No one want to be fooled, unfortunately, people are fooled by art more than we expected. Art collectors, museums director, and art lovers are terrified by the possibility that a prized work of art might actually be a worthless forgery. And yet, despite the best efforts of connoisseurs to fight against these impostors, fake artworks masquerading as masterpieces continue to hit the market. The new Netflix documentary titled Made You Look exposes the most successful forgery art scam in American history. This movie offers to the spectator a privileged insight into an $80m deception that duped some of the world’s highest-profile experts, collectors, and museums. The director Barry Avrich describes with original interviews the demise of Knoedler, New York’s oldest commercial art gallery.
Unknown canvas by Mark Rothko © Melbar Entertainment Group
The Netflix documentary Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art, is a fascinating depiction of the various dealers, collectors, and gallery owners who found themselves involved in the largest art scam of the 20th century. At the centre of the early-2000s scandal were Ann Freedman, former director of Manhattan’s prestigious Knoedler Gallery, and Glafira Rosales an art dealer from Staten Island. The Spanish art dealer revealed to Ann to have access to a treasure of previously unknown Abstract Expressionism artwork by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. The relationship between the two women began with the purchase of an unknown canvas by Mark Rothko and develops over time leading to the galleries' acquisition of numerous works by the most renewed artists of the 20th century. The scam devised by Glafira started in 1995 when the first masterpiece was sold and ended only in 2010 when the woman was found guilty of multiple charges. While the art dealer was found responsible, Ann and the Gallery owner were not prosecuted by the authority. However, the scandal and the 11 lawsuits led to the closure of the art gallery after 165 years from its opening. The FBI discovered that Pei-Shen Qian, a Chinese citizen and math professor, was the skilled imitator behind the masterpiece sold at the Knoedler gallery. He was an accomplished painter in China (where the art of imitation is considered not a scandal but a fine-art specialty) whose career as a painter never took off in the US.
Defendant Ann Freedman. Photo: Elizabeth Williams, courtesy ILLUSTRATED COURTROOM
Director Barry Avrich illustrates an intriguing psychological portrait of a collective of sophisticates (whether victims or unwitting accomplices) so seduced by the sought-after art in question, they had become genuinely oblivious to the not-so-subtle flaws. What make this documentary interesting is the extensive participation of Ann Freedman, the former Knoedler director who was tricked into handling the sales of more than 60 fake artworks provided by Glafira Rosales. However, in this film there is a lack of interviews with the people who matter most. Unlike Avrich’s documentary (Driven to Abstraction, released in 2019), this one does not include an interview with Freedman, which means the former owner of the gallery never gets to defend himself. Most of Price’s interviews are with journalists, art observers, verification experts, and attorneys.
Art history is rife with high profile scams, in 1974 the documentary titled F for Fake for instance exposed the notorious Elmyr de Hory career as a professional art forger, who claims to have sold over a thousand art forgeries to reputable art galleries all over the world. In recent years Frans Hals portrait sold in 2011 in a private sale through London dealer Mark Weiss for $10 million was unfortunately refunded by Sotheby’s after the investigation of Williamstown, a Massachusetts-based company, found modern-day materials in the canvas.
Dutch artist Frans Hals that sold for a reported £8.5m who has been declared fake. ©Sotheby’s
Made You Look shows you that to be fascinated by a fake canvas is to exist in an innocent state of foolish grace. It is to believe nothing but your eyes. Many of the experts interviewed in the documentary keep saying of Freedman she should have known better and she should have researched it more. In a sense, you cannot argue with them. Yet what Freedman was seduced by was not just profit and fame. It was the incandescent thrill of discovering new works and bringing them into the world.