well under the going price for Chagall in 1992, and even a cursory examination of other works might have alerted him to the possibility it was counterfeit. And he did know the risks when he sent it to Paris: Meret Meyer, Chagall’s granddaughter and vice president of the committee, says: “The owner was completely aware of our conditions when he submitted the work, and that it could be destroyed.”

In the Haring case, the works went on show in Miami in 2013 but were taken down immediately after the Keith Haring Foundation took out an injunction. And the exhibition organiser, who said he believed the works were authentic, has taken the foundation’s side. In a press statement, he is now promising to assist it “in its efforts to prevent any sale, or promotion, or use of the works of art…which the foundation alleges to be inauthentic.”

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