The harsh reality of art collecting – and counterfeiting: “I never thought people could be so rude and skeptical”

Consider this: there are experts who say that half of the art sold at auction is fake. And it turns out that proving otherwise is no easy task.

As she explored the harsh reality of art collecting – and forgery – correspondent Erin Moriarty spoke with a woman struggling to prove the authenticity of a collection of drawings and scribbles she had purchased in early 2017.

When Tracey Finch stumbled across the collection in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the primitive figures and vibrant colors made her think of an artist.

“Maybe it’s Jean-Michel Basquiat,” she said.

Originally known for his provocative graffiti as SAMO, Basquiat rose to fame in the early 1980s after major New York galleries began showing his work, and other artists, such as Andy Warhol, collaborated with him. In 1988, when Basquiat was 27, he died of a drug overdose.

Finch, who was studying art history in college, bought more than 100 drawings – some no more than scraps of paper. She believes these to be Basquiat’s early work, but she won’t say exactly how much she paid for them.

“Thousands. And that’s all I’ll say,” Finch said.

It’s every art lover’s fantasy to discover a lost masterpiece, like the nurse in New York who discovered last year that a painting on her wall was actually the work of Jacob Lawrence, a leading American artist. But what the headlines on stories like these often fail to mention is how difficult it can be to prove a discovery isn’t a fake.

“I never thought people could be so rude and skeptical, constantly,” Finch said. “Even friends who said, ‘You can’t have a real job. It’s impossible.'”

What Finch encountered is normal in today’s art world. It is a largely unregulated activity where it is possible that even the most knowledgeable art collector could end up with bogus art.

Sharon Flescher, who heads the International Foundation for Art Research, known as IFAR, joked that “the best fakes still hang on people’s walls.”

“Because the history of the art world is such that a lot of transactions were traditionally done with handshakes,” she said. “It’s accepted in the art world. It’s not necessarily right or wrong. But with the rising prices of artwork, there’s a lot of room for hanky panky.”

In October 2021, for example, a longtime New York gallery owner pleaded guilty to selling fake antiques and getting away with it for three decades.

“As soon as you have things of great value – it can be art, antiques, rare comic books, coins, baseball cards, collectibles – there will be counterfeits because there’s money to be made,” art authenticator Richard Polski says.

Polsky, one of the few experts willing to examine a painting to determine if it is authentic or not, there is a lot of money to be made when it comes to Basquiat. In 2017, a single painting cost $110 million.

“Authentication is based on two things: what does the object look like and what is its backstory?” he said. ” You read. You look at books. You go to exhibitions. watch a lot.”

But with so much money at stake, some art collectors aren’t always willing to accept his findings.

“People are very passionate about the art they own and if you say, ‘Look, I’m really sorry, but here’s the proof: it’s not,'” he said. “They are very upset. And they will come after you.”

With expensive litigation, Polsky said, or something worse.

“My life was threatened once,” he said.

This is why even the estates of many well-known artists – Keith Haring, Warhol and Basquiat – will no longer authenticate the work of their own artists. And that’s a problem, even for those in the art world.

In June, the FBI raided the Orlando Museum of Art and confiscated pieces from a Basquiat exhibit after an investigation raised questions about their authenticity. But Tracy Finch, who is convinced that her collection is authentic, has hired many experts to help her prove it.

“I have ink dating, handwriting. I have two art colleges now,” she said.

Finch said these specialists told him that the ink used was available in 1980 and that the signature seen on some pieces appeared authentic. But Richard Polsky, who has not personally examined Finch’s collection, said she will also have to establish provenance or how these pieces came from Basquiat’s hand to hers.

“Does the backstory make sense?” he said. “People came up to us and said, ‘I was one of Basquiat’s girlfriends. He gave me this as a gift. I have been able to verify it several times.”

And that’s perhaps Tracey Finch’s biggest challenge. She says she purchased these works from an artist named Kevin Doyle, who says she met Basquiat in 1980. But Finch said she had no photos of Boyle and Basquiat together or notes from Basquiat showing that the two knew each other.

“I never really asked for proof. But I believe it,” she said.

Doyle told us the same story that Basquiat gave him the job, but there are still plenty of doubters.

“There are so many people in the art world who don’t believe that,” Finch said. “They don’t believe the story. But there are people who believe it because they look at the artwork and see what I saw.”

Finch now admits she may never know for sure whether it was the work of a budding Basquiat or a skilled forger. Earlier this summer, Finch says she found a buyer willing to buy half her collection — not for the millions she was hoping for, but enough to cover her expenses.

And still, she can’t quite shake the hope that she’s only a thrift store away from finding a lost masterpiece.

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