Fake Picassos at Costco (Reported in the NY Times)

The following article was brought to my attention by Richard with an attached message, “for your amusement”:

It’s Costco, but Is It Picasso? Art Sale in Doubt

By CAROL KINO

From diamonds to dog food to Dom Pérignon Champagne, Costco is known as an astute marketer of high and low. Recently, it even ventured into the rarefied world of Picasso, selling a crayon drawing at its Web site for a bargain $39,999.99.

The buyer, Louis Knickerbocker, a meat distributor from Newport Beach, Calif., had never fancied himself a big-league collector. But as he was cruising to work in his sport utility vehicle one day, a radio news report about the Costco offering roused him to action.

Mr. Knickerbocker, 39, quickly called his wife, Diana, on his cellphone and asked her to race to the Web site and charge the purchase to his American Express card.

“They just sell the top quality — whatever you buy at Costco, whether it’s a washing machine or a vacuum cleaner,” he said in an interview. “I just thought, if it’s a Picasso, you can’t go wrong.”

“Worst-case scenario, we can always return it,” he recalls telling his wife.

Actually, the worst-case scenario may be that the drawing is not a Picasso — an assertion that has Costco scrambling to live up to its consumer-friendly image.

The work, “Drawing Arles,” depicting a faun, came ready-to-hang in a gold frame; the store even provided a photographic certificate of authenticity signed by Picasso’s daughter Maya Widmaier-Picasso, who also authenticates his works for auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

But as Mr. Knickerbocker discovered this week, navigating Costco’s fine-art offerings can be a tricky business. Interviewed in Paris by The New York Times on Tuesday, Ms. Widmaier-Picasso, 70, said the certificate was forged.

As of Tuesday, a Picasso drawing titled “Picador in a Bullfight” was being offered at Costco’s Web site for a much steeper $145,999.99 — also with an authentication certificate bearing Ms. Widmaier-Picasso’s name. Bristling at a grammatical error in French and the spiky handwriting, she pronounced that document a forgery as well.

“It’s not at all my way of expressing myself,” she said in an interview, referring to the wording of the certificate. Peering at the signature, Ms. Widmaier-Picasso added, “It’s really ugly, really really.”

The artist’s daughter, 70, also cast doubt on the authenticity of the drawings. “My father knew that bulls have two testicles, in addition to something very masculine,” she said impishly, referring to the bull.

Contacted about Ms. Widmaier-Picasso’s remarks, Liz Elsner, a vice president for merchandising for Costco’s Web site division, said the company would promptly investigate. “Obviously we’re very concerned with what you’re telling us,” she said. She emphasized that, as with all Costco merchandise, Mr. Knickerbocker was free to return the artwork.

A few hours later, the bullfight drawing had been removed from Costco’s Web site.

Ms. Elsner emphasized that Costco had the Picassos independently verified by Jerry Bengis, an art appraiser in Coral Springs, Fla., who specializes in Dali prints. (Reached by telephone, Mr. Bengis said he provided documentation stating only that the certificates were consistent with others issued by Ms. Widmaier-Picasso.)

Ms. Elsner said the two Picassos were provided by reputable dealers with whom Costco has done business since it entered the fine-art market. The vendor is Jim Tutwiler of Boca Raton, Fla., who bought them from Rick Yamet, a fine-art vendor in Peekskill, N.Y.

Told of Ms. Widmaier-Picasso’s contention, Mr. Tutwiler said, “Are you serious?” and quickly provided Mr. Yamet’s telephone number.

Mr. Yamet said he obtained the drawings from a partner in Rome. “I’m beside myself,” he said. “Of course I have to take them back, and I have to go back to the source I got them from and get my money back.”

When buying Picassos accompanied by his daughter’s certificate, he said, he routinely has Ms. Widmaier-Picasso examine the certificate, he said. He said he had faxed the certificates for both Picassos to her, but this time she had not responded.

“I was getting no response for months and months. It became like an exercise in futility,” Mr. Yamet said. So an associate of his in Rome showed the drawings and certificates unofficially to an expert at Christie’s in Paris, who gave them a verbal nod, he said.

“This is terrible for my reputation,” he said, sounding distraught. “Costco’s not responsible, of course.”

Costco, which entered the fine-art market in 2003, sells artworks both through its Web site and at scattered road shows around the country, many of them conducted by Mr. Tutwiler. The shows are handled by two separate corporate divisions, and the vendors and artworks are always changing.

Although most of the headlines have been generated by last year’s Picasso sale, Costco’s current fine-art offerings seem to boil down to lithographs. In print circles, that can mean anything from an offset reproduction of a painting — in other words, a poster — to the sort of genuine “original print” that an established dealer might handle; that is, a work of art conceived as a lithograph from the start and produced in a limited edition. At press time, there was nothing of that nature on Costco’s site.

Of course, neophyte collectors — the type that Costco is likely to attract — may often lack experience in determining what gives an artwork market value. While Costco provides a phone number at its Web site for the vendor of each work of art so that prospective buyers can question the consigners directly, it is hard for an inexperienced collector to seek out those specific earmarks — a good provenance, inclusion in a catalogue raisonné, for example.

For the art world cognoscenti, the authentication affair may seem a tempest in a teapot, given the abundance of scrawled Picasso doodles, real and fake, to be found in galleries on every continent. And art scholars have long debated whether Ms. Widmaier-Picasso should be in the business of authentication.

Still, in reviewing the certificates in her apartment on the Quai Voltaire, she was emphatic about their falsity. She described the wording on the bullfight certificate, for instance, as strangely unfamiliar.

“I would have said, ‘In my opinion, I can certify that this drawing in pencil on paper measuring 12 by 24 centimeters representing a scene from a bullfight — I would put in more details concerning what’s on the actual drawing — is a work in the hand of my father.’

“On the same line, I would have written, for example, ‘ “Paris, le 14 mars,’ and I spell out the month. My lines always run from the far left to the far right, and there is no break between paragraphs.”

On the back of the certificate, Ms. Widmaier-Picasso applies a sticker marked with one or more of her fingerprints. “I could also use my entire hand if I wanted to,” she said. She then applies an embossed seal over the sticker and staples the sticker to the photograph. She said she always keeps a record of which finger she used for each authentication.

Of Mr. Knickerbocker’s certificate, she said: “I never, ever, ever write a date this way, with slashes, I don’t even know how to! And I always spell the month out in letters, never in numbers.”

Ms. Widmaier-Picasso also chuckled at the misspellings — “soussigné,” the masculine form of “undersigned,” instead of the feminine “soussignée,” and “cette dessin,” rather than the correct “ce dessin.” (“Dessin,” the French word for drawing, is masculine.)

But for Costco and its customer, who is much attached to his $40,000 doodle, it is no laughing matter.

Mr. Knickerbocker expressed skepticism about Ms. Widmaier-Picasso’s reaction to the drawings and the certificates.

“Seeing as she signed a lot of those things, who knows how many years ago, I’m not surprised if she’s going to say that it’s fake unless she has it in front of her,” he said. (Ms. Widmaier-Picasso viewed printouts of high-resolution digital photographs of the drawings and certificates.)

Mr. Knickerbocker, who once bought his wife a two-carat diamond ring at Costco, said he remains a loyal customer and that for now he has no plans to return the drawing.

“I think a lot of times with this, especially with art — high-end, number one — I’m sure that the art galleries hate that Costco’s selling art,” he reflected.

“I would still feel just as comfortable buying from Costco — even more so than buying from one of the other dealers — because I know that Costco stands behind what they sell.”

3 thoughts on “Fake Picassos at Costco (Reported in the NY Times)”

  1. Dear Richard,

    Thanks for the article. It however contains a number of inaccuracies. Notably, 40K for this uninspiring Picasso drawing, even if it were real, is no bargain. Many authentic Picasso drawings can be had today for less than half that price. They may be worth their cost, but they are not great works. A good Picasso drawing at current prices sells in the six and seven figures, and rarely even in the low eight figures.

    Second, the drawing is an obvious fake, copied after a very similar drawing dating from the same day, as depicted in the appropriate catalogue raisonné. I don’t believe that a Christie’s expert would have given the alleged “verbal nod” without first looking the piece up in this catalogue, after which it would have been obvious that the piece is a fake. Even before comparing it to the catalogue photo, there are enough sloppy mistakes in the fake to make one doubt its authenticity.

    Last, of course I take issue with the semantic mischaracterization of a poster as “an offset reproduction of a painting”. Certainly that is the definition of a ten-dollar poster one buys in a poster shop. But an original Toulouse-Latrec poster, which can fetch prices in the low six figures, is certainly not an offset reproduction, but rather an original lithograph made by the artist’s hand. Anyway, how interesting!. Thanks for sharing! -Kobi

  2. Dear Kobi – I hope you saw the New York Times article yesterday about Costco selling fake Picassos. It made my day. Every element of the story is there including the most audacious claims and half-claims of authenticity by “experts” and “dealers”. One dealer qualified his assessment of a piece by saying only that a copy of the certificate of authenticity he had seen was consistent with other certificates of authenticity he had seen. Of course this proves absolutely nothing if one is familiar only with fakes. He is an expert in prints — specifically Dali prints. He’s based in Coral Springs, Florida, an area noted for its restrained good taste and Old Money gentility. Well, if that’s not enough to make you run in the opposite direction, then what is? Maya Picasso tears into them. -Horne

  3. The NY Times today ran an update to the fake Picassos at Costco caper, which reported that the third and final Picasso which Costco had put up for sale (it sold two and withdrew one) was also deemed a fake by Maya Picasso. Today’s story contained the following hilarious footnote about Jim Tutwiler, the art dealer who had supplied Costco with the fakes: “Mr. Tutwiler refused to comment about Dr. Zhang’s drawing, saying he had been asked by Costco not to speak about the issue. But he did say that he had hired a private detective to investigate Ms. Widmaier-Picasso. In an e-mail message to Dr. Zhang in 2004 shortly before the physician bought the drawing, Mr. Tutwiler referred to Ms. Widmaier-Picasso as ‘the world’s utmost authority on the work of her father.’ But in an interview this week he described her as unreliable.” -Kobi

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