When I first began collecting, I became acquainted with an Italian restorer who was interested in old masters. Through him I looked at some, and one of the places I visited was a warehouse in New York where a dealer set up a gallery and advertised his wares. I spent an hour or so looking over many paintings and learning of their pedigrees. I then told the dealer that I’d be back to see him again. He asked me to give my name and address to his secretary, which I did. I was very much surprised when the secretary told me in confidence that all of the pictures were fakes.
Most reputable auction houses will not auction a painting if they have strong doubts about its authenticity. Not too long ago, while I was at a sale at the Parke Bernet Gallery, the auctioneer announced that a painting by H. E. Cross was called false by an eminent authority. However, he said that as the painting was reproduced in the catalogue, and they hadn’t had time to study its pedigree, they were putting it up for sale. It surprised me to find active bidding on this painting, which finally sold for nearly $4,000. It is possibly a sign that there is too much money around, or that people simply are not terribly concerned whether a painting is fake or not.
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I was once offered two Cézanne watercolors by a very good dealer in New York. They didn’t strike me as being quite correct, but I couldn’t put my finger on where they failed. I took them with me to the Frick Art Library, and checked through several portfolios of Cézanne reproductions there. To my surprise, I found that the watercolors offered to me were prints with various alterations, such as extended limbs to trees making them larger, and various other changes. This just proves that you cannot be too careful.
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My wife and I were once invited to dinner at the home of some people whom we had just met for the first time. During the evening my host told me about a patent he was working on, and said he needed $2,500 badly and asked if I would lend him the money. He volunteered to let me have as collateral a painting he had by Miró. I didn’t know anything about the artist Miró at the time, but took the painting and eventually had a photograph taken, which I sent on to Miró. Miró wrote back that it was a fake. I never said anything to my host, but apparently his patent must have worked out because I received a telephone call from him saying that he would very much like to pay me the money I lent him and get his Miró back, which we each did. I never mentioned to him what Miró had said about the painting. I haven’t seen him in fifteen years; but presumably he is still hanging his Miró and enjoying it.
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I watched with interest over many years the gyrations of a Modigliani portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne.A good friend of mine once owned it, and I thought it was a fake, but found it difficult to advise him of that. However, after a while he sold it to one of the large dealers in Modiglianis for very little money, I believe some $2,500. A year or two later, a collector who had bought the painting died, and it came up for sale at the Parke Bernet Gallery. There it was sold for about $10,000. Most of the dealers thought it was a fake, including one of the curators of a museum who had a great knowledge of Modigliani, and had two Modigliani files: one file for the good ones, and one for the fakes – and this painting was in the fake files. The following year the painting again came up for sale at the Parke Bernet Gallery, and this time it sold for about $11,000. The year after that it came up again, and was sold for a bit more.
Year after year, the last purchaser of this picture would keep it until some art critic or dealer told him that it was a fake, and he would put it up for auction at Parke Bernet. Having sold it, they were compelled to take it back and offer it for sale again. I believe this painting was sold five different times at Parke Bernet; I had lost track of it for three or four years when all of a sudden it showed up at Christie’s in London, selling for some $60,000. In the meantime it had built up a long list of former collectors and been shown at exhibitions. I am sorry for the last person who bought it. During this time there was a Modigliani exhibition at the Boston Museum and the Los Angeles Museum, and to my surprise the Hébuterne portrait was in the catalogue.As I had some paintings in the exhibition, I went to Boston to see it. I found the fake Modigliani behind a column, where it was very difficult to see it unless one were looking for it.
I imagine the curator realized what this painting was, and as he was obligated to show it, he picked the worst possible spot to hang it. Later, when I received a thank you letter from the curator at the Los Angeles Museum, I wrote back and told him that he had a fake picture in the exhibition. I said he was giving that picture credit for being a real one, and building up a pedigree for it. I subsequently met the curator, and his excuse was that his hands were tied, as the exhibition had first been shown at Boston and came to them later. He thought it was Boston’s obligation to remove the painting in the first place.
Sometime later, I dropped in on a dealer in London who was bidding on the portrait. I told him to stop bidding, which he did. I figured I helped him from falling into a trap. He showed me his gratitude in the following manner: he had a Cézanne drawing of Mt. St. Victoire, one of a number of that subject that the artist had done. He didn’t know anything about the watercolor, but I told him that I would like to buy it, and arranged for him to send it to me so that I could compare it with one of my own paintings. He was to forward the work to my New York address, and in the meantime I wrote down that I would pay $8,400 as soon as it arrived. I kept writing him for weeks afterward, advising that I had not yet received the watercolor, and to this day he hasn’t answered. He probably told some prospective buyer that I was willing to pay $8,400, knowing that if I were willing to pay that, he wouldn’t have any trouble getting more from some other collector.