Did the former president of New York’s oldest art gallery, deemed one of the most prestigious in the city, cheat a client out of $8.3 million? That’s the accusation in the Knoedler & Company forgery trial that started last week in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. Is Ann Freedman, who left the gallery in 2009, guilty of selling a fake Mark Rothko painting purportedly made in 1956 to Domenico and Eleanore De Solen in 2004?

Historic gallery closed amid controversy

The Upper East Side gallery closed in 2011 after 165 years when suspicions arose that the gallery sold more than 40 fakes attributed to Abstract Expressionist painters.

The forger was Pei Shen Qian, a Chinese immigrant living in Queens for Long Island dealer Glafira Rosales, who confessed to selling Knoedler 40 counterfeit paintings over a 10-year period. Qian, indicted for counterfeiting art by Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still, claimed he didn’t know his works were being sold as legitimate modern masters, fled to China to avoid the 45-year prison sentence if found guilty. Freedman says she’s not guilty because she checked with experts (including a Rothko expert) and even bought some of the fakes for herself.

Feigen v. Weil

As if anticipating the question, why didn’t Freedman exert due diligence and look into the history of ownership of the Rothko paintings -- her lawyer said in opening arguments that artists like Rothko kept bad records. But there’s better argument to be made on Freedman’s behalf.

Top Videos of the Day

According to a law cited by attorneys Judith Bresler and Ralph Lerner in their book Art Law in 1992, Freedman is innocent. They cited the case of Richard Feigen (art dealer) v. Frank Weil, art collector.

Weil sold a Matisse drawing to Feigen for $100,000 after he received the drawing as a gift from his late mother, a member of the Sears Roebuck family. Feigen then sold the drawing to Tom Hammons who brought the drawing to Aquavella Gallery in New York, which contacted the Matisse estate for verification. That’s when he learned the drawing was a forgery.

Feigen then arranged to reimburse Hammons, but Weil refused to return the $100,000, saying that Feigen should bear the loss because he’s guilty. The court disagreed in favor of Feigen because “the mistake was mutual.” According to the judgment, Feigen didn’t have any legal duty to authenticate the drawing. It was enough that he made a rational assessment of the source and style. He was not required to go beyond a cursory inquiry.

That said, yet another question looms: why did so many art experts mis-identify Rothko’s work? How did they think a knock-off with only the look of the real thing was the real thing? Likely Britain’s 19th century art critic John Ruskin would have penned this question.

In a rant against architectural restorations, he said that it's impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has been great or beautiful. His thought can easily be applied to trying to emulate great and beautiful art. Missing, he said, is the spirit which is given only by the hand and eye of the person who made it. In other words, you may get the look of a master painter, but you can’t recall his spirit.

The fake Rothko certainly seems to have the look down. It looks familiar, but it comes across as flat. Absent is the other-worldly air that Rothko’s simple abstract shapes and their undefined edges impart. Gone is the way Rothko’s shapes seem to float toward us and hover, as if waiting for us to enter their space and float with them. With the fake, you get a played-out parody of his mysticism. You get the façade, but you don’t get the feel.