Art dealers close ranks in wake of fraud

Jojo Moyes finds the art world in denial and looking for a scapegoat
Privately, dealers and auction houses are admitting that prices will fall. But, faced with a contemporary art scandal stretching back six years and involving top galleries and modern masters, the art world is maintaining a visage as serene as that of the Mona Lisa.

Following revelations in the Independent that fraudsters had tampered with archives at the Tate Gallery and British Council in order to authenticate forgeries produced for sale, police feared that corrupted records could have spread into auction house catalogues.

Despite the discovery of one of Britain's biggest contemporary art frauds, auction houses and dealers maintained that not only could it not have affected them, but that the market wouldn't feel a thing.

Leading auction houses insisted yesterday that their built-in safeguards and extensive independent authentication process rendered them virtually impervious to fraud. One "couldn't think of a single example where an artist's association with fraud had affected their price at auction".

But privately some dealers were advising collectors of Ben Nicholson and sculptor Alberto Giacometti that the market would dip, and that it would be worth them holding on to their works until the "whole thing had been ironed out".

The London art market is a notoriously insular world, and as the art critic Brian Sewell noted last night, in an emergency it always closes ranks. Like the money markets, it is built upon confidence, so a hiccup can easily start a swift downward spiral.

According to Sewell, it is in no one's interest to admit that an extensive fraud has taken place; not the owners themselves, nor the experts, who may have been duped, and certainly not the dealers and auction houses, who may lose money.

"If works were sold to the US you may well end up with a lawsuit on your hands. The whole thing becomes quite unimaginable, so everybody clams up," he said. "In every case I know throughout my working lifetime the response of the art market has been to say `dearie me, it wasn't me who had anything to do with it'."

The reluctance of auction houses to admit that they may have been duped may be partly due to the five-year guarantee offered by many in their terms and conditions, under which, with certain provisos, they will refund the price of a work of art sold through them if it is found to be a fraud.

And just as important as the risk of a flood of claims is that of damage to a reputation in a world that relies on it.

"I wouldn't be happy to put a Nicholson in for sale unless I was 100 per cent happy that it was right because there's the reputation of the auction house, the department and my own reputation. It's a small world and you don't want to be seen to be putting things through that aren't right," said one expert.

But speaking off the record, dealers were more frank. "There will always be things that sneak through. That will happen to museums and auction houses ... for instance just within the four main London houses we're probably seeing somewhere in the region of 8,000 modern British pictures coming up for sale in a year. There will always be people who will attempt these things," said one.

He cited a recent case - "a genuine mistake" - where a work by the Scottish artist James Pride that had featured in major exhibitions of Pride's work was spotted by an elderly artist who identified it as his own work.

And he said that in the case of sculpture, where new casts could be made from moulds that were believed to be destroyed, it was almost impossible without efficient archives to tell what was fraudulent and what was not.

The art world appears to be holding its breath and waiting for the latest art fraud scandal to go away. Fraud is a rude and unaesthetic interjection in a world that prides itself on its appreciation of the finer things - and the easiest answer appears to be to place the blame on those who don't "belong".

"The speculators of the Seventies and Eighties made it easier to introduce fakes," said one expert yesterday. "There's always been an element of speculation, but in the Eighties it fuelled a massive boom with people buying not because they loved art but because they wanted to make a quick buck. They weren't going to look too closely at the provenances, were they?"Many of his clients, he said, had owned their Nicholsons for up to 50 years or had inherited them. They knew exactly what they were and kept them because they loved them; their market would not be shaken by the scandal, he said.

But speculators, he implied, only had themselves to blame.