Tuesday, March 02, 2021

When Art (Forgery) Imitates Textual Criticism


Over the weekend I watched a documentary called Made You Look: A True Story of Fake Art. It’s about the case of $80m in fake art that was sold by the famed Knoedler Art Gallery in NYC. Knoedler was the oldest gallery in the U.S. and the scandal ended its storied history; they shut their doors in 2011.

The ARTnews review gives a good summary of what happened.

The film starts in the 1990s, when Freedman meets a woman that no one in the art world had ever heard of before named Glafira Rosales, who claims to have a trove of previously unknown paintings by the greats of postwar contemporary art, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Richard Diebenkorn, and more. Avrich’s interviewees claim there were numerous red flags that Freedman should have spotted—Rosales’s story of how and from whom her secretive client, Mr. X, came to acquire the works seemed suspicious, and there was no documentation of the work’s provenance. Freedman claims otherwise: “It was credible, to me. I believed what I was told. There was mystery, but there’s often mystery in provenance. I hoped to solve that mystery as time went on.”

Don’t worry, the ETC blog is not getting into art criticism. I mention the documentary because there are so many parallels with the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fiasco: a con artist targets a major institution that buys the con, lending its enormous credibility to the fakes; the con artist gives just enough info about provenance to satisfy the initial questions; when red flags do pop up, the con artist leaks a few more details about provenance to keep the ruse going; the experts who note problems are dismissed or silenced by the institution at the center; etc.

A fake Rothko on display at a museum.
At one point, a wealthy family that bought a fake talks about how they “fell in love” with it immediately. They were smitten. But it becomes clear that they didn’t just love the painting, they loved the idea of owning a previously unknown painting by a famous artist. They loved the exclusivity of it all. And this gets to the heart of the issue. Like with the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, the key players believed the con because they wanted to; they believed because they loved the idea. There are other lessons, but those are the ones that jumped out.

Sometimes, seeing a problem in another field can help you recognize it in your own. I recommend the movie if you can catch it. It’s on Netflix now.


  1. Wow, “they believed because they loved the idea.” That’s such a powerful motivation to believe. I worry about this tendency in myself. Food for thought, thank you.

  2. PG,
    Thanks! Loving the idea or finding something new can be great motivators or as in the case of GJW a great deceiver!

  3. This is no place for such an off topic post. Art criticism? Are you guys even evangelical any more?

    1. Bennie Anderjets3/04/2021 3:27 pm

      More related to the topic than the last off-topic one....