Fake Old Master Sold for $10 Million Rocks Art Market

  • Sotheby’s reimbursed the buyer after analysis showed forgery
  • Buyers to be ‘very wary, extremely careful,’ art dealer says

Five years after Sotheby’s sold an Old Master painting for about $10 million, the auction house concluded the work was fake -- and reimbursed the buyer.

The Frans Hals fake.

The Frans Hals fake.

Source: Sotheby's

Sotheby’s earlier this year became aware of a possible authenticity issue with a 17th century Dutch painting attributed to Frans Hals and informed the purchaser, the auction house said in a statement Thursday. It then hired an outside firm to conduct a technical and forensic analysis of the work, which was peer reviewed. Those efforts showed the painting couldn’t have been created in that period because modern materials were used.

“Unfortunately, this established that the work was undoubtedly a forgery,” Sotheby’s said. “We rescinded the sale and reimbursed the client in full. Clients transact with us because they know Sotheby’s will keep its promises when problems arise, and we were very pleased to do that in this case."

The disclosure demonstrates the sophistication of today’s forgers who have fooled top art world experts, said Richard Feigen, an Old Master art dealer in New York. The discovery will also make auction houses and appraisers more discriminating when evaluating art, he said.

‘Big Scandal’

“It’s one of the biggest scandals in my memory,” said Feigen, who opened his gallery in 1957. “It’s going to make people very wary, extremely careful about things they are offered and the sources of those things.”

The fake painting comes from the same source as several other contested Old Master works, according to a report by Vincent Noce in the Art Newspaper in June. A 16th century painting of Venus, attributed to German master Lucas Cranach the Elder, was seized by French authorities in March on suspicion that it was fake. It had been sold for 7 million euros to the Prince of Liechtenstein in 2013, the newspaper reported. Another work, painted on lapis lazuli and purportedly by 17th century Italian painter Orazio Gentileschi, was recently exhibited at the National Gallery in London, according to the paper.

Noce first reported the price of the Hals and the reimbursement in the current issue of Le Journal des Arts.

Sotheby’s said the firm grew concerned about the Hals portrait after learning about the seizure of the Cranach.

Working Swiftly

“This concern arose because it was known within the market that the Hals and the Cranach had likely come from the same source,” the company said in the statement. “Sotheby’s worked swiftly and, with the consent of the seller, alerted the purchaser to this issue and recommended that the painting be tested.”

The forensic analysis included technical photography, magnified visual examination and an array of particle, elemental and chemical analyses, according to the statement.

“The examination elucidated trace evidence in ground and paint layers used to create the work, which analyses revealed contained synthetic materials first produced in the 20th century,” the company said.

Feigen said he was offered the Cranach and the Gentileschi but didn’t have a chance to examine either. In January, Feigen sold another painting by Gentileschi for $30.5 million at a Sotheby’s auction. It was purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Lapis Lazuli

Feigen said the fakes were very sophisticated. “There’s nothing to my recollection on this scale and with this variety of artists,” he said.

The blue marble-like surface of lapis lazuli makes it very difficult to determine the age of the work, he said. Gentileschi “did paint things on other surfaces, like copper and slate,” Feigen said. “It would not be impossible that he might have used lapis.”

Whatever the materials, the discovery of this forgery will change the art market, he said. “If all of a sudden something pops up, with no history, and they appear in no literature, people are going to be super careful,” he said.

(Corrects spelling of Liechtenstein in sixth paragraph.)
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