There’s a spectacular contradiction at the heart of art forgery. Forgeries, which pretend to be paintings by timeless artists, hang in museums all over the world; there are more of them than anyone knows, all hiding in plain sight. When a case of forgery comes to light, it tends to be greeted with moral outrage. The act of imitating a famous artist’s work, and profiting off it, is seen as a sleazy low-life con, as well as a major crime (which, of course, it is). Yet art forgery isn’t just about the eye candy of duplicity and profit. As Orson Welles caught in his jump-cut meditation “F for Fake” (1973), there’s a fantasy behind it: What if you had the daring, and the talent, to produce a fake work of art so drop-dead authentic that no one alive could tell it was fake? There’s an audacity to that, a kind of grand illusion. On some level the art lover may be outraged, but on another level he might want to applaud.
That’s the level that “Made You Look: A True Story of Fake Art” taps into. It’s a documentary, directed by Barry Avrich, that’s about nothing less than the most successful forgery scam ever brought off in the high-end art world. In 1995, the Knoedler Gallery, the oldest art gallery in New York (it had been around for 165 years, predating the Civil War and all of the city’s museums), purchased an unknown canvas by Mark Rothko. It was sold to Ann Freedman, the gallery’s director, for $750,000 (a fire-sale price). The person who brought it to her was Glafir Rosales, a woman from Long Island who didn’t have much of an art pedigree but claimed to represent a wealthy anonymous collector, and the story she told about him seemed just plausible enough.
What really seemed plausible, though, was the painting itself. It was a vintage Rothko, with two fuzzy rectangles (one black, one red) on a muted yellow background, and it was a bedazzling piece. Freedman swooned over it. Yet the painting didn’t have much “provenance” (the paper trail of its history and ownership), and Freedman wasn’t about to take its authenticity on faith. She showed it to an array of experts, including David Anfam, who at the time was the reknowned scholar-guru of Rothko. He called it beautiful, and declared that it was a real Rothko. The painting was sold for $5.5 million at auction.
Not too long after that, Glafir Rosales brought the Knoedler gallery a Jackson Pollock — a 1949 drip painting of red, black, and white with splashes of yellow, called “Untitled.” I’m not an art scholar, but I’ve seen my share of Jackson Pollock forgeries, which have a way of never looking totally like the real thing; they lack that ineffable spark of kinetic energy. But the work that was brought to Ann Freedman had the Pollock effervescence. We see it, and it’s gorgeous. And once again, she wasn’t shy about having it authenticated by a trove of experts, all of whom gave it their endorsement.
These paintings were fakes, and so were more than 60 other Abstract Expressionist canvases that Glafir Rosales brought to Ann Freedman over the next 10 years. The result, once the paintings were sold to collectors, galleries, and museums, was the costliest art scandal in history, with $80 million worth of forged works sold. “Made You Look” is a lively and fascinating stranger-than-fiction art-world doc, and what drives it are two essential mysteries: Who could have created fake paintings that looked this astonishing? And even then, how could all the experts have been fooled?
Freedman, who was ultimately forced out of the Knoedler Gallery in disgrace (that was shortly before the gallery closed its doors in 2011), is the central character in “Made You Look,” and she’s a likably unassuming one, with a sparky officious manner and a mop of gray curls. Early on, M.H. Miller of The New York Times says, “Either she was complicit in it, or she was one of the stupidest people to have worked at an art gallery.” Which seems, more or less, to be the attitude a lot of film’s witnesses end up taking.
I’m not sure I agree with them. In a way, Ann Freedman became the fall girl for the art world’s myopia. She was certainly responsible for buying the paintings, so in a way it’s fair to blame her for what happened. Yet the woman we see has a level head and appears honest enough about how badly she was duped; was she supposed to have eyes more perceptive than those of the world’s most venerated art experts? Yes, she let slide the paintings’ relative paucity of paperwork — that and the fact that these previously unknown works, by Rothko and Pollock and Motherwell and Warhol and Franz Kline and Lee Krasner and Clyfford Still, had suddenly popped up. That they were “fresh” works is part of what made them such tempting potential bonanzas. You could argue that Freedman’s eyes were clouded by greed.
Yet “Made You Look” tells another story just beneath the surface. The canvases in question didn’t just fool Freedman; they fooled the entire art world. And so, in addition to being a scandal, the Knoedler Gallery fakes added up to a profound embarrassment. Many of the people interviewed in the film keep saying, in essence, She should have known better. She should have researched it more. In a sense, you can’t argue with them. Yet what Freedman was seduced by wasn’t just profit — it was the incandescent thrill of discovering new works, of bringing them into the world.
In a sly way, “Made You Look” shows you that to be enthralled by a fake painting is to exist in a state of wide-eyed foolish grace. It’s to believe nothing but your eyes. Avrich interviews some of the people who were duped, like Dominico and Eleanore and De Soles, collectors who wound up suing Freedman and the gallery. The trial that resulted was an ordeal for the experts who’d authenticated the paintings. They had to take the stand and try to squirm out of the fact that they’d been fooled.
Of course, the great mystery is: Who was doing the fooling? Who could create fake paintings so good, and in so many different styles, that they deceived the world? The answer is: Pei-Shen Qian, a Chinese National who was a math professor living in a modest house in Queens. He’d been an accomplished painter in China (where the art of imitation is considered not a scandal but a fine-art specialty), and after arriving in New York he attended the Art Students League, where he was a classmate of Ai Weiwei. But his career as a painter never took off in the States, and he did his imitation Rothkos and Pollocks mostly for fun. (It was Glafir Rosales and her grifter boyfriend, José Carlos Bergañtinos Díaz, who tied themselves in knots to make money from them.) That such a guileless operator could produce forgeries of such inspiration, bringing the art world to its knees, may be a scandal, but it was also some kind of magic trick: proof that a con job can have an element of the uncanny.