“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.