The Federal Bureau of Investigation states it as bluntly as possible: “Art and cultural property crime — which includes theft, fraud, looting, and trafficking across state and international lines — is a looming criminal enterprise with estimated losses running as high as $6 billion annually.”
Judging from some of the stories that have been appearing over the past few decades, the FBI’s Art Crime Team of 14 special agents and three trial attorneys has a growing problem on its hands.
While not an FBI agent, John Daab, a Princeton-based certified fraud examiner specializing in art and forgery research, will shine some light on the subject of fraudulent cultural works on Tuesday, March 26, at 10 a.m., when he presents “Questioned Documents: The Lord Byron Forgery — Says Who?” The talk is sponsored by the Princeton Senior Resource Center at the Suzanne Patterson Building in Princeton.
Daab will touch on the shady side of the art world, where high-brow hucksters use culture to dupe the cultured.
The stories of swindles are eye-opening and entertaining.
One of the top recent art frauds is the 2008 FBI case “Operation Dealer no Deal.” The scheme was an international art plot that sold faked prints of works by world class artists — Dali, Picasso, Chagall, and Warhol — on eBay. According to the FBI, “The prints sold by select dealers were counterfeits. The signatures had been forged, the certificates fabricated, the prices driven to inflated levels by ‘shill bids’ on eBay and by other marketing trickery.” With prints going for $50,000 each, the scheme yielded more than $5 million for the con artists.
Then there is the 2000 case of New York-based art dealer Ely Sakhai, who ran, as one report notes, “an art forgery sweatshop in the attic of his gallery.” There Chinese workers copied minor works by major impressionist and post-impressionist artists. The scheme unraveled when Christie’s and Sotheby’s found themselves in the odd position of auctioning off the same painting by Paul Gauguin at the same time. Meanwhile the owner of a New York City sculpture foundry was caught in an $11 million scheme to sell a fake Jasper Johns.
Talented artists have also decided to find fortune by creating illusions on and off the canvas.
British artist John Myatt had a talent for mimicking famous masters and actually sold what he called “genuine fakes.” When during the 1990s con man John Drewe (the fake name of John Crockett ) showed the financially needy Myatt that he could make more money selling unofficial fakes of modern masters, the painter willingly went to work.
Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry calls the teaming of the two “one of the most extensive frauds in the visual arts. What distinguishes this case is how methodical Drewe was, and how well he understood the process of validation. His manipulation of the system is as interesting and troubling as the forgeries themselves.” Drewe learned how to infiltrate important art archives and established fake histories to fake paintings.
Drewe sold Myatt’s works through major auction houses as well as reputable dealers in London, Paris, and New York City. What makes this fraud more stunning is that if anyone in the arts business did a thorough inspection of the paintings that person would find that Myatt used a common household emulsion paint developed in the 1960s, years after the works of art were supposedly painted. K-Y Jelly was also used for body.
While art forgery and fakery are nothing new, it has become so recognized and pervasive in recent years that the National Gallery in London and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles have even mounted exhibitions of the fake works found in their own collections.
All of this brings up a serious question. If world-class museums are being fooled by world-class charlatans, what can the occasional art buyer who hopes to get a clean deal do as to not end up at the cleaners?
“Do your homework,” says Daab. “People walk into a gallery with some trust and think they are protected by state laws. Instead of being trustful, be distrustful. Make people tell you that they have the real deal.”
Daab became a certified with the Springfield, Missouri, based American College of Forensic Examiners International (ACFEI) in 1994. “We (he and his wife) were collecting art for a lot of years,” he says, “And we started to collect lithographs. Each came with a number. I decided to call someone to see who kept track of the numbers. When he said, ‘no one,’ I got interested in art fraud.”
He also got interested in discovering if the Red Grooms lithographs that he had been collecting were real. “I turned to forensics because one of the things you do is to examine works,” he says.
One of the first things he did was to locate the provenance — the history of ownership and origin — of the art work. Daab’s Grooms came from a gallery in Tennessee, a place far away from the art epicenter of New York City.
To verify the authenticity of the art work, Daab started investigating with the help of his son, a Tennessee deputy attorney general. Eventually the gallery showed the link to artist Grooms, and the works were deemed authentic. However, it got Daab considering the vagaries of ownership and the potential of fraud.
Of his collection of art works, including many by New Jersey and Bucks County-based artists, Daab says, “To the best of my knowledge they weren’t frauds.” But he adds, “One never knows these days.”
According to its website the American College of Forensic Examiners International is an independent, scientific, and professional association representing forensic examiners worldwide. Forensic examiner refers to a professional who performs an orderly analysis, investigation, inquiry, test, inspection, or examination in an attempt to obtain the truth and form an informed (in their terms “expert”) opinion. Daab holds the level of diplomate that requires advanced training and expertise.
Calling art fraud a “visible” crime, Daab says, “it’s a wonderful world for the forgers. (Investigators) found that 90 percent of works on the Internet are bogus.” Before one purchases any art work, Daab advises, “You would have to ask a lot of questions, where was the piece before, give me your history before, has anyone attempted to authenticate it?”
To help people understand the situation and how to protect oneself from art fraud, Daab started Princeton Arts Forensics (PAF). “It’s not a company that goes out to solicit work,” he says. “PAF is basically a website (www.princetonartforensics.com) that contains my published work and people will call up and ask questions. It’s not really a business; it’s something that’s set up for scholarly purposes.”
The site was born a few years ago when Daab was writing articles for Fine Arts Registry (FAR), a website that promoted the registration and verification of art. The registry existed for several years but closed after becoming engaged in an art fraud investigation of a seller. “The alleged real art was not the real deal,” says Daab.
When the seller in question began legal proceedings and lawsuits were filed, FAR found it more prudent to cease operations rather than enter the courtroom.
Daab says that he thought the articles posted on FAR were lost, but after searching around he found the writings and set up his company. He also wrote two Kindle books, “The Art Fraud Protection Handbook” and “Forensic Application in Detecting Fine, Decorative, and Collectible Art Fakes.” Other articles are available through the Journal of Art Crime, published by the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), headquartered in Italy.
While he is happy to provide information to the public, Daab is not for hire. “It’s a risky business. People are shying away from it. It’s too costly and too much involved with the legal systems,” he says. He adds that given the high prices that the artwork commands and the potential lawsuits that may follow from an assessment even the Warhol and Pollack foundations have become reluctant to verify works.
Nevertheless, he advises people to do it for their own works and mentions a standard, three-pronged process. First, go science. “Get someone with a lab to look at the makeup of the art work and say it is okay or it was impossible to make at that time” (as was the case with Myatt’s choice of paint or the incident in which an alleged Etruscan sculpture wore 19th-century underwear).
Step two is provenance research. “Look at the documentation and see if it has a paper trail.”
The current problem is that this step is not really taken from a forensic view point. “What (people checking ownership) don’t do is bring in a document examiner,” a scholar accepted by legal systems, Daab says.
Then there is connoisseurship or stylistic analysis. “This relates to the brush stroke or the clothing that people were wearing, the artist’s traits. See if it matches the exemplar work from the hands of the artist. This involves people taking digital photos of someone’s brush work, and then showing others that it does not match. We’re coming into a time of scientific connoisseurship, but I believe that it is not fully developed yet.”
When asked what artists are more forged than others, Daab answers, “They say that Corot made 4,000 works of art, and that 10,000 of those works are now selling in the United States. Chance of getting an actual one by Dali is one in a thousand.”
According to Art News magazine, other fraud-favored artists include van Gogh, Remington, and Malevich, artists working in totally different backgrounds and styles — proving that there’s a scam for every taste.
To avoid being stung, Daab warns, “There are a whole bunch of questions, but most people won’t ask them because they don’t know what to ask. And that’s my role, to help people.”
In addition to his own website, he says that the Getty Museum has online appraisal research that provides useful information.
While he is active in the art world, Daab also participated in another one.
He was born in Brooklyn in 1943. His father had a variety of jobs, including editor, UPS driver, and bartender. The younger Daab worked as a carpenter apprentice, carpenter, building superintendent, high rise builder and construction manager, a professor of construction at NYU, owner of two privates schools, writer, business consultant, and educational course and program developer. Education degrees include a doctorate in business administration.
He was also a member of the New York City Transit police in 1966 and ’67. “It’s something that I never wanted to do again,” he says. “It was a miserable year. You walk into a job of being a police officer and you get out in the fields, but they tell you not to make an arrest because they want to bring down the rate of crime. Besides the normal problems, you couldn’t make an arrest. You felt that you had a bull’s eye on your back. It was a very frustrating year.”
Like a number of creative-minded people who worked with hard materials on hard jobs (sculptors Richard Serra and David Smith worked as metal laborers), Daab is a sculptor. “I was trained at 19 as a carpenter specializing in reinforced concrete form work from foundation to high rise. I spent about 18 years creating concrete structures both as a carpenter and supervisor. I taught concrete form-work to NYC union carpenters and eventually moved into management and an NYU adjunct professor teaching students how to build a high-rise structure. My art collecting galvanized the desire to produce reinforced concrete sculptures. The desire to create was supplanted finally by the creation of various reinforced concrete sculptures and other sculptures as well.”
He says that he creates art for personal enjoyment, inspiration for his grandchildren, and “having fun with those who view it.” The abstract and conceptual styled works, many made from found objects, are exhibited mainly in the yard of the house he shares with his wife of 50 years in the Riverside section of Princeton.
Of his move from Brooklyn to central New Jersey he says, “In my construction days, 40-some-odd years ago, I had a job doing some concrete work in Hopewell. Being from Brooklyn and Staten Island, Princeton was like going to Italy.” He says he drove his wife to the area, and they decided to move to there 25 years ago.
The move to Princeton also brought him another level of artistic engagement, one that Daab calls “the cherry on the cake of life”: serving as a docent at the Princeton University Art Museum. “When I started with the fraud work I was told by a friend that I should get involved as a docent. I sent in my application and they accepted it,” he says. He trained for two years and now gives tours of the museum’s collection.
Asked if he has looked in the Princeton Art Museum’s collection, Daab says, “My role as a docent is to continually learn and enlighten museum visitors about Princeton University Art Museum’s wonderful collection and its public programs. The ascertainment of fakery is an arduous and complicated process requiring specialized equipment and much money usually leading to legal proceedings detrimental to the art investigator with little resolution of issues and much pain to the parties involved. Fine Arts Registry attempted such an activity and is now out of business with its principals MIA. My investigative role in art fakery is to identify those structures and systems lending themselves to the creation, and continuance of the indivisibility of this almost perfect white collar crime.”
While it is unclear how many works of art in Princeton are not authentic, Thomas Hoving, past director of the Metropolitan Museum (1967-1977), was pretty clear and claimed that 40 percent of the Met’s works are phony. And that’s just the museum that has the time and resources to invest in the research.
While museums and collectors are starting to see the light on the dark practice of art fraud, Daab is bothered by how the legal system is addressing perpetrators and white color criminals. “No one is doing anything, and prosecution is negligible. And if you are prosecuted you end up in place where you could be making cookies. The Beltracchi case (a major German art fraud) does not sound like a good deterrent. They get $3.5 million after being in jail for four years on the dole, expenses paid. If someone steals $10 from Macy, he or she could go to jail. But if someone scams $100 million dollars, the person may not get caught.”
While the scam artist may not get caught, sometimes the owners of the potentially fraudulent work have to face that they may have a problem on their wall or in the vault. That is the case of the subject of Daab’s upcoming talk: the recent announcement that the National Historic Park in Morristown’s letter purportedly by English poet Lord Byron was actually a fake.
“After my last lecture at Princeton a woman approached me from the National Park Service from Morristown,” Daab says. “She was an archivist and asked if I knew anything about the forgery. As a result of that conversation I became interested, talked to the director of the museum, and got information. When I got into it I said, ‘Wait a second. She said that this is a forgery, and she is not a document examiner. If this is the way that they determine a forgery they’re really off the mark.’ So I wrote about it in the journal of art crime from ARCA. It’s a question about provenance, if this is what they’re accepting who knows what is going on? It’s so far off. The conclusion that it is a forgery is without merit, and they should go back to examine it.”
Examining a document or work seems the way to go, especially when one of the individuals dealing with National Park Service letter offers, “It is no disgrace to have a forgery. Every collection has forgeries.”
That may be true, but Daab may argue that there are less expensive ways to be disgraced.
John Daab presents “Questioned Documents: The Lord Byron Forgery — Who Says?”, Princeton Senior Resource Center, 45 Stockton Street, Princeton. Tuesday, March 26, 10 a.m. Free. 609-924-7108 or www.princetonsenior.org.