Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: Macroinformation.org &
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Fakes … in a Fake Age
Art Business News, October 2000, arrived today. There’s a cover article, In the World of Forgery, No Work is Sacred. Contributing Editor Barden Prisant reports that according to the FBI, fully 70 percent of the signed memorabilia in circulation is phony: even 90 percent of autographed baseballs are fakes.
I’ve been in the art business one way or another since 1955. Let me confide to you a quick sketch of my career, mixing it with a less quick view of the background.
Already related here, I organized a charity jazz concert in 1955. (The performance took place in 1956.) The details are among my Music and Art modules. Genuine music was offered to my high school: Duke Ellington, Count Basie … The administration fudged around until all I could offer them was Rhythm and Blues, about to be called Rock and Roll. Still genuine: sort of. But people like to waste a half century of opportunity to listen to Muddy Waters; then tackle Bill Haley and Elvis Presley and pour money on them.
Still, I can’t accuse my high school administration of simply rejecting the originals and waiting for an imitation to approve: I signed Bill Haley for $800; the principal fudged that one too. Next Week the Comets were getting $2,500 a gig.
The first fine art I dealt with commercially was comprised of Pre-Columbian artifacts. My friend and I sub-let a Mexican crafts gallery in the Village, allowing the owner to vacation at the pyramids where he poked around in the rubble. That was about to become very illegal. But then Al was doing no more than Lord Elgin had done: rescuing junk the originating culture left underfoot and mounting it on a pedestal.
(Would the indigenous peoples have left their art lying under foot if the conquistadors hadn’t murdered their culture? If the US hadn’t warred on the survivors? We’ll never know.)
Could “my” Pre-Columbian “originals” have been fakes? Maybe Al didn’t really go to the ruins. Maybe he had a little kiln somewhere and molded and dried the clay himself. But why should he bother? The real stuff was lying on the ground in abundance. Or maybe the abundance was the result of some mad potter making clay figures and, instead of selling them, climbing up to the pyramids and salting them among the rocks and bricks where they could get stepped on.
I sold no other art until 1973 when, FLEX faltering financially (and FLEX was never financed except by me (and I had no finances other than my wife’s meager income)), I took a job as Assistant Director of a successful midtown gallery (at least it had been successful while the founder lived). I didn’t sell much there: I wasn’t allowed to. The moment the founder’s widow [Mary Gruskin, Midtown Galleries] saw a prospect lingering with me, she’d sally forth from her hiding place and ambush the deal. One time she was too late: the customer had already said she’d take it. I still got elbowed aside (and of course never received a commission).
In 1974 I became the only salesman to be selling anything in a gallery of seventeen salesmen. I got kicked upstairs to a little gallery where I was left alone. But the house that owned those two galleries (and sixty-some others) was a real case. We’ve arrived at the bulls eye of my narrative.
That company [Circle Gallery] specialized in “multiple-original graphics.” The “original” of the phrase referred to the legal meaning; not to any scholarly meaning. The case of Rembrandt making an etching plate and then printing one, two, three … nine etchings didn’t apply. The case of Rauschenberg going to an atelier and etching a series of stones till a print pulled from the series of stones (a series of colors, shadings …) appealed to him didn’t apply. These multiple-original graphics reproduced images already famous as reproductions! Or they printed images by people already famous in mass media. Specifically, this house published lithographs of Norman Rockwell’s most popular Saturday Evening Post illustrations: and called them multiple original graphics!
(The founder of that scam was a Chicago lawyer who made piles exploiting discrepancies between legal meanings and what the public mistakes as the meaning: original in this case; I, as a writer, a linguist, a scholar, expose such exploitations, or try to: I get clobbered, go to jail!)
(I just have to wait for Judgment for things to get turned right side up.)
(But if that never happens, if Judgment is another fraud, I still win: because the truth is the truth: the truth is not what the despoilers vote.) (I’ll be dead, we’ll all be dead: but still, I‘ll be the winner.)
Now here’s how that works.
Curtis Publishing commissions Rockwell to paint, not a painting, but a maquette, a model: a “blueprint” as it were to be reproduced. (Maquette is a sculptor’s term, I use it by analogy.) Rockwell uses the traditional painters’ tools: oil, canvas … but the result is not something to hang in a gallery, then to be sold, then to hang in a home or office or institution …; the result is a maquette, something to be one- or four-color offset lithographed by the tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands: say the cover of the magazine.
Norman Rockwell images were for Twentieth-Century America in “art” what the King James Bible had been for religion in Nineteenth-Century America. It wasn’t some alien thing in some alien language that only the priest had, that only the priest could read. The consumer of the popular magazine didn’t have to know squat about Golden Sections or Perspective. It was popular art: something the world had seen far too little of. The Japanese in the Eighteen Century made woodcut multiples: intended to be cheap. Consumers got a Hokusai for like a dime. And I say Hokusai, Honorobu … made as good art at a dime a head as any public has seen since the Lascaux caves.
Now that‘s art!
But civilization doesn’t care about art: civilization is about excess food, excess population, ownership … and ownership has come to be about money, creating states to shore up dikes of injustice. The Hokusais sold for a dime: the Saturday Evening Post sold for a dime. America was catching up, sprinting way past Europe … in the mass distribution of popular art.
I left the town this morning before sunrise,
because it’s a rotten town,
and I couldn’t bear to see it in the light.
Blanco Posnet (GBS)
Now the company in question, brought the Rockwells out (first doing a couple of editions in one color: some sort of “black” on whatever kind of “white” the good rag paper offered) at $200. That’s a lot more than a dime, but affordable to doctors and dentists who remembered the Saturday Evening Posts from their childhood. As soon as a dozen or so of the edition of 200 sold, the company raised the price: and brought out another edition at $200 each.
I should explain the term “edition.” When Guttenberg printed the Bible or Caxton printed a book on chess, some number had to be determined where you’d stop printing duplicates for the first page or pages and go on to the next “page.” (Depending on how the paper is to be folded, there’s no one way the sheets printed and “pages” correspond) The printer, publisher, inventor, innovator, businessman thinks Maybe we can sell fifty. So an edition of fifty is printed, folded, glued, bound, cut … and marketed. (Actually, maybe he thought they could sell five hundred, but enough paper and labor for fifty was all that was in his budget.) If the fifty sold well, if the fifty sold out, then you would be tempted to go to a second edition. Besides, by that time, you’d discovered errors in the first edition. (Unavoidably, you’d always also be adding new errors. Every time I “fix” a file of my homepage, I know I can be introducing new things in need of fixing. And the text gets fixed one time for fifty times that the composition, the layout code … gets fixed. Like finding that the movers have wrapped your broken cup in enough bubble wrap to protect the Statue of Liberty.)
Rembrandt prepares a plate. He pulls an etching. He likes it, he signes it, maybe he sells it: #1. He sees something to fix. He fixes it. He pulls and maybe sells #2. By the time he pulls number nine the image is fading … Quality can only degenerate. He erases the plate and puts it aside. Or starts a new etching.
That’s a brief history of literary and fine art publishing. Get to “modern” times and things are different. I write a file in hyper-text. I mount it on the internet. Two minutes later I find a typo. I correct it and republish. I add a line. I subtract a line. I republish as often as I find time or feel compelled. Before you see a page, it’s in its “fortieth” “edition.”
Toulouse Lautrec did pop graphics: ads for the Moulin Rouge. In a couple of years Moucha would be plastering Paris with art nouveau ads for Job cigarette rolling papers. Some gamin could tear the poster from the wall and take it home. Cost Job a dime: costs only time and effort to steal. Kid would get thrown in jail if it was bread he stole; no body was protecting this eye-trash. (I bought a Moucha Job for $900. I think it sells for around $10,000 now.)
Alas that scan is a little dark, the face doesn’t show up well: it certainly shown in the actual poster. Wonderful wonderful bit of lithography.
But times are even more modern this mere century later. The company that published Rockwell lithographs for $200, then raised the price to four figures as quickly as they could, also printed serigraphs by Playboy sex and sports artist Leroy Neiman: action painting gone “realistic”: most moderns can interpret a “Johnny Bench” from the color splotches.
Rockwell made his maquette, owned by Curtis before the first pencil or charcoal line was drawn, before the first oil was brushed. In my mind the “real” art was then made by the series of cameras, plate developers, and printers who cranked out the magazine. To me, the Saturday Evening Post cover was the true multiple original: the maquette in oil was just one in a series of tools. The art was collaborative: publisher, commercial illustrator, printing industry, distribution network … public. Leroy’s case is similar: Playboy, Leroy, industry, networks … horny onanists covering their guilt note with a veneer of culture. Anyway, Playboy commissions a maquette, the highly multiply published Playboy is the “multiple-original.” Another publisher thinks Gee, that’s vulgar enough to play the same game with.
I happen to know some details of the story and I’ll tell them. Jack Solomon was the founder of Circle Gallery. Circle Gallery was financed in a number of ways, principal among which was Jack Solomon’s older company: Arts International. Arts International hired desperate artists by guaranteeing them sales. Some were paid by the hour, like factory workers. Some were paid by the painting. $10 each … $30 each … Whatever. The results were all original by the legal definition: they were painted by hand by a human being. (Or a group of human beings: if lighthouses were selling well, the artist would paint the lighthouse, spouse would paint the white picket fence, the twelve year old would paint the sea gulls, the fourteen year old would paint the bushes … Family stationwagon arrives at Arts International headquarters or at the back door of the warehouse to deliver the week’s production of lighthouse paintings. Maybe forty paintings. The family would take home maybe $400, maybe $1,200 for the week. Of course they’re all signed with different names. note The “forty” paintings are stretched and framed in the facility for that purpose and distributed among the sixty galleries. Maybe the gallery still has some of last week’s lighthouse paintings. You don’t want another one with the same artist’s name on it, do you? Never mind that it looks like the last thousand to pass through.
And so forth. Some other family arrives with Indian Chiefs. Another with babbling brooks. Maybe the covered bridges or the migrating geese were done by one artist alone, maybe by only two. But what the hell, the big paintings at the Met were done by crews as well. One of several temporary colleagues of mine at Circle’s big gallery had been kicked upstairs from Arts International. He told me of his Harold Lloyd gymnastics in trying to keep the prospect who liked Sitting Bull from seeing the dozen other nearly identical Sitting Bulls he had in the bins. The company might retail Sitting Bull for $200 framed. But you couldn’t walk out till you’d refused to buy it for $80. (All my “figures” here are symbolic: truly representative, but not facts.)
Like any great business, it was soon imitated. A family of Sephardic Jews in New York soon had their own stable of artists punching in and out as they supplied a dozen galleries in Manhattan alone. Before long the Chinese were shipping babbling brooks and lighthouses at $2 and $3 each. You could buy stacks of migrating geese, all signed with “French” “names,” big enough to engulf your couch, for $8 apiece.
Well this Chicago lawyer of course has a key to the Playboy Club. Knows Heff personally. Knows Leroy’s sketches of black-stockinged long legs dipping pussy muffs into martini glasses, takes more money into the business: an insurance claim from a burned hardware store … and … via Larry Ettinger, some “art” “auction” money. The supplier of the money got to come with it, so Rockwells were getting published by a Chicago lawyer, a burned out hardware salesman, and an art auctioneer. Now Leroy Neiman, as you must know from seeing him on the TV commemorating the sports events, is a cloths horse. In New York, Leroy would go to the same boutique that Dali used, a boutique owned by Felice. Leroy sees that Felice has the place covered with Dali graphics. Felice explains that Dali runs a big bill and that she’s happy to trade. Leroy says “Oh really, well I’m an artist too …” So Felice has some Neiman sex and sports on the wall when Larry Ettinger comes in to drape his big body. Larry recognizes the Playboy stuff. Larry proposes a deal to involve Circle, Neiman, and Felice. Photo color seps are done of a big brash painting or two. The colors are a bear: fifty to sixty colors, driving the cost way over the one, four, or six color Rockwells. But that’s still doable: silk-screen is cheaper than litho per color. Out come the Neimans: $300 or so retail: but bigger editions.
Uh oh, back to my word on editions. Rembrandt pulled an etching. He thought it was OK. That was an artist proof. The next one was #1. By Toulouse Lautrec’s day, the artist hangs around the big power assisted flatbed press. OK, that one registers. He signs it and writes BAT, or bon a tirer, on it. Good to pull: if the rest look like that one, it will be OK. The artist takes a few home: artist proofs. The printer gets a couple: printers proofs. Maybe the owner of the Moulin Rouge or its ad agency get a few: more artist proofs. Then the rest plaster Paris. By the same process, the rest could be distributed to galleries (if galleries of the time ever thought they could sell a lithograph: book stores and such sold lithographs, as you can see in any number of Daumiers).
Now, modern times: the artist is supposed to get 10% artist proofs over the arbitrary edition size: part of his fee. Rembrandt’s editions were sized by the deterioration of the plate. Modern plates are steel faced: you can make jillions without lose of quality. (Actually, the steel facing itself compromises the quality.) So an edition of thirty is actually an edition of thirty-three. But the printer gets a couple: so its thirty-five … And so forth and so forth. How big is an edition of two hundred? Only the publisher and printer knows. (What does the artist know: he only knows how many he signed (if he knows that: Sandy Calder was always falling down drunk or asleep while he was signing.) I have an unusually informed idea in the case of the Rockwells: the edition of 200 meant that 200 were numbered, there was of course the BAT (bon a tirer), the printers got maybe ten, and the Rockwell Museum got ninety-five artist proofs. That made up a fair part of Norman’s pay for signing the stack of them. That means that 200 really means 300 plus.
A further word about the numbered prints: Rembrandt numbered the prints in order of printing: the successes. (Rejects were of course destroyed.) The AP was the first. #1 in mint condition is theoretically the most valuable. (Because the plate would deteriorate by the very process of printing.) #9 would be least valuable in an edition of nine. (In practice, #3 might be the most valuable. Maybe “Rembrandt” added a figure, “improving” the plate. Maybe #1 has foxed over time, maybe #3 was kept in a vault …) In contrast, the prints in modern printing are as alike as two Fords. They’re not singed and numbered in order of printing: “order of printing” has little meaning in modern processes. Silk-screener Marcel “pulls” her own prints, and a very good printer she is. She starts with a stack say of two hundred sheets of good rag paper. She prints the first color (sometimes her colors are a blend, a rainbow, between two values of some color): and sets them in racks to dry. (Lorna Massie hangs hers in the barn with clothespins.) With color number one dry, it’s time to print color number two. Does she go and find the sheet she’d printed color one on first? Then find #2? Of course not. They just all get printed. Then the rejects are destroyed. The remainder are counted: edition of 143, no proofs of any kind: 143 prints to sell.
GH Rothe would make a mezzotint plate, proof (or “BAT”) it (bon a tirer, good to pull), then steel face it, and pull the first of them for commerce. If Gatja hoped she could sell ninety-nine of them, she’d signed it and number it 99/99. If she could sell them and raise the price, #1 would fetch the most: because it would be the last one; not the first one printed!
I refer to days when Gatja was a one man band. The last time I saw Marcel, she was still a one man band. But let’s look at an art figure to reach industrial status. Dali authored graphics before Circle, Lublin, McKay, and others turned it into a big thing. (The moron public would spend $200 on a Rockwell, never guessing that it could buy an original drawing from the Renaissance for $10! Those days are gone: both the $10 for a unique masterpiece and the $200 for a second generation Rockwell.) note I have no idea how corrupt the art market was before the 1970s. Probably as corrupt as markets generally are. I’d go to MOMA and mostly see the unique originals: the Matisse painting, not the Matisse lithograph. I loved all the stuff that the Rockefellers bought. I don’t care why they bought it (though Tom Wolfe’s psychological portrait in The Painted Word is so brilliant it simply has to be true. The iron clad Philistine buying nutty work from garrets so that they can pass for having a soul. Maybe. Why not? I don’t care: I love the stuff. Picasso! Wow. (And by the way, whatever I say here about Alexander Calder, know that, for me, he permanently belongs on any short list of great Twentieth-Century artists. Know further, maybe he wouldn’t have been chronically tipsy and greedy and inattentive in his eighties if he had been paid at prices he could live on for the seventy years before he was eighty! One day Calder couldn’t give away a big stabile, a minute later his waiting list seemed infinite: at $100,000 per!) On those occasions when MOMA did show a Matisse lithograph, I’d get just as weak in the knees as I would before The Red Studio. The numbers on the print would read: editions of 7, or 10, at the most, of 30. I’d walk about New York and see a Dali Don Quixote in some window. Fine. Thought nothing of it. But in the graphics business as of 1974, I started hearing the stories. Dali did an edition of something of other: edition of ninety-nine (but don’t ask how many artist proofs. Then from the same plate he did an edition of 99 on rice paper (Japon) (don’t ask how many artist proofs). Then he did an edition on Arches paper: the American edition: 99 (and don’t ask how many artist proofs). Then there was the “German” edition: also 99 (and don’t ask how many artist proofs).
One of the graphics larcens, one of the Levines, is walking around Paris, stops at an atelier, sees the canceled Dali plate: Don Quixote of all things. Buys the plate for $100 or so. Knocks up Dali at the Ritz.
|Hi, I’m so and so. I want to show you something.
That’s an etching from my Don Quixote plate. But that plate is canceled. You can see the mark right on the etching. That etching is illegal. At least it’s unethical. The cancellation mark means that no more etchings were to be pulled. It’s an assurance of rarity to the buyers of the legitimate edition.
Yeah. I know. But I bought the canceled plate. I pulled another thousand etchings. I’ve got two hundred of them with me down in the car. Sign them and I’ll give you a buck a signature.
You’re a fraud. A thief. I — Dali — am a great artist.
I’ll give you two bucks a signature.
My works hangs in major museums of the world …
Three bucks …
Dali finally shut up, sat down, and signed the stack: at $8 per signature. At least that’s how I heard the story: from Frank Fidele.)
By 1977 or 1978, my favorite girl friend had published the first of her company’s Calders. I was with her when she made its first showing: to Bowles Hopkins on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. I’d just sold a stack of stuff to Franklin Bowles and now it was her turn to make her presentation. The company my girl owned with her husband (and then one after another in a long succession of partners, almost all of them left high and dry a short time later) had the one Calder. I looked at it carefully while they were talking. AP. But the editions was supposed to be “small.” 150 or so. A grand was the opening retail. A couple of months later I’m back in New York. I watch her roll another Calder into a tube for shipping. It wasn’t the same edition. The shapes were the same, the title was the same, but the print wasn’t. The first one she’d shown had been three colors, all of them double printed: there was a ghost of the color by the color. Gave the two dimensions a slight depth. This one going into the tube was single printed. Looked like it had been through the washer. Price was a couple of grand by then. Put a glass of wine and a pretty secretary by Calder, and he’d sign anything. Just keep paying him.
But of course why pay Calder $50 or $75 a signature when you can hire a good forger to sign them for $1? (Not all “facts” are true. I was told “as a fact” that Rockwell modified the constract so that he didn’t have to sign the stack. There was some secret paper that made my friend Ido Ben Porot’s “Rockwell” signature legal on Circle and Rockwell approved applications. If Ido drew the Rockwells, why couldn’t he sign them too? But I now confess to have been doubly wrong, triply wrong: Ido didn’t draw the plates: they were photographic. Ambidexterous Ido shaded the plates. Two: Ido didn’t do nearly as many of the Rockwells as I had the impression he’d done. Ettinger’s ex-wife Eleanor stole Rockwell and years latter confided to me who the chromists had been: Ido was a minority. Three: Ido looked genuinely shaken when I confided to him years latter that I “knew” the Rockwell signatures were really his. “I wish,” he said.)
In 1977 dealers would pay $500 net for a “real” Calder. They would also pay $375 net for a fake Calder. How could you tell the difference? It was red. It had a yellow triangle on it. Well, I gave one clue above: and even the first printing of that edition I’d guess was probably fake. Nevertheless, I doubt that any of those Calders were what the FBI means by fake. Or maybe it was. A short time later I heard a rumor that the FBI intended to arrest my girlfriend’s husband at the Washington Art Expo. He laid low for the first twenty-four hours, then he was right there, in public, with everyone else for the rest of the time. I don’t know what happened there. Even so, maybe the FBI was distinguishing that company’s first Calder from the company’s second Calder: or the first 150 Calders of the first edition from the second thousand of the first edition …
How can you tell if it’s fake? You can’t. Did you watch Calder paint the maquette? Did you watch the printing? Did you keep from blinking while he signed it. Did you walk out with it under your arm then and there? Have you not slept for watching it since?
One way to get a reasonable guess is to ask where somebody got it from. And don’t answer me “a gallery”; where did they get it? What’s the date of the edition? If it’s before 1977, maybe it’s OK. If it’s after 1977, it’s probably not OK.
I have to tell an important related story on a sidetrack. James Cahill was one of three people in the world able to read Shang Dynasty calligraphy. Chinese farmers were coming to market with something which quickly came to be called dragon bones. It turned out that natural forces, erosion and such, were exposing some long buried bones: the bones that Shang Dynasty priests had burned in fires so they could interpret the omens in the cracking of the bones for the emperor. Like palm reading or tea leaves.
Dr. Cahill was one of the three who could actually read what the priests etched onto the cracked bones. Meantime, the bones were abundant and there was a brisk trade for them for magical purposes:
Naturally, fake dragon bones started getting made left and right. There was one thing though: neither the farmers nor the merchants nor the would-be wizards could read what the bones had actually had written on them: so the fake dragons bones were just scrawled with calligraphic gibberish.
Cahill wants to look at fresh samples. He goes to a market, asks to see dragon bones. He examines each of them, carefully. He informs the merchant that every single dragon bone in the basket was a forgery. The merchant isn’t ashamed; Ah, he says, you want to see real dragon bones. The merchant goes to a back room, produces another basket. Cahill examines each bone in turn. The dragon bones in that basket were 100% genuine. So the question is: if Cahill alone with two others could read Shang calligraphy, how did the merchant know so perfectly which was which?
Maybe he knew his sources.
My girl friend, not quite so well my girl friend anymore (and it had nothing to do with forgery: if you had already slept with her, you wouldn’t care if she and her husband sold indulgences for the Pope), moved into the ‘Apple, same building where Truman Capote gave his famous party. She’d serve my morning coffee in the penthouse garden, York Avenue, looking down on everything else that was uptown. Her rent had to be quadruple what mine was: and I couldn’t afford mine. (One time at her previous house — house? a goddam palace! — I had to write a check with money I owed to Will Barnet or her power would have been off once she got back from driving her daughter to school. $750 overdue to Con Ed! My monthly bill in 1975 was $10 or $12. I gave them $375 and they went away.) But my rent you see was paid by selling the art of friends of mine; her rent was paid by selling brand names (and apparently, fakes of brand names).
And we’re getting close to what, in my view, is wrong. Wrong with everything, fake about almost everything. Brand names … money … commerce … If you have brand names and money and commerce, you’re going to have fakes. (Once I walked into an upscale graphics gallery and there, in a fancy frame, was an egregiously mis-registered Toulouse Lautrec. For Chri’sake it even still had the registration and crop marks on it. the print may have been part of a process where Toulouse Lautrec was the artist, but this print was a reject: the BAT had not yet been arrived at! The print by definition was garbage, worthless. But not in today’s economy: the gallery had priced it at $12,500. The business world’s contempt for the consumer is infinite.) The minute there’s a real religion, you’re going to have fake religions coming out of the woodwork. The minute there’s a Harvard … the community colleges will start to sprout. The minute there’s a real democracy (let’s at least provisionally accept the Iroquois Five Nations as one), the fake will overrun the world.
You want real art? Become an artist. Don’t ever buy art. You want to be stirred by music? Learn to sing, to play. Meet others: it’s infectious. Don’t ever sit like a flower while someone sings or plays on a stage. God, how oppressive.
Barnet, White Stairs
1974 or so, Will Barnet and I were walking up Madison Avenue together.
|“Art has three totally different values,” I said to him.
“First, there’s the value that the artist gains by having done it. This value is inexpressible and absolutely untradable.
Then, there’s the value to the beholder: what I or another feel, think … while engaged with the work. This value too is inexpressible and absolutely un-tradable.
Third, there’s the market value: and the market value has nothing whatever to do with either of the other two values.”
Will liked that. He said he liked it a lot.
Any work of art has three values:
The artist trips over the paint can and falls unconscious across a canvas. Class A Value: zero: I never see it. Class B Value (for me): zero. Somebody palms it onto a museum and takes $500,000 off his taxes: Class C Value: $500,000.
I dabbled in art businesses in 1955 and 1958 as a lark. I came to depend on art businesses from 1973 on simply because the publics of the world have abandoned interest in themselves, their families, their future. A sane public would have supported FLEX starting in 1970. A world savior should not need to earn a living. Not even a would-be world-savior. Ivan Illich should never have had to pay for an airline ticket or for a loaf of bread. The phone company should have paid me to use their phone system for FLEX. The landlord should have paid me to run FLEX in his building rent free. Neighbors should have brought me fruit baskets, should have helped my wife, clothed the kid …
Actually, I don’t believe any one should need to earn a living: other than by keeping their eyes open for the beetle they can pick up and eat, the berry bush when it’s ripe … But we’ve poisoned the beetles, poured concrete on all the bushes … So now money is the only choice.
My girl friend was sensible. She wanted to live in nice places. I wasn’t. I’m not. I don’t want to live in any place anywhere near concrete. Or concert halls. I make my own music now. I don’t paint, but I make this site. I think it looks nice. What it means to me is incalculable, inexpressible. What it means to you …? Well, I get some nice mail. But even so … if traffic were such that my server crashed … even so … that’s incalculable, inexpressible.
OK. We have the kind of art I was selling. Affordable. By mostly young artists. The artists gave me the stuff to try to sell because nobody else wanted it. It was consigned: therefore I could afford to take it. (Then dealers like Billy Hork tell me that he thinks I “bought” some wrong stuff. Come on. I didn’t even buy the bus I drove that was registered in my name. Everything was loaned.) The art dealers who made money in contrast only sold the name on the paper (or canvas). Who gives a shit what it looks like? It’s big name art! Early 1975. I’m trying to sell a Gail Bruce to Jerry Brewster who’s never heard of her. (Already famous in two fields, Gail was trying a third under a new name.) I’ve waited weeks for this appointment (after months of neglecting to getting around to making it. I recognize Jerry from years back at the Whitehorse. I don’t ask him if he recognizes me from around. Some rude clown barges in and pushes between us. “I have the Picasso of 1980!” the guy blurts. “Bring him back in 1979,” says Jerry. Catch the wave as its crests. Don’t ride it all the way from Australia. A couple of years (and a lot of Gail Bruces) later, I quoted Jerry to himself. “Gee, I didn’t know I was that smart,” he grinned.
Rudeness affected Margaret like a bitter taste in the mouth.
It poisoned life. At times it is necessary,
but woe to those who employ it without due need.
Let me throw in another couple of stories. The art on the paper or canvas isn’t the only thing that’s fake. I mentioned above a dozen art galleries in New York owned by one family. Above I identified them as Sephardic Jews. As an art wholesaler almost all my customers, like almost all of their customer, where Jewish. The bulk of the rest were Italian. WASPS rarely buy art. If they do, it’s Rockwell lithographs. My clients may well have believed that Knatz was a Jewish name. At least they didn’t flinch from me, the way one Jewish gal did as I walked into her Christmas party with a German girl. (I tried to settle our hostess down: Kathe Kollwitz lithographs right behind us. “I’m German too,” I said. “No, you’re not.”) Anyway, the bulk of my Jewish clients never let me forget that my one family of clients were Sephardic. They didn’t want me in any way confusing them, the Ashkenazim, reputable businessmen, with the Sephardim.
For instance: my first acquaintance with one of those Arab-Jewish galleries came while walking around at lunch time from my Assistant Directorship at the fancy gallery. We sold stuff for $3,000, $7,000, $15,000 … I’d never spent more than $1 for art: posters at the museum, 24 x 36″ Klee’s or Rouaults from a guy on the sidewalk to tack on the dorm room wall. I notice a graphics gallery “going out of business.” $5 framed Picassos stacked on the sidewalk. I couldn’t figure out why they were still going out of business a month later. Eventually, no longer at that fancy gallery, I went back. The Third Avenue gallery was still going out of business: and I myself bought two framed pieces of art: the only art I have ever bought for myself (other than a hand-hewn coffee cup or a hand-blown wine glass). Tens of thousands of dollars in graphics under my bed, all gifts, almost all with written dedications on them: dedicated to me. By 1978 I was selling to that gallery and to its brothers, sisters, and cousins. Seldom walked in without walking out with $1,200, $1,400 in my pocket: cash.
And now I know a bit of how it worked. 1) they really did go out of business every couple of weeks. The family owned the building. The one brother would incorporate as ABC Corporation, a cousin or in-law handling the legal stuff. ABC leases the space from the family. ABC goes bankrupt two weeks latter, reincorporates as ABC2, buys the lease and the inventory … You wanted to sue them? For fraud? For forgery? They could always stall you till ABC3 had taken over. I say two weeks: it could have been two years. Maybe they never reincorporated till someone was suing them. Maybe they reincorporated each morning at ten. You get the idea.
Now here’s how the rest of how it worked. You’re walking down the street. Either you see the $5 Picassos or the “Going Out of Business” sign. The $5 Picasso has a big sticker “$10 slashed through: $5 below it in bold red. “Everything half price” says the next sign. A step further there’s stacks of stuff: “$50 / $25; $100 / $50 … Before long you were in the middle of the store: “$750 / $375; $1,000 / $500 … I’d talk to the owner of ABC … ABCn in the back. That’s where the multiple original Calders, Miros, and Dalis were hung. Funny: no price tags there at all. Some schmuck lawyer walks to the back, half-price this, half-price that all the way …Gee, he can con a Dali out of these jerks at half price …
Uh, how much is that Dali?
Oh, I got a very good deal on that whole suite. I can give it to you for $1,500. In fact, if you make your mind up today, I’ll give it to you for $1,400.
“Give” it? Harrumph. What the writer of the check doesn’t know is that Hugh, or Frank, or Abe just wholesaled it for $400. It’s a fake. Even real Dalis have been fake for years. Dalis are $1,000 retail. That’s $500 net. Buy enough and we knock off 20% of that: $400. What the writer of some other check doesn’t know is that the Tamerin they bought at “$400 / $200” is on my price list at $175 retail. I sold it to them for 50/20 since they bought a stack. The gallery paid me $70 each. I bought ’em for $20. Half price? That gallery seldom sold anything at half price. Mostly everything was sold way above published retail. If it was at “half price,” that was because they bought a close out. Theoretical retail. $100. Buy the remainder at $5, $10 … Then they really might frame one and sell it for $50.
Ah. And another story. In 1974 I trotted out with Rothes at $350. I get to Chicago. Every other gallery I walked into said, Oh, yeah, I can sell you all you want at $50 net. Get out ‘a here. I say. But sure enough, they’d open the drawers, and there they’d be. They had more Rothe inventory than I had. And I learned why. Gatja sold editions to Lublin, to Nabis … She’d got $1,000 up front … and never saw another penny: though she kept shipping the editions! Nabis goes bankrupt. Artists who’ve never been paid for their work are there bidding against the sharks for their own work. Stuff scheduled to retail at $300, $500 … is going begging at fifty cents each. The world is full of people who’ll buy anything if it seems cheap enough. One guy, another Solomon, said he’d take him to stack after stack. Opened a little gallery. He’s got the Rothes he paid fifty cents for. He’s got them priced at $75. I sell down the block. They put it in the window at $600 framed. So all those galleries in Chicago had Nabis stuff that missed the auction since it was consigned out. Never paid for it? $50 is a fair price to sell it for.
And would you believe? Nabis founder Hugh McKay moves into 15 Gramercy Park South, art fine art place. Guess who paints his duplex for him? That’s right:
By the way, stories of one kind or another are stitched throughout this homepage. But a few art business stories happened to collect as notes to one file in particular: Masks in Evolution.
The money flows around the big names. Therefore a lot of fakes will flow around the big money. QED. What I sold was real art after a fashion. The Rothes were designed and printed: by Rothe. That’s as 100% genuine as multiples can get. The Barnets were designed by Barnet but printed at an atelier. It’s the modern world. The Bruce’s look as good as they did because the sure hand of Charlie Cardinale cut the plates. Some of what Gail did, Charlie couldn’t see and the serigraphs are like a mockery of the cute but very amateurishly painted canvas. One avid collector was buying Bruce after Bruce from me, came from DC to see me in NY: wouldn’t buy them in the DC galleries. They simply had to have an original: meaning a unique original: the paint on the canvas. Boy did I make a mistake. I sold them two: sight unseen: $1,200 and $3,000. Last things I ever sold them. Had to give a refund on one. Gail had forgotten to sign it. The prints were professional. But Gail never touched the prints except to sign them. The “originals” were awful: like a cute story idea but the writing is all misspelled, with bad grammar. The Gail Bruce I met in 1974 would have been ecstatic to sell those paintings for $30 or $50: what they were “worth.” But with the graphics up to $125, $175, $350 … I had to multiply by ten for the canvases. Rue the day.
Consider this. Everyone would love to buy a Van Gogh for $40,000 and sell it to a Jap a year latter to $40,000,000. But if you’d wanted it in 1892, you could have bought it for $4. You could have bought four of them for $4. The painting that the Jap buys for $40,000,000 Van Gogh never saw $4 of. So who has a right to complain about fraud? The FBI? Is there anything more fraudulent than the FBI? Or the American public whole interests it’s supposed to protect? Aren’t those citizens citizens by fraud? By theft? Why should anyone care if a thief buys a forgery?
That’s all I can do for the moment. I hadn’t budgeted time to do so much. It will simply have to stand as a first part of a first draft. I even leave some scrap till I remember how it was supposed to fit:
Most of the art I’ve talked about is art that Art Business New regards as legitimate: not at all fake. I have never (knowingly) sold — or bought — a fake. But I believe it’s fake anyway. Most of what I did in school was fake. Most of what I’ve been forced to do to feed myself is fake. Founding FLEX was genuine. This home page is genuine. I slave at it because I’ve given up on feeding myself.
But I still have more to say, including things to say on real fakes: fakes by the legal definition.
I’m also long overdue to say a few words publicly about the concept of “originality.”
@ K. 2000 10 12
Mind you, I am not attributing guilt for an act all too necessary in a world where sex is denied to the most highly sexed but given in abundance to those past their prime for it. I am saying that the guilt is in the mind of the horny onanist. Reality is 99.9999% mental, subjective.
I was once traveling to Florida with my inventory of mostly $75 to $300 graphics. I stopped at a little gallery on the coast near the border between North and South Carolina. The guy had all Nineteenth-Century drawings, prints, illustrations … Fabulous stuff from my as well as my grandmother’s childhood: stuff for Dickens, Stevenson … to Milne. Mostly all English. $5, $10 … originals!
The guy says Waddyagot to show me? Me? I got nothing at all to show you. I’m gonna show him a Neiman for $1,000? I’m gonna show him a Massie for $75? “I’ll show you one thing,” I say. I pull out a tax shelter etching: $75, retail.
“It’s awful,” he says.
“$75,” I say.
“You can’t sell them for that,” he says.
“Oh, yes I can,” I say. “What do you think buys my gas, my food, as I drive around?”
I explain to him that you can’t possibly market anything for less than $75. You sell it to the gallery for $37.50. It took you an hour. Now you gotta drive to another city … You pick a rock up off the ground. You put it in a box. You gotta sell it for $75. Unless you’re selling lots of them.
The guy wanted to give me an original Nineteenth-Century drawing. Pick any one. Take it. Oh, man! What was I gonna do with it? I’m a seller, not a buyer. I had a trunk full of paper as it was. I declined. Strictly because I was out on the road. Had I been driving home that night, I’d have grabbed it. And thanked him profusely. Genuinely. The Nineteenth Century is far from my shtick, but that stuff, all of it, was precious in its way. And so innocent, compared to us.
Paints His Duplex:
Gatja had the hots for me too for a while but nothing ever really happened (other than buying me the bus). For one thing, it was a girl friend of mine and old friend of hers from Germany who introduced us. For another, it was business, and I was trying to be good for a change. Still another detail may be a story for another time.
When Gatja moved to Carmel CA, she took up with Clint!
But I believe her real love was … certainly not for her late husband, but for Hugh McKay. What really killed me was the girl friend mentioned above telling me that she met Hugh at a party … love at first sight (mutual, she believed, but Hugh looks at all the girls like that). Her side of the love lasted about three seconds. No, it wasn’t that his narcissism finally penetrated — Hugh’s narcissism I don’t doubt was a big part of the lure. Hugh was ignoring the little girl climbing all over him. When “my girl” learned that the cherub he was ignoring was his daughter, all lust left her. At least that’s how she told the story to me.
When I first formed PK Fine Arts, Ltd. I called the manager of a highly successful Arts International in Boston and asked her if she wanted to wholesale my stuff to New England for me. I made Boston my first destination for a sales trip and met with her. She told me of a time when she’d noticed that one of the paintings at Arts International wasn’t signed. She reported it to the home office. When Bob, the supervisor, next visited, he was about to leave when she reminded him that there was a painting that was missing a signature. It would have to be returned to the artist. Bob took the painting into the back room. He brought it back out a minute later. Guess what, folks: a miracle: it was signed! the paint still fresh.