Art dealers are a prosecuted minority. So it came as no surprise when I fielded a call recently from a collector who was wondering how we distinguish ourselves from other Picasso vendors. This was a timely question–art fraud and related misconduct, though sadly commonplace, have spiked in the headlines rather conspicuously of late. The Panama Papers are but the latest bombshell to explode. More dramatically, perhaps you heard that the Qatari royal family, in a dispute involving an alleged double-sale of a plaster to them and to Gagosian, tried to seize it from Picasso’s daughter Maya Widmaier-Picasso, from her apartment no less. (It wasn’t there—it was on view at the time in the Picasso Sculpture exhibit at the MOMA.) Gagosian, who was allegedly “unaware of the first sale [to Qatar], bought the sculpture in May 2015 for about $106 million from Ms. Widmaier-Picasso, and then sold it to the New York collector Leon D. Black.”
More alarming is the fall of New York’s Knoedler Gallery, old news by now. Knoedler, which recently shuttered its doors amid a flurry of lawsuits, was one of the country’s oldest and most active art galleries, having plied its trade for 165 years. That is an odd number, and so is 13, the number of years that we have been open for business. It would be instructive at a time like this, when dishonesty among art dealers has once again been cast into the limelight, when headlines reveal the settling of yet another one of the many lawsuits against Knoedler, to delineate exactly how we distinguish ourselves from such galleries. So let me take this opportunity to describe our business practices, through which we partner with you to protect your interests.
The crux of the Knoedler case, as you may know, is the selling of fakes, notably abstract American art such as Pollock and Rothko. Picasso collectors are aware that Picasso fakes, in various mediums, are ubiquitous. I have written about them extensively, both in this blog as well as in the chapter “Collecting Pitfalls” of A Guide to Collecting Picasso’s Prints. So how do you know that you are not about to buy a fake from us? Why indeed are our many satisfied clients, not only the collectors but also the knowledgeable dealers who buy from us, so pleased?
The number one reason is our unwavering moral compass. However, an honest path in business depends on not just one’s scruples but also one’s expertise. It doesn’t require Donald Rumsfeld’s underscoring of this point to appreciate that the knowledge the seller should have had is as important as the knowledge he did possess. Our enterprise is as well known for the depth of our knowledge of our favorite artist and his market as it is valued for our good eye. Both are essential in discerning the difference between what the market price is and what it should be. The difference between these two values is the essence of art market arbitrage. It dictates when something is a reasonable purchase and when it is a screaming buy (or a blinde metziah, if you speak French). Our depth of knowledge is as essential in this business as in any other—simply put, it is how we know what we are doing. In the 13 years that we have been in business as well as the 33 years that I have been collecting Picassos, we have never bought or sold a fake, and no client has ever returned a purchase because of doubts regarding authenticity. And we have a less than one per cent return rate, which returns occurred only because the collectors purchased the artworks sight unseen and didn’t ultimately like them enough following direct inspection.)
Trust but verify. (Why am I quoting only Republicans today?) In addition to our lifetime guarantee of authenticity, we accord a 30-day grace period during which we encourage you to solicit second opinions from other experts whom you trust and/or simply return your purchase for no reason for a complete refund if you’re not fully satisfied, provided only that we receive it in the same condition as you did.
You may also ask us to provide references. We have a number of devoted collectors, some of whom are famous collectors and heirs of world-famous collectors. And some of the collectors whom we have advised over the years have indeed built impressive collections. Chances are we have collector clients in the city where you live, or, if you’re outside the USA, at least somewhere in your country.
A fourth way we try to help you sleep at night is by educating you, provided you have the time for it. In the collecting guides which I have authored there are many guidelines and tips from which you can learn how to verify for yourself whether your acquisition is authentic. In the following respect, my experience with collecting and collectors is no different than my previous experience with patients: there is no substitute for curiosity, inquiry and self-education. Those patients who read up on their maladies, questioned their doctors’ advice, and otherwise took a broad interest in their care got better results. But we take it a step beyond what I could usually achieve as a radiologist: we partner with you in your education. Once you have expressed a serious interest in a given piece, we will provide scans of the relevant pages from the catalogues raisonnés and, when available, other references. In the case of original prints, for example, the relevant pages are usually from Bernhard Geiser, who began the eight volume catalog of Picasso’s original prints, or from Brigitte Baer, who finished it. Geiser and Baer describe the printing in detail, so you can crosscheck the various parameters for yourself: print size, paper tint and type, and, if any, the watermark, the medium of the signature, and the presence of any inscriptions. (Baer, as this magnum opus is usually abbreviated, since she compiled the lion’s share of it, doesn’t list sheet sizes, but that information is available for corroboration from other sources; note also that Baer is in French.) We will also help you make sense of these reference materials by delineating the parameters by which we judge the authenticity of your Picasso and enable you to see for yourself that it meets each of those well-known if not widely publicized standards. So…welcome to our free “Picasso University”.
Speaking of my prior medical career, I am often asked if the practice of radiology helps me in my dealings in art. Coincidentally or not, evaluating the authenticity of an artwork is not entirely dissimilar to reading an X-ray. Reading an X-ray is all about finding “what’s wrong with this picture.” It’s sort of like Where’s Waldo, although far more complex, given that Waldo can take many different forms as one looks for that telltale sign of disease or, in the case of an artwork, of fraud. Such signs can be obvious or quite subtle. They may be apparent to the casual observer or may require significant expertise. This reminds me of “the janitor rule” of radiology: if the janitor can spot the lung cancer on the x-ray from across the room, then it would be malpractice for the radiologist to have missed it. There may be no exact analogy in art authentication, but some fakes are outed quite easily, such as simply being the wrong size.
A meticulous approach to examining each artwork before arriving at a purchase decision involves a number of steps, which we will take you through. Provenance is no substitute for this methodical process. Provenance is often unavailable for original prints, and anyway, it can be created out of whole cloth. My heart sinks whenever the story begins with something flowery like, “My grandfather was a missionary in Africa and was given this Picasso in return for saving the life of an Englishman on safari….” True story! That is, it’s true I heard this story. The Picasso and presumably the story itself were both false. (I suppose Grandpa could have actually received a fake Picasso.)
There’s much more that could be said about process, but enough for now. In the meantime, happy hunting! We look forward to your questions….