Caveat Emptor?: The Proliferation of Pollock Forgeries in the Art Market

Anne Mosley

You have been warned,” an International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) article exposing a recently-identified Jackson Pollock forgery concludes. But haven’t we already?

The Foundation’s rejection of this latest false Pollock, allegedly owned by Fidel Castro, closely trails several other notorious exposures of purported Pollock works. When Alex Matter, the son of two artist-friends of Pollock, discovered a trove of thirty-two paintings in a family storage locker, the discovery sent the art market swirling for almost five years, before experts discovered that pigments used in the paintings post-dated the artist. In 2011, the Knoedler Gallery closed following the sale of a $17 million dollar “Pollock” that was revealed to be a forgery, painted by a seventy-three year-old Chinese immigrant in his garage in Queens. Signed “Pollok,” the forgery prompted a deluge of lawsuits and newspaper articles, like The New York Times piece “Note to Forgers: Don’t Forget to Spell Check.” Most recently, in 2017, IFAR exposed a fraudulent Pollock scheme that had fooled at least three buyers. The paintings were allegedly originally owned by a mentally-unstable German immigrant James Brennerman, who had purchased nearly 750 paintings directly from Pollock’s widow, Lee Krasner, and had never exhibited the works. In addition to discrediting this backstory, IFAR revealed that the paintings were created with acrylic pigments that post-dated the artist, therefore disproving their authenticity.

The prolific number of forged Pollock works and the publicity surrounding their exposure indicate prevalent warning signs within the art market. And yet, Pollock forgeries continue to surface. In fact, the painting that IFAR identified as a forgery in 2018, entitled Number 5, White Untitled (Spring and Gold), has been submitted to the Foundation twice within the past five years by two different buyers. Upon its second submission, the painting included an additional inscription and signature on the back of the canvas, matching the inscription on the back of a Pollock painting that IFAR had declared a forgery in 2017 and alerting the Foundation to a potential scam. This raises a question as to whether buyers remain unaware of these authenticity issues or forgers have become increasingly savvy in concealing them. And therefore, who should be warned?

Although some defects in authenticity may be readily discernible, others are artfully concealed. In the case of the “Cuban Pollock,” IFAR noted that the method of paint application and use of gold were patently anomalous to the style of any known works by the artist. However, while the signature in the Knoedler case exposed a defect, the painting itself initially deceived both the gallery and the buyer. Upon investigation, forensic expert James Martin identified an anachronistic white ground layer shared by a number of works by different artists that the gallery had sold from the same source, as though Rothko, Diebenkorn, and Pollock had shared the same tube of paint. Though ultimately discernible, identifying this defect required delving to the deepest layer of paint. Furthermore, some purported Pollocks have continued to confuse even experts within the field of authentication. Red, Black, and Silver, allegedly Pollock’s last work, was purportedly painted as a personal gift to his mistress Ruth Kligman in her presence; yet, the pigments and commercial canvas concerned experts, leading to the listing of the painting as “attributed to Pollock” rather than “by Jackson Pollock” upon sale. A year later, the discovery of a polar bear hair, cased within the dried paint and matching a polar bear rug seen in photographs of Pollock’s studio reanimated this controversy. The continued disputes surrounding the authenticity of Pollock works point to the fact that techniques in Pollock forgeries have the potential to deceive even sophisticated buyers and dealers.

This issue is exacerbated by the limited options for authentication given the sheer number of purported Pollock works circulating. Since the Jackson Pollock Foundation stopped authenticating works 1955, IFAR’s authentication service has been the only recourse for collectors seeking to determine the authenticity of Pollock paintings. Although a catalogue raisonné of Pollock works exists, the authors of the catalogue have both recently passed, Francis O’Connor in 2017 and Eugene Thaw in 2018, limiting the number of experts qualified to evaluate these works.

Additionally, forged works are increasingly accompanied by falsified provenance information that may serve to either conceal or reveal the work’s falsity. Falsified provenance documentation may establish a history of ownership and chain of title, linking the painting to the artist. However, in the case of the “Cuban Pollock” and the Brennerman collection, doctored photos and documents ultimately provided evidence of inauthenticity. The fabricated documents placed the painting in 1967 Salon de Mayo exhibition that included no Pollock works, and the photographs were identified as pictures of artists and dealers that were photoshopped to include Castro and Cuban government officials. The implausible provenance therefore affirmed IFAR’s suspicions that the work was not an authentic Pollock.

In exposing this potential scam and the Brennerman scheme, IFAR asserted that it “fe[lt] compelled to share what it ha[d] learned and put the public on notice.” Yet, James Martin has referenced a competing incentive to not disclose the methods by which experts have discovered that works are forged, so as not to give forgers the means to work around these methods. If forgers are put on notice, will a polar bear hair appear in every “Pollock”? This conflict between publicizing information relating to forgery schemes in order to alert buyers, and protecting the methods that experts use to identify forgeries, creates a potential loophole for forgers – either leaving buyers uniformed of identified defects or informing forgers of which defects experts examine in determining authenticity. As controversies continue in the market for Pollock paintings and the potential for Pollock forgeries persists, perhaps the best advice is “buyer beware.”