Rumors and fakes. But we are not in a movie

Mar 14, 2023

It could have been the deal of the century for a collector… but not!

A Madrid auction house, Setdart, avoided a scandal by canceling the contract signed in 2018 with a collector for the sale of 16 modern works of art, later uncovered as “fakes” thanks to rumors that bounced around the art market.

Of the 16 works of art proposed by the collector (and also a fraudster), a certain Guillermo CT, only one work turned out to be truly by the hand of David Hockney. A wide-ranging crook: 15 forged works, including an Edvard Munch-style lithograph, a copy of Roy Lichtenstein’s diptych, titled Whaam! And seven works that should have been by the late Spanish sculptor and engraver Eduardo Chillida, four lithographs by José Guerrero and one lithograph by Saul Steinberg.

But how to prove the “legal ” authenticity starting from a simple rumor?

Complex question. A question that is often even more complex when it comes to the authentication of modern and contemporary art.

The Spanish script to unmask and understand where the “gossip” had started from was to ascertain that the same works by the artist José Guerrero proposed at the Setdart auction house had already been withdrawn from sale by another auction house after that the José Guerrero art center had raised doubts about their authenticity.

However, although the collector knew that the works were most likely forgeries, this did not prevent him from subsequently putting them up for sale in Setdart.

The sentence

The judges sentenced the collector of the fakes to a total of four years’ imprisonment for infringement of intellectual property rights and for fraud.

He was also ordered to compensate the buyers of the counterfeit works and to pay damages of €48,000 to José Guerrero’s heirs and €39,700 to the company that manages the Chillida estate.


The Madrid case reminds me of a lesson at the university in France, during a long, demanding course called “droit des ventes aux enchères” or in English the law of auction sales, where we talked for hours about cases of forgeries, about the errors in the captions on the catalogues, about the responsibility of the expert, of the auction house and of the owner of the work, but where the word “scientific” was… absent in the evaluation.

At 22, I looked out the window and went on long journeys:

«Why buy a very expensive work of art without a scientific diagnosis that allows us to understand what it really is? Just relying on the beauty of the object or just the name of the artist seems crazy to me! Can publications or non-publications written by art historians really be the only valid arguments for an ‘expertise? The art world is strange… No! This is not just the art world, but the classic story of a market economy where everyone tries to have the last treasure and ideally this treasure increases in value to infinity! However a fake Picasso without scientific diagnostics, not bad for a utopian world! (…) ».

With these wacky questions and this thought I would have ruined the lesson, so I kept them to myself. I never wanted to be an auctioneer but I always wanted to be the one on the phone. In my perfect script, this figure knows the conservation and therefore the materials of the works of art by heart and is able to best advise an art-enthusiast customer, a museum and above all find the right and safe place for the work of art and its conservation.

We certainly go to the dentist  more serene in 2023 than in  1900

(Panorex X-ray saves your smile, and more!)

So this is not an indirect advertisement for my dentist, but Panorex X-ray is a technology that I am very passionate about! Seeing the invisible is fascinating, and 3D radiography even more so!

When we have a health problem, we go to the doctor, we check our body (blood tests, scanners, etc.) and try to understand the problem in order to then treat and sometimes operate.

When a work is valued in the millions whether it is ancient or contemporary, diagnostics tests are rarely done, if ever. Documenting a work of art at a scientific level, particularly when it is contemporary, in order to understand and preserve an artist’s technique would be one of the solutions to avoid tomorrow’s forgeries and above all to improve its conservation (and restoration), to put in the foreground the creativity and technicality of an intellectual creation and not just its economic value.

In the Madrid trial, Francisco Baena, director of the José Guerrero center in Granada, stated that the paper and materials of the works attributed to the artists were wrong “Guerrero has always been firm and safe, but the painter of the works that the police showed me was hesitant

In the Madrid trial, Francisco Baena, director of the José Guerrero center in Granada, stated that the paper and materials of the works attributed to the artists were wrong “Guerrero has always been firm and safe, but the painter of the works that the police showed me was hesitant, as if he knew what he was doing was a fake.’

Can the human eye (even the most expert) really identify the true and authentic gesture of the artist?

In matters of authentication and conservation of works of art, I believe in science and new technology applied to scientific research as well as I believe in them when they are applied in health care. The philological documentation of the work in art history is also important but one should not outweigh the other.

Personally, I have great respect for the talent, passion and imagination of counterfeiters.

I was lucky enough to train in Paris next to a forger. He was 79 years old and, like me, he took lessons in restoration and conservation of paintings. I learned so much about painting techniques thanks to my atelier colleague who knew how to observe works of art perfectly. He would not have had the hesitant gesture to create a new Guerrero and would also have studied the artist’s materials well!

In a 1966 film « How to steal a million dollars and live happily »

directed by William Wyler with Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, the daughter (Audrey Hepburn) of a skilled forger (William Wyler) tries to redeem her father to avoid getting into trouble, but meets a charming thief (Peter O’Toole) .

Already in 1966, Audrey Hepburn speaks of X-rays on works of art while her father finishes a new Van Gogh…

Sometimes the cinema is ahead of times, and in the case of the Madrid forgeries, Audrey Hepburn would not let a rumor run about the presence of forgeries.

In my imaginary art and conservation market, before the auction sale, an observation in a diagnostic laboratory would be automatic if not mandatory. The woman on the phone would like to give her customers good advice before letting a museum or collection buy an Edvard Munch.

Marine Butera