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Fraud and forgery in the world of fine art

Visitors walking through a gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Visitors walking through a gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

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The world of fine art is full of multimillion dollar one-of-a-kinds and breathtaking masterpieces.

But the art market is also rife with fraudsters and forgers.

"No one wants to be a fool," private art dealer Richard Polsky says. Especially wealthy people. They run the world. You know, 'Of course my Picasso’s real. I bought it.'"

Today, On Point: When fakes demand a fortune, what does that say about the intrinsic value of art — and the market that surrounds it?


Richard Polsky, owner of Richard Polsky Art Authentication, which specializes in authenticating works by Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jackson Pollock and Roy Lichtenstein, among others. Private art dealer and former gallery owner.

Sebastian Smee, Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post. Author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art.”

Interview Highlights

On how the art world has changed

Richard Polsky: "You have to realize everything is economic these days in the art world. Everything's changed. In my heyday during the 1980s, it was really about the art world. People were interested in the art itself, meaning the artists go into their studios, go into the museums and so on. And in recent years, it's gone from the art world to the art market, and now it's all about money.

"So you take a situation like what you have in Orlando and everyone's on the make. In other words, you have a museum curator trying to make his reputation. You have the owners of these so-called Basquiat's looking for a situation like a museum to burnish these pieces and hopefully, you know, turn them into something valuable. You mentioned there was a professor who wrote an essay that was well paid for doing this. So it all comes down to money."

On Basquiat's legacy

Richard Polsky: "Basquiat's, how do I put it? He's a unique situation in terms of American art. There are only a handful of myths. They include Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Georgia O'Keeffe. And Basquiat is well on his way to joining them. By that I mean people are as interested in his lifestyle as they are in his art. In other words, you take someone like Georgia O'Keeffe. People loved her art, but they even loved her lifestyle more. How she dressed the red rock canyons she lived in in New Mexico.

"This woman living in isolation, picking up stones and bleached out cow skulls. It's fantastic. Well, Basquiat, he lived an amazing life in his 27 short years. He connected with everyone from Madonna to Andy Warhol. I mean, it was amazing. And if you ever get a chance, I recommend your listeners check out the movie Basquiat, which was made by the artist Julian Schnabel. Okay, maybe a little of it is exaggerated, but that'll give you a little flavor, a little taste of, you know, the world he inhabited during the eighties and what went on. And it's rapidly turning into a myth."

On what you look for as an authenticator 

Richard Polsky: "The art market is unregulated. That means anyone can become an art dealer. Do you realize, Meghna, tomorrow you could wake up and say, you know, I've had it with broadcasting and NPR and On Point. I'm going to do something else with my life. I'm going to become an art dealer. I'm going to open a gallery, and all you have to do is find a space. Paint the walls white. You throw a plant in the corner, you hang a few pictures, you're in business, and the public assumes you know what you're doing.

"You know art history. You have good business ethics, you have taste. Maybe, maybe not. And this is why there's so many problems. There's so much fraud in this world, because nobody had to pass the test. I mean, obviously, to become a physician, you have to pass your medical boards. To become an attorney, you pass the bar exam. Even to do nails or cut hair, you have to be licensed. But to sell you $1,000,000 Basquiat. No, I don't have to be."

Does art have inherent value?

Sebastian Smee: "It doesn't have any inherent value. You know, it doesn't even have a use value. It's not like coal or fruit and vegetables. You know, you can't eat it. You can't burn it. It's only got value to the extent that there is a consensus around the idea that it matters. And it can matter for a lot of different reasons. It can matter because it's incredibly beautiful. It can matter because it speaks to something deep down in us that you might call spirit or soul or whatever. It can matter because it has information in it about previous times in history. You know, you can go on and on.

"That's one of the great things about being an art critic, that there are just so many stories around art. But the question of how that consensus emerges is interesting. And I think one of the things that is hard for people to get their head around is that, you know, for an artwork to become incredibly valuable, you really only need, I suppose, you know, two people to really value it. If it comes up at auction, for instance. I mean, if you've got people bidding on it, work by Jackson Pollock or Andy Warhol, if two people really, really want it, that'll do."

On why art matters

Sebastian Smee: "I don't think it matters at all. You know, the only thing that I guess you'd say is that if part of what has moved you is the idea that this was painted by a particular person. If you find out that it wasn't painted by that particular person, then that could take away from the experience. But really, is there any need for that to be part of the effect? I don't think so usually. I mean, I think it is exciting to sort of look at a painting and think, well, Rembrandt moved this paint around holding a brush. There is something about that that, you know, it's just a story, but it can't help but affect us, I think, when you're in front of the work. But by and large, if it's a picture, then you can look at it and you shouldn't need to know who it was by."

This program aired on April 28, 2023.


Claire Donnelly Producer, On Point
Claire Donnelly is a producer at On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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