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A good question. Are paintings by Pollock, Malevich and Rothko that easy to fake?

Paintings of the 20th century are truly a great temptation for fraudsters specializing in fake art. The canvases, frames and paints of the period are easier to find than those of the paintings by old masters. It is often technically easier to copy directly the image itself — due to the features of avant-garde styles. The question is, rather, if it is possible to sell the fake subsequently at the price of the original.

Good chance comes at once

Regarding the Russian avant-garde
Avant-garde is how modern art critics refer the general trend of new artistic directions that arose in world art at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. A very thin line separates it from the concept of “modernism”. Read more
, this branch of painting has a rather deplorable status in the art market. On the one hand, the high demand for Soviet modernists among the Western public led to the fact that they began to be faked on an industrial scale. And due to the fact that no one carefully monitored provenance, that is, the direct history of the canvases moving from one hand to another, during the times of the USSR (due to the specifics of the then art market, or rather, its legal absence, it was impossible), the authentication is problematic. After all, it is impeccable provenance that traditionally plays a decisive role in the attribution of paintings in the West.

Since it wasn’t customary to officially record transactions for the sale of works of art in all of the USSR, in order to restore the history of a picture, one does not have to study archives, but contact relatives who could confirm or deny its authorship. However, even in such cases, it is difficult to accurately determine the authenticity of the work.
Nikolai Suetin. Composition
1920-th , 65×48 cm
The architect Nina Suetina, the daughter of Nikolai Suetin, one of Malevich's colleagues in Suprematist experiments, recalled how she once had failed to establish the truth: "Now they sometimes come and bring me works: ‘Sign that this is Suetin.' They tell me absolutely ridiculous stories of these works, there are a lot of fakes. In America, they showed me one work with a signature; I looked at it — it seemed to be the authentic Suetin, and I signed the authentication, and then it turned out that it was a fake, so now I’m more careful."
Very often all that experts have in store to authenticate artworks is a flair of style. Having worked with the pieces by a particular artist for a long time (compiling catalogues or writing monographs), experts begin to see distinctive features that help to notice fakes: they understand whether the well-known to him/her artist could paint in such a manner or not.
  • Aristarkh Vasilyevich Lentulov. Portrait of Artist's Wife and Daughter, 1915
  • Ivan Vasilievich Kliun. Self-Portrait with Saw, 1914
Aristarkh Lentulov. A woman with a harmonica

It comes to funny things. So, in 2014, Italy hosted the exhibition "Russian Avant-Garde: from Cubo-Futurism to Suprematism", where, according to the organizers, the works by Malevich, Goncharova, Lentulov and Kliun from private collections, many of which have never been exhibited before, were presented. Russian experts, such as art critic Andrey Sarabyanov, one of the authors of the Encyclopedia of Russian Avant-Garde, and Tatyana Goryacheva from the Tretyakov Gallery questioned the authenticity of the paintings at the exhibition. And although the curators claimed that it was confirmed by the laboratories of the Polytechnic Institute of Milan, they delicately glossed over the origin of certain works.

Aristarkh Lentulov
Woman with Harmonica, 1913

Natalia Goncharova is especially liked by forgers. In 2011, a catalogue raisonné of the Russian artist was published in France; according to Andrey Sarabyanov, more than 400 paintings claim the title of fakes. Whatever it be, there are so many fake works of Russian avant-garde
Avant-garde is how modern art critics refer the general trend of new artistic directions that arose in world art at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. A very thin line separates it from the concept of “modernism”. Read more
that serious auction houses only accept paintings by Russian modernists if there is a strong provenance that leaves no doubt about their authenticity.
Natalia Goncharova. Cats
1913, 85.1×85.7 cm

One Chagall, two Chagalls

Fraudsters don’t usually risk making copies of famous paintings, the location of which is well known — for sure, no one will take a direct offer to buy, say, the original "Black Square" for serious. But some run the risk of duplicating less known works, hoping that they would never hit the market from a private collection, and the copy would not be exposed.
Marc Chagall. Purple tablecloth

That’s what Ely Sakhai, a US dealer, did. He made copies of the paintings he acquired and sold them to Japanese collectors, attaching a real certificate of authenticity to them. He hoped that the fakes would settle in the Far East and would never intersect with the original. So he bought the The Purple Tablecloth by Marc Chagall for 312 thousand dollars, sold its copy to a Japanese collector for more than half a million, and then got rid of the original by selling it several years later for 626 thousand dollars.

The businessman got burned with Gauguin. In 2000, Christie’s and Sotheby’s suddenly put up two same pictures of the Frenchman at the auction. One of them, the fake, was exhibited for sale by the Japanese client of Sakhai, and the second one, the original, was put up by Sakhai himself. So he came to the attention of the FBI with all the ensuing consequences: he returned 11 paintings to his fraud victims, paid 12.5 million dollars and spent several years in prison.

Made by Chinese

One of the most grandiose scams in the art world turned out to be lucky from 1994 to 2009 for the former art dealer Glafira Rosales. She managed to sell fake paintings by Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko and other artists through the infamous Knoedler Gallery. When the truth surfaced, it led to the closure of the gallery and the arrest of the go-getter lady. However, by that time, she sold 31 works worth more than $ 80 million.

The real author of the works was the Chinese Pei-Shen Qian, who lived in New York. He copied the originals so skilfully that his paintings were borrowed for exhibitions by curators from the National Gallery of Art and the Guggenheim Museum. In their defence, we can only note that the Knoedler gallery at that time had a one and a half centuries history and an impeccable reputation, which contributed the possibility of such frauds.

Detail of the picture, which was said to be Jackson Pollock’s.
Auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s, who refused to accept Pollock’s work in 2011, that had been acquired by a London collector Pierre Lagrange from the Knoedler gallery for $ 17 million, exposed the fake. The results of the examination showed that the pigments used in the painting did not exist at the time of Pollock. Pei-Shen Qian managed to escape to his home in China, but Glafira Rosales faced the trial.
There is another extravagant way to determine the authenticity of Pollock’s paintings or other pictures that have the properties of fractal painting. According to the research of the American scientist Richard Taylor, such a parameter as the coefficient of fractal dimension of a pattern can help to identify a fake with an accuracy of more than 90 percent.

The producers of fake masterpieces sometimes turn out to be so talented that their paintings occupy places in special exhibition halls intended for the best fakes, and individual museums are engaged in their collecting.

One of the works by Pei-Shen Qian, performed "à la Rothko", was honoured to open the exhibition "Treasures on Trial: The Art and Science of Detecting Fakes" at the Winterthur Museum (Delaware, USA). Thus, for some artists, the path to their 15 minutes of fame goes through deception.

Photo of the Pei-Shen Qian painting in the manner of Mark Rothko:

Cover illustration: Kazimir Severinovich Malevich. Composition, 1932