Another week of Robert Wittman’s course Art Crime: How Masterpieces are Stolen and Recovered has passed, and boy do we have some exiting stories to relate…
Unpicking the differences
One can assume that the adverse effects of being desensitised to art crimes, often considered “more prankster than gangster”, has coaxed the modern world into being largely dismissive of “fake or problematic” art. But let’s remind ourselves of the following facts, which were explored in detail in the previous session. The size of the art market industry equates to an annual 200 billion dollars. The States is the industry’s largest consumer, funding roughly 40% of that market: 80 billion dollars, each year.
About 6 billion of that trade is in illicit cultural property. 25% of that six billion involves Theft of Stolen Property. The other 75% are frauds, forgeries and fakes. Considering this, it is paramount that we acknowledge the scale and capacity of art crime and take the matter seriously.
What you’re looking at here (figure 1) are a number of fake artworks presented to the FBI by unsuspecting victims. It is immediately apparent that these paintings are meant to impersonate certain original veracities – such as the purported “Miró” in the top right. Fakes are objects that are made to fit a particular aesthetic – whether that be a specific artist, factory or producer. They’re works that copy, replicate or are misattributed to a particular work.
Martinez and the Basquiats’
Jean-Michel Basquiat, for those who aren’t familiar with the name, was a very influential neo-expressionist painter in the 1980s. His works now sell for millions a piece. As such, Wittman was not surprised to receive a call from the FBI’s New York office about the sale of some “purported” Basquiats’ drifting about.
Based off the real thing, the certificates of authenticity were imprinted with the Basquiat Foundation logo, inclusive of Gerard Basquiat’s signature. What ultimately gave them away were the certificate reference numbers as they were too high and didn’t exist. A keen eye noticed this, alerted the FBI who gave Wittman a buzz, and so a case unfolded.
So, who was behind the scam? Everything traced back to a man named Alfredo Martinez. Unlike the AOPA, all subsequent fakery – of documentation and art alike – was generated by a single individual. The FBI set up a sting operation, wherein Wittman went undercover as a shady dealer. He contacted Alfred, requesting photographs and certificates of authenticity, and the email correspondence that ensued became a crucial point in the case.
Wittman received photographs and emails of artworks that Jean-Michel Basquiat supposedly painted… But, as we we’ve explored before, he had to prove that the person committing the crime was aware that they were. So, Wittman approached Martinez directly,
“Look , I’ve been dealing with Basquiat for a number of years… I know they’re fake, you know they’re fake.”
Wittman then offered to sell the works on for 50% of what Martinez was asking – equating to roughly $375,000. What was his response? “Great, let’s do it.” Bear in mind that all of this was all being recorded – from email to voicemail, Martinez was spilling the beans left, right and centre. “Where have you shown these?” Wittman asked at one point. The response: “You’re the only person I’ve shown it to. But I can get a lot more.” “Why, because you make them?” “Well, basically!” I think the most entertaining part of Wittman’s story was in the telling. At this point he laughed, reliving the moment – imagine having an open conversation with someone who makes a prosperous living out of creating fake art. I can’t picture myself standing in Wittman’s shoes, casually discussing how best to deceive people, without losing my cool. But I suppose that’s why I’m a painting’s conservator and not a member of the FBI’s art salvage squad.
With a portfolio provided, incriminating tape recordings, unquestionable proof of wire fraud/mail fraud and conspiracy to sell fake paintings… Martinez went to trial. Within four days, he admitted to guilt. According to Wittman whilst the case was going a gallery in Soho created an exhibition of Martinez’ fake Basquiats’, and the New York times wrote a piece. He has since featured in a podcast, on the ABC radio, and in the Observer. As a result, Martinez became a celebrity. After only 18 months in jail for what is dubbed a “white-collar crime”, he has since gone on to create a pretty nice living outside of jail. Wittman claims Matinez has not only become an expert on Basquiat, but he’s amassed a bunch of celebrity clients who buy his work – which he sells for upwards of $10, 000 a piece.
“I think” Wittman reflected, “I’m the only FBI agent I know who created an artist”.
People who defraud other people, sometimes using real works, represent these pieces in a way that is untrue. If an object is presented in a contractual and/or informational way, and the person in charge of dispensing that knowledge knows that the facts are incorrect and yet continues to act deceptively, this could be an act of committing fraud in the US. If the victim relies upon that intel to make a decision, and in making that decision they suffer a loss – whether in trading (buying or selling) – they’re being defrauded. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a fake item, or an item that is not real. Simply deliberately falsifying representation of the artist, age, origins, or ownership of a work in order to reap financial gain – this is art fraud.
The American Ordnance Preservation Association (AOPA)
Most of us have heard of the Antiques Roadshow. As a child I found the whole premise of the Roadshow fascinating, entertained by the appraisal of high-value unique goods like Captain Scott’s Polar Autographs and J.K. Rowling’s sketches to Faberge Flowers and Van Eyck paintings; the show featured it all. The stories behind heirlooms, unveiling and amalgamating with financial and intangible valuations, was unique to the world of entertainment for me.
Much like in the UK, the States featured the Antiques Roadshow as a first-rate public broadcasting series. It travelled from city to city – stopping in at Chicago, New York and Miami – and was a burden to art dealers who were unable to get airtime. This is because they wereunpaid. You see, the Antiques Roadshow, in working for auction houses like Christies and Sotheby’s, employs the idea of capturing on film “golden finds” within the average American’s home. The show finances venues, lights, cameras: action. And art dealers who travel with the show pay for their own hotel rooms, car rentals, flights and employees. They might visit up to ten venues a year, and these expenses add up. Therefore, it’s imperative that dealers discover something good whilst on camera.
They aim to “appraise” an object specific to their field of expertise – say they’re a toy specialist who discovers a rare tinplate train… a lot of people watch the show; if one has a similar toy sitting on the mantlepiece at home and witnesses the dealer giving an appealing “opinion of value”, they might feel inspired to reach out and make business. Generating leads is what drives dealers taking part in the Antiques Roadshow.
In steps George Juno, Russ Pritchard and Russ Pritchard Jr. from the American Ordnance Preservation Association (AOPA). These three were dealers in military regalia, specialising in anything ranging from the Civil War to ancient military artefacts. They started travelling with the show in the early ‘90s, introducing fake appraisals to score a bit of time in the limelight. How did they organise this, you might ask? Well, they would meet up with friends of theirs, often in their hotel room the night before the show, and would coach these actors on how to present their priceless heirlooms in a way that would grab media attention. Juno and the Pritchards would then concoct estimations to secure several slots on the show’s televised portion. One such example, in 1997, is the “watermelon sword” – parodically named because owner Stephen Stadtler, a pal of Juno and Pritchard’s, claimed that he used his antique rare Confederate weapon to cut watermelons (see figure 2).
After several fake appraisals, the trio set their sights on bigger things. One of their first victims was a man named George Pickett, an ancestor of George Edward Pickett (a career United States Army Officer who became a major general in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War). Pickett’s grandson “was a nice guy” who became the target of the AOPA after they caught wind of a treasure trove of Confederate valuables tucked away at home. The team hired a sales psychologist who advised them how to penetrate Pickett’s life without arousing suspicion. They met with his elderly mother at a nursing home, bringing gifts and candies to infiltrate her good graces. Eventually they met with Pickett himself; going on golf and surfing excursions, and even babysitting his children.
The AOPA were soon able to convince George Pickett to sell them the following artefacts from his great, great grandfather: a sword, a gauntlet, a bible and a pair of gloves. The first lie Juno, Pritchard and Pritchard Jr. told Pickett was that they represented the Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. They claimed they were buying pieces for that museum on a 10% commission. The second lie they told him was that the museum was willing to purchase the objects for a total $80,000. Pickett was intrigued, convinced by the charade and proud to have his family’s heirlooms in the museum collection – and so the deal was signed. The truth only surfaced a year later, on a sunny afternoon on the 3rd of July…
A luncheon attended by ancestors of Confederate generals took place on the site of the Battle of Gettysburg (fought July 1 – 3, 1863). A discussion with a Gettysburg dealer revealed that the museum had in fact paid $880, 000 for the artefacts, not the $80, 000 claimed by the AOPA. Within one week of buying the artefacts, Pickett’s fraudsters had sold the treasures on – getting far more than their 10% commission of $80,000. That’s illegal: and all the contracts, emails and discussions were proof of malicious intent. After Pickett verified everything with the museum, he hired an attorney in Philadelphia and brought a Federal Lawsuit against Juno, Pritchard and Pritchard Jr.
The FBI, excited by the whiff of a possible criminal conviction, employed an Attorney and picked up the case. Their aim was to investigate the AOPA on wire and mail fraud however, supported by a Grand Jury Subpoena, Robert Wittman and his team were able to access to all the company records and discovered that the insipid corruption trail of the AOPA extended far beyond Pickett’s heirlooms. A paper trail, categorised alphabetically, recorded four years of malicious action.
The AOPA had been conducting criminal deeds all over the country. At their worst convincing a widow that her late-husband’s Confederate overcoat had no monetary or historic value; the audacity to claim the priceless fabric was “a fake that should be tossed in a clothing bin”! Already devastated by her partner’s unexpected and savage passing, she willingly gave the AOPA his favoured heirloom for free. I find it unnerving and disheartening just how much greed can overpower all human sensitivity. Can people really be this cruel? Yes, they can. To summarise: the FBA were able to indict Russ Prichard, George Juno and Russ Pritchard Jr. on the following 18 count indictments; 11 Mail Fraud, 3 Wire Fraud, 3 counts of Interstate Transportation of Stolen Property, Theft of Major Artwork from a Museum, Accessories After the Fact, False Statements, and Tampering with the Witness.
Art forgery involves forging a work of literature, painting, sculpture, or object d’art that purports to be the work of someone other than its true maker. This work is then sold as the original artwork, and can extend from misrepresenting genuine works of art to outright counterfeiting. If there is intent to deceive, and this common type of fraudulence is often for monetary gain, it can be determined a forgery in the US.
Adding texture to a golden helmet
In a museum located in the folds of German hills hangs an artwork which, according to one Jordanian smuggled, was now in his possession. The Man with a Golden Helmet is attributed to someone within the circle of the Dutch painter Rembrandt; and it sits within the collection of the Staatliche Museum in Berlin. Our art-smuggling protagonist, Majed A. Ihmoud, claimed that he had the authentic painting on hand; and that it was an original Rembrandt, which had been stolen during the first Iraq war. It came out of Kuwait through Turkey, entering Bulgaria, and travelled up through Germany (specifically Munich) and entered the West as legitimate property. (For your information, this is actually an already well-established smuggling route for the illegal art trade.)
Anyway, our ostensible “Man with a Golden Helmet” had apparently been stolen in an elaborate art heist in Kuwait and was now selling for a bargain $1 million. Well, Robert Wittman… it’s time to put back on those “shady dealer” gloves. As with Martinez, from the offset Wittman established that he knew the work was fake – undeniably so: it was, in fact, a print. But with little encouragement from Wittman a new idea was born: the work could be sold on to a Dallas-based collector, but before that it required further textural embellishments in the form of additional specks of gold paint. “Okay, I’ll do that”, Ihmoud replied. Thus, he was predisposed to do the crime. The intent was there – caught out by wire fraud and mail fraud as well as conspiracy, which had him admitting the work was not real but wanting to sell it anyway.
Under the finely attuned “shady dealer” façade, the two met in St. Louis, Missouri. Ihmoud, on Wittman’s recommendation, presented himself as a Saudi Sheikh claiming to be from the royal family. Of course, unbeknownst to our fraudster, the “client” was an FBI agent named Bobby. After the contact had been written up and signed, there was no doubt in Wittman’s mind that this was officially a criminal case. Majed A. Ihmoud was pegged, caught, and Bob’s your uncle! Or your client – in this case.
Robert Wittman explored several other investigations during session two, including the remarkable tale of Glafira Rosales and the Knoedler Fraud case. You will, however, have to conduct the research here yourself as I really can’t do justice in the retelling. I will, however, end with a quote that best sums up today’s session.
“You know, a lot of the people who are victims; they have more dollars than sense. That’s the problem”.
Issues in Authenticity
Perhaps this blogpost will entice you to attend next year’s Fakes, Frauds and Forgeries: Issues in Authenticity. Christie’s Education is a specialist institution in the study of art business and the art market, art history and art world ecosystems, curating and connoisseurship. Scrolling through their upcoming courses gives one a good impression of the knowledges and cultures that together inform this diverse range of original subject matter – all to benefit several outstanding lecture series, accessible to you. If you’re interested in taking a look, click here.
About the author: Alexandra Taylor is a paintings conservator. She is currently a Fellow at Stichting Restauratie Atelier Limburg (SRAL). Prior to this she has worked internationally, holding positions at Saltmarsh Paintings Conservation in Cambridge and the Phoebus Foundation in Antwerp. Her interests lie in the treatment of Old Masters and the fundamental aspects of paintings analysis, research, and the valorisation of results. Alexandra received her conjoint BFA(h)/BA at the University of Auckland (NZ) and MA in Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne (AUS). She is a 2019 GAF Fellow at the International Specialised Skills Institute in Melbourne (AUS). Her Fellowship investigated current practice in preventing art crimes in conservation with the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (IT).
Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.
 N. Charney, “Provenance Trap: Understanding the Modus Operandi of Art Forgers”, The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, lecture, Amelia, 25 June 2019; S. Nall, “An Australian Art Dealer’s Perspective…”, p. 108; K. Polk, L. Aarons, C. Alder, An Exploration of the Illegal Art Market o Australia, A Report Submitted to the Criminology Research Council, Department of Criminology, University of Melbourne 2000, p. i, http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary;jsessionid=F01F50233421C507EE9A10B5E9F6F83D?doi=10.1.1.421.4652 (accessed: 14.10.2020).
Thanks to Nathaniel Goldblum from Christie’s Education for granting me the opportunity to review such a fascinating talk.
In 2008 Robert Wittman left the FBI and established his own company, Robert Wittman Incorporated (see below). A reason for breaking away and turning to the private sector includes being able to assess all types of situations related to art crime – including museum security service, collection management and expert witness testimony. The FBI turns away 80% of complaints because they aren’t considered criminal offences. Now, Robert Wittman can assist with both criminal and civil disputes – and currently handles 40-55 cases at any given moment.
For more information on Robert Wittman Inc., visit: https://www.robertwittmaninc.com/
Some of Wittman’s more daring adventures are catalogued in two texts: Priceless and The Devil’s Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich.
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