The forged Mark Rothko painting sold to Domenico De Sole for $8.3 million

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The forged Mark Rothko painting sold to Domenico De Sole for $8.3 million
Credit: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky/Alamy Stock Photo

The murky world of art crime at sea

21 April 2023 • Written by Claire Wrathall

From vanishing classics to convincing fakes, the world of onboard art is rife with murky intrigue. Claire Wrathall shines a light on the real deal...

Moored in the Port Vauban at Antibes, the 72-metre Lürssen Coral Island was in for repairs in March 1999 when a Picasso portrait of the artist’s lover Dora Maar disappeared from one of its suites. A professional art handler had been hired to remove the owner’s art collection – which included not just Buste de Femme, as it was known, but another Picasso and a Matisse – for safekeeping. They were taken down from their secure fixings, carefully wrapped and crated and moved from the saloon in which they hung to a cabin, which was locked but not alarmed. When the art handler returned to collect them five days later, Buste de Femme had vanished.

Credit: Adobe Stock

It is not the only important painting to have gone missing from a yacht. Three years later, in not dissimilar circumstances, Le Nu au Bouquet by Marc Chagall disappeared from a yacht in Savona, Italy. Happily, both were subsequently recovered. The Chagall turned up in a house in Turin 11 years later, and two of the yacht’s crew were arrested and charged. And in 2019 the Picasso came to light in the Netherlands, tracked down by a Dutch detective tipped off that it was being used as collateral in drugs and arms trades. Eventually he was contacted by representatives of a businessman who believed it had been used as payment in a deal. Its last “owner” escaped prosecution on the grounds that he had volunteered its whereabouts, and the painting was returned, wrapped in a black bin bag.

With 24-hour security and sophisticated climate-control and alarm systems, a superyacht may seem like a safe place to keep fine art. And mostly it is. In terms of risk, art is no more likely to be stolen from a yacht than the boat is to sink. Both are eventualities, but thankfully rare.

Statistically, however, you are much likelier to have to claim for damage to art caused by poor packing, clumsy handling, faulty installation or a freak accident – a cork can exit a champagne bottle at speeds of up to 80km/h – than theft, which is why the high-profile cases make headlines.

Credit: Winch Media

As Robert Read, head of art and private clients at the international insurance specialist Hiscox, points out: “Looking at claims over a 20-year period, only about 25 per cent result from theft.” And a painting is always going to be more vulnerable in a house than it is on a well-secured boat at sea. But that is not to say the art world isn’t bedevilled by crime. There are currently more than 52,000 works on Interpol’s Stolen Works of Art database and most stolen art is never recovered. 

Indeed, according to the US Department of Justice and UNESCO, art crime, which it defines as theft, fraud, looting and trafficking, is the third-highest-grossing criminal trade after drugs and arms. Marc-André Renold, professor and UNESCO’s chair in the international law of the protection of cultural heritage, notes that the black market is flourishing, due to “shortcomings in legislation, complicity in the sector, an increase in looting in countries in conflict situations and the development of online sales platforms” – all driven by “the keen interest of buyers” who want to believe the art they are buying is being sold legitimately.

Take fakes. It is only human nature to believe that the painting you’ve fallen in love with is the real deal. But it’s not unusual for yacht owners, wary of the dangers that humidity, heat and guests can pose, to commission near-indistinguishable copies of the art they own so that they can enjoy them on the water.

Nothing wrong with that, of course, but if you admire something, and its owner offers to sell it to you, take note. It is critical they produce a cast-iron provenance, what Special Agent Brian Brusokas of the FBI’s art crime team defines as a “chain of custody on each piece to find out where the art came from originally. Was it obtained directly from an estate, for example? This information provides a way to double-check the piece’s history instead of just relying on the certificate of authenticity.”

Brusokas was instrumental in breaking a counterfeiting ring that was supplying unscrupulous dealers with prints bearing “false numerical and other markings” that ostensibly authenticated them as works by Chagall, Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró and Andy Warhol, whose signatures they bore. He advises prospective buyers to research the dealer carefully, be wary of those who only sell online, and, if in doubt, seek guidance from the artist’s foundation or studio.

Credit: YPI

Even a respectable-seeming CV should not necessarily be taken at face value. The plaintiff in the above case was eventually indicted on wire fraud, as (among other charges) was Inigo Philbrick, a young American art dealer with what looked like an exemplary CV. He had worked at the blue-chip gallery White Cube, rising to head of secondary sales, and so impressed its founder, Jay Jopling, that Jopling had invested in the gallery Philbrick set up, which handled works by the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Donald Judd, Yayoi Kusama, Rudolf Stingel and Christopher Wool. He would sell the same works of art, as well as fractional shares totalling more than 100 per cent, to multiple investors, using the works as collateral on loans in a kind of Ponzi scheme.

Arrested in Vanuatu in the South Pacific in 2020, he was eventually extradited and brought to justice in New York last year. In addition to repaying $86,672,790 (£71m) in restitution to his victims, many of whom will never recover their losses, and forfeiting two paintings, one by Christopher Wool, the other by Wade Guyton, Philbrick is now serving a seven-year jail sentence. When asked by the judge what his motivation had been, his reply was: “The money, your honour.” 

Fraudster Inigo Philbrick
Credit: Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

If Philbrick was a chancer, a reputable gallery can be counted on to have done its due diligence and to stand by both its clients and the artists it represents. In the event that someone turns out to have been duped, redress will be sought. In May 2022, for example, Pace, the gallery from which the owner of Coral Island bought Buste de Femme, as well as the one brought in to authenticate it once it had been recovered, pressed charges against the owner of a drawing it had bought for $2 million, believing it to be the work of the 19th-century pointillist Georges Seurat. The drawing had been brought to them by a man named Jean-Pierre Seurat, who purported to be the artist’s grandson. The gallery later discovered the artist had no grandchildren, and sued for “wilful malice and abuse and intent to damage”. The case is ongoing.

There is no doubt the world is full of “replica” art. The village of Dafen near Shenzhen in China was once believed to have produced 60 per cent of the world’s oil paintings and continues to knock out thousands of highly convincing Impressionist and Abstract Expressionist canvases. But unless copyright laws have been infringed, this is not in itself illegal. As the convicted British forger Shaun Greenhalgh, some of whose creations were so convincing they fooled experts at the British Museum, has written, “A ‘copy’ only becomes a ‘fake’ when it is knowingly misrepresented as being a work by a particular artist or age, when in fact it is no such thing”. (Greenhalgh’s autobiography, A Forger’s Tale, written during the 56-month prison sentence he served, is a fascinating insight into the murkier reaches of the art world.)

Credit: NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

So when in 2016 Domenico De Sole, formerly of Gucci, then chairman of Sotheby’s and now chair of Tom Ford International, testified in the US District Court in New York over the fake Rothko he had paid $8.3 million for 12 years earlier, it was the by-then-closed gallery Knoedler and its former president (who had sold it to him), that he was suing for $25 million, and not the creator of the painting. In the end the defendants settled, and the terms were never disclosed.

When De Sole bought the not-Rothko, he had been intending to buy a painting by Sean Scully, whose large-format abstracts now realise seven figures at auction. A work ostensibly by Scully was consigned to Bonhams in New York in 2017 and, seeking information on the work, the auction house emailed an image to the artist, who didn't recognise it. It was clearly in his style, but as he told The New York Times, “The composition was off. It was too symmetrical”. Scully alerted the New York Police Department; an investigation was launched and the consignor, a former employee of the artist, was arrested and accused of stealing works, arranging them as a single work composed of three panels, and with creating a fake provenance. The paintings from which the set had been made and the signature were the artist’s – but the triptych it was being sold as was not his creation.

Of course, auction houses are as anxious to sell only what is genuine as collectors are to buy the real thing. So even when a misattributed painting is unwittingly sold as something it’s not, the buyer has redress. When, for example, Sotheby’s sold a painting it believed to be the work of Frans Hals and it turned out to contain modern pigments that suggested it was, in fact, a forgery, the auction house rescinded the sale, reimbursed the client in full and sued the vendor.

Buy from a reputable auction house or a gallery whose name you know – in other words, an institution that can’t afford to lose its reputation – and in the event that the art is not what it seemed, at least you’ll get your money back. You need to be certain what you’re buying and whom you’re buying from. And never forget that all-important maxim: caveat emptor!

First published in the May 2023 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.


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