Made You Look: The True Story About Fake Art is a new to Netflix documentary. It charts the demise of Knoedler New York’s oldest commercial art gallery. It’s a fascinating insight into America’s most significant art fraud. This $80m deception duped some of the world’s highest-profile Experts, Collectors, Museums, even the Chairman of Sotheby’s, Dominico De Sole, who purchased one.
There’s often mystery in provenance. I hoped to solve that as time went on. – Ann Freedman
M. Knoedler & Co., founded in 1846, made their reputation selling European Old Master paintings to the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt, William Rockefeller, Walter P. Chrysler Jr., John Jacob Astor, Andrew Mellon, J. P. Morgan, and Henry Clay Frick. It closed in 2011 amid lawsuits for fraud concerning questionable paintings purporting to be by some of the leading Abstract Expressionists, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell and Richard Diebenkorn. The gallery had been in operation for 165 years.
Watching Ann Freedman, the disgraced former Director of Knoedler, recount her side of the story was like watching Richard Nixon declaring “I am not a crook.” or Prince Andrew digging himself deeper and deeper as he explained to the BBC’s Emily Maitlis that he was back home after attending a child’s birthday party at a Pizza Express in Woking, (cringable) when it was alleged he was meeting with 17-year-old Virginia (Giuffre) Roberts at the London home of Ghislaine Maxwell. Too much twitching and darting of eyes…
Freedman declared: “It was credible, to me. I believed what I was told. There was a mystery, but there’s often mystery in provenance. I hoped to solve that mystery as time went on.” The day Freedman was to take the stand, the lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed sum. In the trial’s aftermath, only one person was prosecuted, small-time art dealer Glafira Rosales who received nine months of house arrest and three-year probation, in other words, a suspended sentence.
Director Barry Avrich raises many questions in ‘Made You Look’, such as why a professional art expert like Ann Freedman accepted the paintings into the gallery’s inventory without a credible provenance. The works of art literally walked in off the street with a middleman/dealer (Glafira Rosales), someone unknown to the gallery as well as anyone in the heated-up New York art world. Are alarm bells beginning to ring? Instead of a credible provenance, Rosales created an elaborate tissue of lies that changed from painting to painting. It is inconceivable that a top international dealer wouldn’t have had her suspicions aroused by this hoard of undocumented masterpieces. Certainly, no self-respecting auction house in the world would touch them with a bargepole.
M.H. Miller of The New York Times says, “Either Freedman was complicit in it, or she was one of the stupidest people ever to have worked in an art gallery.” One could argue that Freedman was blinded by greed and under pressure to reach targets, possibly by her former employer Michael Hammer (actor Armie’s Dad). She seemingly turned a blind eye to the obvious, and that was that the paintings were modern forgeries.
Dr David Anfam, the renowned Rothko expert and compiler of the Rothko catalogue raisonée, testified that Ms Freedman had inaccurately indicated that he had endorsed Knoedler’s fake Rothko works sold in 1998 and had falsely stated this in a 2007 letter (New York Times Colin Moynihan 1 Feb 2016) Freedman said, Anfam called one painting ‘beautiful’. Under oath, Anfam denied ever being in the same room as the forged painting. “I’ve never seen the painting itself,” he said, adding that, if asked, he would not have allowed his name to be placed on the list because “it would constitute a proxy authentication.” A similar statement was made by Christopher Rothko, the artist’s son, who, during his testimony, took issue with a statement that Ms Freedman attributed to him in a 2007 letter about a fake Rothko. She wrote that he and his sister were “immediately convinced” that the work was “of the highest quality.” Mr Rothko said the statement had no basis, in fact.
The Knoedler Gallery’s name and cachet value no doubt played a part in allowing the artworks to be accepted as original. Knoedler sold more than 30 paintings that they claimed were by leading Ab-Ex artists. At the end of the day, they were all created in Queens by the Chinese immigrant artist Pei-Shen Qian, who later skipped back to China where extradition proved impossible.
Of course, Ann Freedman has denied all liability for this low point in art commerce and continues to operate as an art dealer. Whether anyone in this small incestuous world will ever buy from her again remains to be seen.
Words: Paul Carter Robinson – Photo Stills Courtesy Made You Look: The True Story About Fake Art – Netflix
Showing On Netflix Now: Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art 2020 | PG | 1h 30m | Crime Documentaries A woman walks into a New York gallery with a cache of unknown masterworks. Thus begins a story of art world greed, willfulness and a high-stakes con. It is an American crime documentary about the largest art fraud in American history set in the super-rich, super obsessed and super fast art world of New York.