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How a Maths professor hoodwinked the art world for ten years

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Is imitation really the best form of flattery? When it comes to art, the idea of mimicry becomes a fraudulent act, and one worthy of severe criminal punishment. The reality is that throughout galleries in the world, hangs a vast collection of fraudulent imitations, which have fooled thousands of oblivious viewers. However, when a series of fakes are discovered, a trail of destruction follows as seen with the Knoedler Gallery in 1995, which subsequently shut its doors in 2011 after becoming the laughing stock of the art world. In China, however, art imitation is not considered a public scandal, but instead a form of fine-art specialty, perhaps due to differing moral values of creative ownership.

The Netflix documentary ‘Made You Look: A True Story of Fake Art’ tells the story of the fake art scandal which involved the prestigious Knoedler Gallery, the oldest art gallery in New York with its existence predating the American Civil War. An undiscovered Mark Rothko was sold to the Gallery’s director, Ann Freedman for the low price of $750,000 after the piece was brought to the gallery by Glafir Rosales, a woman from Long Island, with limited art knowledge who claimed to represent an anonymous wealthy art collector. The painting in question was one with a muted yellow background and two red and black fuzzy rectangles, in Rothko’s usual style. The piece was then authenticated by a collective of experts who all claimed the painting to be a real Rothko. Renowned scholar of Rothko, David Anfam even went so far as to call the piece beautiful, exemplifying the precise imitation which took place and the fraudulent artist’s extreme skill to fool the top academic figures in the field. The fraudulent piece was then sold for $5.5 million at auction, a relatively low price for a Rothko.

Shortly after Rosales brought another piece, from the same supposed anonymous collector, this time an undiscovered 1949 Pollock drip painting. Yet again Freedman wasn’t shy about getting the piece authenticated by experts to prove it’s credibility. Over the next 10 years Rosales sold another 60 Abstract Expressionist paintings to the Knoedler Gallery, all of them fakes. Once the paintings were sold to collectors, museums and galleries these pieces were circulating, unnoticed for a decade until finally the works’ poor provenance shed a light on the authenticity of the pieces. The original story provided by Rosales, on how the works were acquired was lacking in detail, then after 5 years when experts began poking holes in the provenance, the backstory was altered by Rosales. This change of provenance weakened the reliability of Rosales as the seller, and subsequently people began to question the likelihood that these works were real. Once there was talk of the art perhaps being fraudulent, an investigation began, scrutinising both the provenance and works themselves. As the truth was slowly unfolding, the works provided by the anonymous collector were no longer being brought and Freedman as well as the Knoedler Gallery’s reputation began to plummet.

Some have argued that Freedman herself was involved and knew about the fraudulent paintings, and was driven by greed and success, although it is still unknown to what extent she was involved in the crime. There is no denying that these makes were extremely well executed, so much so that they fooled experts in the Abstract Expressionists, and therefore the question arises: are fakes any less significant than a real piece? Of course, the fraudulent work doesn’t carry the same historical weight, although the emotional response of the viewer is still as prominent.

The genius behind these imitations was a failed artist turned maths professor, Pei-Shen Qian, who lived in Queens and only created these masterpieces of mimicry as a pastime, until Glafir Rosales and her boyfriend José Carlos Bergantiños Díaz discovered the artist’s intense skill in artistic deception. Pei-shen Qian had been an accomplished painter in China, but after attending the New York Art Students League, where he had been a classmate of Ai WeiWei, he struggled to gain success in the western art world.

Instead of just viewing art forgery as just a criminal and moral scandal, it is important to appreciate the extreme skill and artistry required to replicate so many artistic styles with that amount of precision and attention to detail. However, the public outrage after this discovery seems to have occurred out of embarrassment over deceit and being tricked rather than the moral issue at hand, maybe due to our natural dislike for being proved wrong or hoodwinked. Therefore, instead of looking to disregard these pieces, we should instead appreciate them in their own context, even if they are fraudulent works the paintings are undeniably visually stunning. Although, these pieces will inevitably be lost and forgotten in the world of art due to the disgrace and destruction caused by two con artists.

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