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Arts

Art world struggles to keep up with highly skilled imitators

In Germany's most recent art scandal, a slew of paintings from a suspicious gallery have entered the market. Imitations are nothing new, but this time the art world may be changing its approach.

Red Picture with Horses by Heinrich Campendonk, likely an imitation

Arts experts were elated when they believed Campendonk's lost work had reappeared

It all started with a painting that had been missing for decades: "Red Picture with Horses" by German expressionist Heinrich Campendonk. When it mysteriously reappeared in 2006, it was quickly brought under the hammer in Cologne's Kunsthaus Lempertz, one of Germany's largest auction houses.

The buyer then had the work professionally examined and the chemical analysis revealed that the paint likely contained a pigment that wasn't available in the early 20th century when Campendonk had created the painting.

It hasn't been officially confirmed, but the evidence indicates the painting is a fake.

In a rush to sell

The work had sold for 2.4 million euros ($3.3 million) - the highest sum ever paid for a Campendonk painting, begging the question why it hadn't been more closely examined prior to the auction.

"Of course it's a very time-consuming undertaking," art restorer Caroline von Saint-George said of the technology and processes that make it possible to learn a painting's secrets. "You can't just find out everything about a picture in one day. It takes several weeks to conduct a technical examination."

Auctioneer's hammer

Dealers are sometimes quick to auction works that haven't been thoroughly examined

Big auction houses are under enormous pressure to sell pieces quickly since the art market is flourishing - despite the global economic crisis.

In case of "Red Picture with Horses," Henrik Hanstein, the owner of Kunsthaus Lempertz, said the relevant experts had indeed been consulted. This includes the painting's heirs - who were selling the work they claim to have discovered among their newly acquired estate - and the administrators of their estate.

The question of whether additional independent investigations took place prior to the sale of the painting has since led to a legal battle that has not yet been resolved. Nonetheless, the fact remains that renowned art dealers and experts had been deceived.

Campendonk's "Red Picture with Horses" had turned up at the so-called Jaeger's Collection, which had also offered other works for auction by famous artists like Max Pechstein, Fernand Leger and Max Ernst. These works are also under suspicion of being counterfeits - but are so well done that even Werner Spies, a recognized Max Ernst expert and personal friend of the artist, isn't sure if the pieces are authentic.

Tried strategy of deception

The expensive and time consuming work of establishing a painting's authenticity makes finding the person - or people - to blame for putting fake works on the market extremely difficult and sometimes allows the counterfeiters to escape legal prosecution.

Art historian Henry Keazor said imitators also strategically bring copies of works that are considered lost into circulation.

"They look for where there's demand, for two reasons," said Keazor, "Firstly, because then a higher price can be asked, of course, and secondly, because they know the experts will be less careful."

This was the case with Raimund Stecker, director of the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg. He acquired a portrait of legendary Jewish gallerist Alfred Flechtheim, thought to be a 1914 painting by Louis Marcoussis, as part of a temporary exhibition on Cubism. He was fascinated by the painting for one of the same reasons that it is likely an imitation: It contains elements of both early and late Cubism.

"You could almost say it's a pretty ingenious post-modern composition of this picture," he said, "which would fit with 1995, the year this painting was probably created. Comprehensive knowledge of analytical Cubism is apparent here. A historian could have noticed that - but I didn't."

Good faith not enough

Paint and brush

Art imitators have to paint well - and come up with a good story

The Flechtheim portrait plays a key role in scandal surrounding the Jaeger Collection. Not only is the painting itself suspected of being a fake, but it and other questionable paintings in the collection all bear a label with an image of Flechtheim on the back. The label identifies them as having come from the Jaeger Collection.

Clearly, passing off imitations as real masterpieces means not just being able to paint with precision, but also coming up with a plausible provenance for the work. Creating a believable history for the counterfeit work is what made the Jaeger Collection successful, as least for a time, said Keazor.

"The pictures that supposedly come from this collection were exhibited only seldom or not at all, and that means that they appeared to be undiscovered masterpieces," Keazor said. "That, of course, ensures great interest on the art market."

The very factor that piques potential buyers' interest also harbors a great deal of risk.

"I think that the bar will be raised in the future as far as research is concerned," said Stecker. "I think the seller should be obligated to prove that the work is an original and not just act in good faith."

Author: Christel Wester (kjb)

Editor: Sean Sinico

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