Schadenfreude On Trial: Two Fascinating Art Scandals

“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote. “They are different from you and me.” Nowhere is this fact more apparent than in the upper echelons of the art world, where people like hedge fund managers and commodities tycoons need to decorate the walls of their ersatz chateaux, in order to paper over their humble origins. Two current scandals involving very rich art collectors may have escaped your notice, but each is absolutely fascinating.

Currently underway in New York is a major art fraud trial involving Knoedler and Co., which for almost 150 years was one of the most prestigious art galleries in the world. Knoedler allegedly sold a fake painting by the Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko to collectors Domenico and Eleanore De Sole. Among many other things, Mr. De Sole is the current chairman of Sotheby’s auction house, and is the former CEO of Gucci.

One cannot help but chuckle at some of the testimony elicited thus far from the experts involved in this particular case. A scholar considered to be a major expert in the work of Mark Rothko admitted that not only could he not tell two paintings by Rothko apart, but he could not even say which way up they were supposed to be hung on the wall. Another expert testified that he believed a painting that was presented as being the work of Robert Motherwell was genuine, not because of the quality of the art itself, but because Knoedler was displaying it.

However the De Soles and the other buyers involved in the Knoedler scandal are small fry compared to the whopping big fish known as Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian oligarch who was allegedly bilked out of over one billion – with a “b” – dollars in the art market. While it is a very long piece, I urge you to read this fascinating article by Sam Knight about this case in the most recent edition of The New Yorker. The twists and turns, the business deals and unusual characters, which populate this story make it not only incredibly interesting, but deeply engaging reading, even if you know little or nothing about art. 

Over the course of a decade, Rybolovlev made a point of purchasing serious works of art, with serious prices to match. He bought the rarest of rarities, a rediscovered painting of Christ by Leonardo da Vinci, known as the “Salvator Mundi”, which had been painted for King Francois I of France in the early 16th century and which had long been thought lost. He bought paintings by Gustav Klimt, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani, and others. He even bought a Mark Rothko – a real one, considered (by those who like that sort of thing) to be one of his best works.

The difference between the Knoedler case and this one is that Rybolovlev did not buy fakes. He bought genuine works, but did not know that their prices had been – allegedly – heavily marked up by the man whom he was employing as his personal art dealer. What is even more surprising is that the man in question was not actually an art dealer, but rather the owner of a massive storage and transshipment facility in Switzerland. These multi-million dollar art transactions were arranged by someone who had never worked at an auction house or art gallery in his life, and yet who managed to craft more successful high-end art deals in the course of a single decade, than many professional art dealers achieve in a lifetime at their trade.

Fakes and frauds, price-fixing and mark-ups, have been part of the art trade since the first Athenian bought a fake Zeuxis at the Agora. However these are not, much as we might have a sense of schadenfreude about them, victimless crimes. If you have both the money and the bad taste to buy a Mark Rothko, real or fake, that is your own affair, of course. Yet at the end of the day, if someone sold you a fake iPhone, or fake designer bag, which you paid full price for, would you not have the right to be upset?

Moreover, without a reputable, transparent, and honest art market, not only do private collectors suffer personal financial losses, but so do the public institutions which depend on both the market and private collectors to provide for us, the public, with works of art to admire, to educate, and to edify.       


"Salvator Mundi" by Leonardo Da Vinci






Know Your Stuff: How A Great Art Discovery Was Made By A Non-Expert

There are still remarkable finds to be made at the neighborhood yard sale – but you will have to bear with me until the end of this piece to find out why.

My readers who find themselves in New York next week, once we have all emerged from the first East Coast blizzard of the season that is, will be able to see a remarkable drawing at The Metropolitan by one of the greatest of all painters, Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441), alongside the finished painting based on it. The caveat is that we cannot be sure whether van Eyck himself drew it, or if one of his workshop assistants did so, under his watchful eye. Yet whether by the master himself or by one of his pupils, it is a remarkable survival, considering it was drawn on a piece of (roughly) 8×10 paper nearly 600 years ago.  

The Old Masters often made preparatory drawings of their works before painting them. Some of the most beautiful drawings in existence are by the “Big Three” of Italian Renaissance Art: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Other times, as in the case of Velazquez, there is hardly any evidence that the artist even picked up a piece of paper to doodle on before they started painting. In some instances, the artist or his patron wanted to get a sense of the finished product before committing to it, as in this fascinating story about a recently rediscovered altarpiece mock-up going up for sale at Sotheby’s next week.

In the case of this van Eyck drawing, the level of detail is absolutely extraordinary. Whereas many Old Master drawings are truncated studies, such as a head, a hand, or a piece of drapery, here the artist has worked out an enormous parade of people surrounding the Crucifixion of Christ with careful consideration of each figure’s costumes, faces, and attitudes. Even the fantasy castles in the distance, with Dutch Gothic architecture standing in for the Judeo-Roman city of Jerusalem, have been carefully considered with respect to how their towers and battlements punctuate the empty spaces between the figures and the three crosses.

Now for those of you who enjoy collecting art, the back story on this particular find should encourage you to keep looking in those flea markets and garage sales. Back in 1971, the drawing was purchased at an estate sale in The Netherlands for around $6.00. It had been labeled by the auctioneers as a framed print, and no one paid any attention to it. The purchaser however, a Dutch psychiatrist interested in art history, was convinced that the drawing was the real thing, and not a reproduction. He spent the next several decades researching the drawing and getting experts to examine it. Eventually, the drawing was pronounced genuine, and in 2014 was purchased by a museum in Rotterdam for around $450,000.

Beyond the ever-tantalizing tale of instant wealth however, I think there are two important lessons to be learned here.

The first lesson is that no matter how great you are – or think you are – you need to continue to practice your craft, whatever it may be, rather than rest on your laurels. At the time this drawing was created, about a year before his death, van Eyck was in his fifties, and one of the most coveted artists in Europe. Yet he still needed to produce these drawings in order to work out his ideas before he picked up his brush.

The second lesson is, in a way, related to the first. Just as you should try to be the best at your profession as you can be, you should also try to learn as much about your outside interests as you possibly can. The buyer of this drawing was by profession a psychiatrist, not a professional auctioneer, or art dealer: indeed, these professionals passed on a picture which he thought was just right. He knew his subject, went with his instinct, and was ultimately rewarded for it. While you or I may never find a truly great work of art worth a small fortune at the Sunday swap meet, without ongoing education we will never know how to spot that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when it arises.    


Detail of a drawing of "The Crucifixion" by Jan van Eyck or Studio (c. 1440)

Cuba: The Next Art Collecting Frontier

With the diplomatic thaw currently underway between the United States and Cuba, there are many in the American business community who are considering how to take advantage of potential commercial opportunities on the island. Europeans and others have been investing in the communist holdout for some time now, but when it comes to areas like the automobile or travel industries, no one does it quite as thoroughly as we Yanks do, once we decide to invest in a particular country. After all, Cuba was America’s preferred international playground for many years before the Castro dictatorship, thanks to its beautiful towns and beaches, exciting nightlife, and of course its close geographical proximity to Florida.

One highly lucrative area of commerce in this developing scenario, which the average consumer might forget about, is the art trade. Despite its comparatively small population – more people live in Tokyo than on the entire island of Cuba – Cuban artists have long been collected internationally. Moreover, those who were unable to take their fine and decorative art with them when they fled the Reds, may soon see their long-vanished silver and porcelain appearing in auction catalogues. As American dealers make inroads into the Cuban economy, and as wealthy Americans start to vacation and retire there once again, no doubt there will be a significant revenue boom for the art and antiques trade.  

An interesting question in this context, which I certainly do not have the expertise to answer, is whether such works will be allowed to leave the island itself, particularly if they are claimed by their original owners. Despite the current, thawing climate, I cannot imagine that a family of Cuban exile descent would be able to petition that a particular object be returned to them, even if they can convincingly establish its provenance pre-Castro. Such reclamation efforts have been institutionalized in certain circumstances, such as in the ongoing repatriation of World War II loot, or in the case of banished aristocrats reclaiming their ancestral properties in Eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism there. Yet even where the parties at issue are dealing with democratically elected governments and duly enacted laws, the end results have not always been ideal, as the current debacle over the so-called “Nazi Art Hoard” demonstrates.

Of course, much of the great European art displayed in American museums came to these shores through equally unfortunate political or personal circumstances. The core collection of the National Gallery of Art, for example, was assembled by FDR’s Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, beginning with a purchase of 21 masterpieces from The Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg. The curators there had been forced into selling these works by Stalin, who needed cash to finance his infamous Five-Year Plans. The sale included Raphael’s “Alba Madonna” and “St. George and the Dragon”, Botticelli’s “Adoration of the Magi”, and van Eyck’s “Annunciation”, along with other significant religious works, as well as magnificent portraits by Rembrandt, van Dyck, and others. How they must have wept over saying goodbye to these beautiful things in the name of blood-stained socialist atheism.

One suspects that there is no possibility of art which is currently held in public collections in Cuba meeting a similar fate. However the fate of privately held objects is of particular interest, given that one can assume the bulk of it to be of questionable ownership. Again, I do not pretend to be an expert on this subject, and leave it to my readers to enlighten all of us in the comments section.

Nevertheless, it is fascinating to think what might be coming onto the market in the coming years as Cuba opens up to American art dealers. In particular, given Cuba’s close commercial and social ties with Catalonia in the 19th and early 20thcenturies, I personally will be very interested to see whether we see hitherto lost or forgotten works by great Catalan artists and designers begin to appear on the market. Will a twisted suite of dining chairs by Gaudí, or a glowing painting by Casas long thought to be lost, now emerge back into the light?


The Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1478/1482)