Australia strengthens the law to deal with art fakes.
ART conservators have turned art detectives that resulted in two successful prosecutions of art fraud in Australia.
This was revealed in a talk, Building Evidence For Use In Criminal Cases – Standard Practice and Methodologies: A Case Study In Australia, by Vanessa Kowalski at the National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG) in Kuala Lumpur on April 21.
Kowalski, from the Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation (CCMC), the University of Melbourne, was en-route to a holiday in Sabah before a scheduled similar talk at The Hague in the Netherlands. The talk was timely in view of fakes emerging in the local art market and the ongoing revamp of the NVAG’s Art Lab conservation department.
(In late March 2010, the then Member of Parliament Wee Choo Keong brought up the matter of fake paintings based on Datuk Ibrahim Hussein’s Sports Series of eight lithographs).
In the talk, Kowalski expanded at length on how the CCMC, led by art historian-turned-conservator associate professor Robyn Sloggett, aided the criminal investigations that resulted in the conviction in the Victorian County Court of pensioners, Ivan and Pamela Liberto, charged with “obtaining financial advantage by deception” in 2007.
The couple, hailing from the Toorak, Melbourne, were found guilty of selling four forged paintings purportedly by Aboriginal artist Rover Thomas (1926-1998) to four Australian auction houses, including Sotheby’s and Christie’s, for a total of more than A$307,000 (RM934,226) over a four-year period (May 2002-2006), and attempting to sell two others.
Sotheby’s, which had earlier sold a forgedRover Thomas, became suspicious when the couple consigned a Thomas work titled Rainbow Serpent, which was very similar but bigger than the one of the same title which they had sold only six months earlier for A$150,000 (RM456,462). The ancestral spirit, Rainbow Serpent, was cited as the angry force behind the cyclone Tracy that flattened Darwin on Christmas Day in 1974, and it was this type of Dreamtime paintings that first establish Rover Thomas’ fame.
Thomas was one of two aboriginal artists who represented Australia at the 1990 Venice Biennale, the other being Trevor Nickolls (1949-2012).
The highest price fetched was A$146,400 (RM447,750, including commissions and tax) for Thomas’ Wolf Creek Crater which was sold by auction house Lawson-Menzies to a Swiss gallery in 2005. In 2004, a bigger Cross Roads, went for A$114,000 (RM346,911), after a smaller Cross Roads was disposed for A$58,000 (RM176,499) a year earlier.
Where art fraud is concerned, the Australian investigation came under three Attribution Assessment Process categories, which are: 1) connoisseurship, which makes use of the expert’s trained eye and acquaintance with the artist’s body of work; 2) analysis of documentation that will help establish or confirm provenance; 3) physical and technical examination.
Using Infrared reflectography, an investigator is able to tell the techniques involved, the preparatory under-drawing and materials used, and any compositional changes. Factors like brushstrokes, stretchers, frames, pigment identification, restoration or varnish layers – whether original or applied later or brushed over or sprayed (in the case of the Libertos as the spray effect left tell-tale droplets). Sometimes, a simple microscope or ultra-violet light examination will do.
A detailed knowledge of the work process and habits of an individual artist is instrumental to ferreting uncharacteristic anomalies in the work. Thomas was known to paint directly without any drawing and use natural resins from trees as paint, thus the natural discolorations. Colour pigments used like emerald green and titanium white also come with incriminating timelines. The Libertos’ copies were also suspiciously layered with a “manufactured gloss variation.” They used conte crayon pigment to imitate the red dust and clumsily mixed sand into the colours instead of the natural wind-blown effect if the works were painted in the Kimberley diamond mine as claimed by Pamela.
Similarly, artists such as Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) and Brett Whiteley (1939-1992), the enfant terrible of Australian art, are targeted because of their “personal problems” and anything amiss in the works can easily be explained asan “off day” for the artist due to them being inebriated or under the influence of drugs. A more recent case of Whiteley’s fakes is related to his Lavender Bay series.
Kowalski suggested that aboriginal paintings, with the widespread use of simple geometry and dot patterns, are fair game to potential forgers, while for modern art, abstract paintings prove to be more popular targets.
Aboriginal art is tied to a sacred belief system and ritual. Its traditional methods are privy to ethnic or tribal groups, with a nomadic lifestyl,e and presided over by elders, and thus not so easily communicable and documented. That leaves huge gaps in the story to be exploited by the unscrupulous few in the art scene.
The Libertos case had resulted in two innovations to protect the aboriginal art industry which is worth at least A$100 million (RM304.3 million) a year, and rising. They are chemical fingerprinting (using unique colours to artist’s palette) and a multi-layered bar coded microdot system.
Prices of aboriginal Australian art hit the roof after the Asia Society’s blockbuster exhibition, Dreamings: The Art Of Aboriginal Australia, in New York in 1988.
While this was the first art fraud conviction in Victoria, the dubious honour of the first in indigenous art fraud in Australia goes to Adelaide man John Douglas O’Loughlin, in 2001, for faking works of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (1932-2002).
What isbaffling, however, is how an old couple (art amateurs) without any art background – Ivan was a mechanic – managed to fool the experts from four reputable auction houses. In the other successful case in 2010, the Australia artists Robert Dickerson and Charles Blackman, who is suffering from dementia, won their case against gallerists Peter Gant and Anor, and the purported counterfeits passing off as their works were subsequently destroyed.
But “fakes” is also a slippery word. In the University of California Press book (Berkeley and Los Angeles), Fake? The Art Of Deception, edited by Mark Jones, there are also other factors in determining fakes such as copying from a master and the master’s liberal corrections, a “school” workshop production, variations of a theme, replicas and facsimiles, and reproductions of art which is damaged. There was some furor when two similar works on the Forbidden City by Singaporean painter Georgette Chen (1906-1993) surfaced, but the anomaly was explained as the artist’s secret commission on the insistence of an eccentric collector.