A trial is taking place in Manhattan Federal Court that shows how murky art authentication has become.

Knoedler Gallery and its former director, Ann Freedman, are now having their day in court. They’re facing a civil suit filed by Domenico de Sole, who believed he bought an $8.3 million Rothko at the gallery. Pei-Shen Qian is a Chinese immigrant who lives in Queens.

The collapse of New York’s oldest gallery, Knoedler, was far more complex and protracted than the trial that took place. The decline of the gallery is largely due to the profound changes that have occurred in the gallery industry over the past century and the scarcity of secondary market material.

History of questionable transactions

Michael Knoedler, a French lithographer Goupil & Cie representative, arrived in New York City in 1846. The city was virtually devoid of art dealers.

Knoedler was hired to sell prints of Paris to customers who could not afford one-of-a-kind oil paintings.

Morgan and Henry Clay Frick, as clients, the gallery became a serious rival to Joseph Duveen, the dominant dealer of the era. Morgan and Henry Clay Frick were clients of the gallery. They became a serious competitor to Joseph Duveen, the chief dealer at the time.

The ongoing court case, however, is not the first time that the gallery has been involved in illegal dealings. Joseph Stalin sanctioned the secret sales. In 1931, Knoedler representatives purchased 21 masterpieces for Andrew Mellon from Russia’s Hermitage Museum. Van Eyck’s Annunciation, as well as Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi, were among the works. Both sold for approximately $900,000.html2.

In a 1958 advertisement for Knoedler, a Matisse is featured. It would later be revealed to be a fake by Elmyr De Hory. Art News Annual

Armand Hammer, a businessman from the United States with strong ties to the Soviet Union, brokered the deal that began the long and tragic association of the gallery with the Hammers.

Not only is this not their first encounter with forgery, but it’s also not the first time they have been involved in a case. The gallery ran a full-page advertisement in the 1958 issue of Art News Annual with a 1948 Matisse, which turned out to be faked by the notorious forger Elmyr de Hory.

When Elmyr’s forgeries in 1968 were exposed, Knoedler’s top dealer, E. Coe Kerr, conceded.

It was an amazing painting. You’d never guess it was a fake.

Reborn: A new gallery

Knoedler was on the verge of bankruptcy soon after the Elmyr scandal.

In 1971, Armand Hammer, their former partner in the Hermitage deal, was paid $2.5 million for the gallery.

Armand Hammer. Wikimedia commons

Hammer made a great choice by appointing Maury Leibovitz as the gallery director. Leibovitz hired Lawrence Rubin as the gallery director.

Leibovitz & Rubin changed the business model to reverse declining revenues. The gallery no longer dealt with old masters or classical modernists. The gallery shifted its focus to midcentury art and contemporary artists, including Frank Stella and Richard Diebenkorn.

Leibovitz understood that galleries seldom survive on a single revenue stream. He revived Knoedler’s original business model, printing and selling serial artworks. The prints were of the hugely popular expressionist painter Leroy Neiman.

One former employee of Leibovitz’s explained it this way:

Knoedler Gallery’s survival before 1993 was largely due to the wit and tenacity of its president, Maury Leibovitz. The gallery was able to remain in business because of the revenues generated by the lucrative publishing and print deal between Knoedler and Neiman.

Things fall apart

Michael A. Hammer, grandson of Armand Hammer, took over the gallery after he died in 1990. Hammer took over the gallery. The gallery’s relationship deteriorated after Leibovitz was killed in 1992. Michael Hammer fired Rubin in 1994 and ceded total control to Ann Freedman. This led to an exodus of artists, including Rauschenberg.

The gallery had to find an income source to replace the lost artists. Neiman was a good example. The big auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s were also increasingly dominating the market for selling canonical works of art on the secondary marketplace.

Glafira Rosales is an obscure Long Island gallery owner who represents a collection of undiscovered Abstract Expressionist paintings belonging to an anonymous “Mr. Rosales offered Knoedler the works at prices below market value.

Alarms should’ve been sounded immediately in 1993. In 1993, the estate of Richard Diebenkorn claimed that two of his Ocean Park drawings were fakes. Knoedler, however, would have collapsed without the profits from those sales.

The fact that these sales were not profitable is a major argument in favor of Ann Freedman being convicted. Rosales had sold many items at 5 to 8 times the original price. Rosales would have been happy to do such a deal, but if this happens too often, the items are likely counterfeit, stolen, or illegally exported.

Knoedler sold works from Rosales’ collection despite red flags, including a Pollock that was sold in 2002 for which the International Foundation for Art Research could not find any evidence to support the claimed provenance.

Two cases, however, revealed the full extent of this alleged conspiracy.

Julian Weissman (a former Knoedler employee who also purchased from Rosales) sold a Robert Motherwell work from his Elegy To The Spanish Republic collection.

In 2007, the Dedalus Foundation (which is the publisher of the authoritative compendium of Motherwell’s work) wrote that it would appear in the next edition. It reported back to say that it wouldn’t be included in the upcoming edition two years later. The piece had been tested, and it was found to contain materials that were not patented when the painting purportedly was made.

Knoedler also sold another Pollock to Pierre Lagrange, a hedge fund manager, with the assurance that it would appear in an updated version of Catalogue Raisonne. The artist’s authentication panel has been disbanded since 1995. When Lagrange discovered that the major auction houses would not sell the painting, he sued, and the gallery closed.

Abstract expressionist art may be the biggest offender. In the current court case, a Mark Rothko forgery was described by Art Basel’s founder, Ernst Beyeler, as “sublime.” Perhaps those who mocked Rothko and Motherwell, saying anyone could create such abstract art, were not so far off.

If a Chinese immigrant from Queens, New York, could make them all look so convincing, then one wonders how many abstract expressionist fakes were bought and sold.