The Knoedler's Meltdown: Inside the Forgery Scandal and Federal Investigations

"The works are of a five-star quality. Maybe a few are four-star, but mostly five-star, which is why they've stirred such attention," Ann Freedman, former director of the Knoedler gallery, tells contributing editor Michael Shnayerson of the recent David Herbert collection.
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"The works are of a five-star quality. Maybe a few are four-star, but mostly five-star, which is why they've stirred such attention," Ann Freedman, former director of the Knoedler gallery, tells contributing editor Michael Shnayerson of the David Herbert collection in the May issue of Vanity Fair. Touted by Freedman as one of the great troves of unknown Abstract Expressionist works, the collection instead brought scandal to the venerable Knoedler, which shut its doors last November amid allegations it sold forgeries, including the threat of a lawsuit from Pierre Lagrange, a London hedge-fund executive. (Knoedler has said that the closing was a business decision unrelated to the Lagrange suit.) Shnayerson investigates the events that brought such a bizarre and sudden end to what was, not so long ago, one of the world's best-known art galleries and a New York institution.

According to Freedman, the paintings--attributed to painters including Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Newman--came to the gallery from Glafira Rosales, a Long Island woman virtually unknown in the art world, who claimed to represent an anonymous owner. Rosales is now a subject of investigations by the F.B.I. and the U.S. Attorney's Office, which has impaneled a grand jury. Untitled 1950, a painting attributed to Jackson Pollock, was among the works that were sold by Knoedler for tens of millions of dollars without ever being authenticated. "Because we haven't yet sorted out the provenance doesn't mean there's no provenance," Freedman says.

"I mean, maybe three weren't catalogued," says one dealer, commenting on the fact that no records exist of any of the David Herbert paintings. "But 20?" Another dealer says, "There was always incredulity among dealers. What the fuck is that?" "Professional jealousy is not charming," Freedman responds.

"I want my money and I want it now," Freedman recalls London hedge-fund multi-millionaire Pierre Lagrange telling her after the authenticity of the painting he bought, Untitled 1950, came into question. (It was found to contain pigments that weren't commercially available until 14 years after Pollock's death.) She recalls telling Lagrange, "Let's see what we can do to help one another in this." He remembers that Freedman said, "The painting is perfect." He says he told her, "It's so perfect I can't sell it." Lagrange also remembers Freedman's suggestion that she could find another buyer. "You can't sell it pretending there's no problem," he says he told her. "Even if I get my money back, it's completely unfair to the other collector. And in the end I'm going to get sued." Freedman tells Vanity Fair that she believed the Pollock to be genuine--for Lagrange, or any other collector. "It's quite extraordinary to hear her version of the truth," Lagrange says. "She contradicts herself; then, even when you point it out, she doesn't waffle." Fearing a lawsuit, Knoedler agreed to give Lagrange his money back. However, the gallery owned only 50 percent of Untitled 1950; the other 50 percent belonged to a Canadian collector who preferred not to give his half of the purchase price back.

Freedman included a slip of paper listing the names of 12 art scholars who had viewed the Pollock in attempt to shore up its credibility, though none of the scholars performed a formal examination or authentication--they merely saw it. "I can't just cold-canvass an art historian and say, 'Would you please come in and look at my Pollock?'" Freedman says. Instead, when a scholar wandered into Knoedler for some other reason, she would lead him upstairs to see her Pollocks. "She says the scholars seemed to like them. They said nice things," Shnayerson reports. She calls the slip of paper a "private memo. I regret that anyone's name had to be put on the list without any forewarning," she says.

Jaime Frankfurt, a longtime New York dealer who acted as one of the middlemen on the sale to Lagrange, recalls that Freedman told him, "There's going to be a supplement to the catalogue raisonné. I'm actually in touch with the people at the Pollock-Krasner, who are going to be taking over the reins of the foundation." Shnayerson reports that, according to court documents, "Tim Taylor, Lagrange's English dealer, is equally sure that at a subsequent meeting in London Freedman told him the same thing."

Freedman denies that. She admits lobbying the foundation to update the catalogue raisonné. But, she says, she never suggested to Frankfurt or Taylor that this was a done deal, or that Lagrange's Pollock would be in it.

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