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edge staff writer


‘Made You Look: A True Story of Fake Art’ paints a vivid picture

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At the top, fine art is big business.

One can argue about the ethical, moral and other ramifications that come with putting a price tag on creative work, but regardless of argument, there’s no disputing that the world of high-end art is one that is driven as much by economics as by aesthetics.

And any time there’s that kind of money involved, you can bet that there will bad actors seeking to cash in.

“Made You Look: A True Story of Fake Art” is a documentary devoted to relating the tale of the largest known art fraud case in United States history. Over the course of decades, dozens of forged works of art were moved through a famed New York City gallery. These paintings – ostensibly by noted Abstract Expressionists – would be sold to unsuspecting patrons for a total of over $80 million.

Written and directed by Barry Avrich, “Made You Look” – currently streaming on Netflix – walks the viewer through the long-running scam, introducing us to many of the principals along the way, as well as an assortment of experts. He paints a picture (sorry) of the vagaries of the art world, illustrating just what can go wrong when something that seems too good to be true is taken at face value – even if that face is an undeniably beautiful one.

In 1995, Ann Freedman had been working at the famed Knoedler Gallery – one of the oldest continually operating art galleries in the country – for years. And then one day, the biggest opportunity of her career came walking through the door in the form of Glafira Rosales. Rosales, an art dealer from Long Island, wanted to sell a painting, a heretofore unknown canvas by the famed Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko. It was a beautiful piece – and the price tag of $750,000 was a steal for such a find.

There was some weirdness surrounding the situation. The provenance of the painting – vital to assure authenticity – was tricky; Rosales claimed that the person engaging her to sell his collection had purchased all of his work directly from the artists during their mid-century ascents. It sounded dicey, to be sure, but when Freedman showed the painting to various Rothko experts, the consensus was that it was legit.

Over the next 20-plus years, Freedman bought some 60 more paintings from Rosales, all ostensibly from the collection of this singular mysterious art lover, all at deep discounts. The list reads like a who’s-who of Abstract Expressionism – Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell, Clifford Still and more – and all of it was previously unknown work.

And none of it was real.

They were all forgeries from the brush of a single artist, a Chinese national math professor and painter living in Queens named Pei-Shen Qian. He passed on the work to Rosales and her shady art dealer boyfriend, who in turn took it to Freedman and so on and so on. One man, crafting works to emulate a dozen different artists and doing it credibly. Unethical? Sure. Impressive? Absolutely.

The whispers of fraud never really stopped, though plenty of well-respected historians and dealers would give these paintings the thumbs-up over the years. And when it all came to a head, the reverberations echoed through an entire industry.

What followed was years of chaos in the art world. It was bad enough that Freedman and the owners of the Knoedler were facing massive criminal and civil charges. But if a pillar of the industry like the Knoedler Gallery could be involved in fraud, then is there anyone you can really trust? It’s an open secret that there are already a not-insignificant number of fakes and forgeries hanging in museums and esteemed private collections; no one wants to tug at those threads too hard for fear of where they might lead.

Throughout it all, Ann Freedman claims that she had no knowledge of the scheme, that she had been operating in good faith the entire time. The vast majority of the others interviewed for the film believe otherwise, all of them offering variations on “she either knew or is incredibly stupid.” This group includes art experts, former clients and more (like the brilliant and delightful psychologist Maria Konnikova). And yet some of the same people condemning her had plenty of their own opportunities to deem the works fraudulent … and did not.

What Avrich does so cleanly in “Made You Look” is illuminate different aspects of this world that many of us may not be familiar with. He explores the consequences of this kind of art monetization. He critiques the sometimes too-subjective work of art experts. Plus, he allows room for those moments where art is simply about art, the idea that while money can lead people astray, so too can the pursuit of beauty. Merging such disparate ideas could have been a tonal mess, but Avrich navigates it with seeming ease, capturing the contradictory dissonance that is central to the film.

In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats wrote “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” One would hope that in the world of art of all places, that sentiment would be accurate. And yet, thanks to dual audacities of greed and pride, that surety is severed. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but wherein lies truth?

You can’t make this stuff up. Mysteries within mysteries, secrets atop secrets. “Made You Look” takes you inside this massive scandal, one that reveals just how precarious is the house of cards atop which the high-end art world rests. It is a compelling story well-told, an engaging and entertaining watch.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Thursday, 25 February 2021 13:51


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