Art forgeries are once again in the news and getting more attention from law-enforcement agencies worldwide. But recent cases, including those of the German forger Wolfgang Beltracchi, the FBI investigation into art sold through the defunct New York-based Knoedler gallery, and the forgery of Indian Progressive pieces by the UK faker William Mumford, are leaving victims unsure of the legal position of works not examined in a court of law.
The problem is that few of the fakes identified in forgery cases are ever recovered, and if they are, may not be considered by a judge as part of a trial. In the case of Mumford, just 40 of the 900 forgeries thought to have been made were brought before the court. Only 12 of the 58 fakes that police believe were made by Beltracchi were examined in his trial in Cologne in 2011. So what about the rest? And what can you do if you think you have a forged painting? At the moment, it seems it is up to the victims to try to extract reparations.
“I’m in limbo,” says one buyer of works by the late Indian artist Francis Newton Souza.
Art seized during an investigation is treated as evidence, although what happens afterwards varies. In France, Switzerland and Australia court orders can be made to destroy works. In the UK and US, the works are held by Scotland Yard and the FBI, respectively. But, Spencer says, “what happens to evidence [in the US] can vary from case to case.”
What to do with fakes is one of the “big questions” facing artists’ estates, says Jack Flam, the president of the Dedalus Foundation. He has seen works rejected by the foundation reappear on the market. “We’ve not had the opportunity to destroy a piece that’s been ruled fake. In the US, property is king.”