The Fake Frans Hals and Art World Forgery
In 2011, an obscure painting attributed to Dutch Old Master painter Frans Hals entered Sotheby’s orbit. Titled Portrait of a Man, it sold for USD 11.2 million in a private New York sale. Five years later, the portrait’s scandal broke. Technical analyses indicated that the painting was possibly a forgery. Worse, the piece was not the only suspicious Old Master painting to hit the market. The fake Frans Hals case dragged on for years, both in and out of the courtroom. In the meantime, it started a blaze of questions about art world forgery.
November of 2020 marked a tentative end to the Hals scandal with the ruling of a UK appeals court. As the case draws to a close, Auction Daily looks back at the Hals painting’s long and murky history.
Pre-2011 – Christie’s, the Louvre, and the French Government
Before Portrait of a Man rang alarm bells and took over industry newspapers, French art collector Giuliano Ruffini quietly acquired it. He approached Christie’s Paris in 2008 with a request to examine the piece, which he claimed to have purchased from a Spanish dealer. The auction house’s policies allowed for research and examination of such a significant work, especially one without any documented provenance. It was examined by several restoration and museum experts with inconclusive results. The auction house put in a transfer request with the French government to continue assessing the painting in London.
The transfer request attracted the attention of France’s Center for Research and Restoration. After passing under the department’s approving eye, the Hals painting was declared a national treasure that could not be exported. It was instead offered to the Louvre. After the museum declined the purchase— possibly due to the financial crisis of 2008— it fell into the hands of Fairlight Art Ventures. Run by U.S. hedge fund manager and art collector David Kowitz, the London-based company turned around and sold it to collector Mark Weiss for around $3 million.
2011 – Sotheby’s Private Sale
Weiss approached Sotheby’s with the painting in 2011. At the time, there was little cause for concern. Industry experts rejoiced in the prodigal painting’s discovery, and various connoisseurs vouched for its authenticity. “It is not an uncommon phenomenon that old master paintings are not listed in the existing literature,” Quentin Buvelot, a curator at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, later told The New York Times. “One should not forget that the first serious oeuvre catalogs were only made in the 19th century.”
Sotheby’s brokered a private sale on Weiss’ behalf. The painting sold for approximately $11.2 million to Seattle-based collector Richard Hedreen. The case was temporarily closed while Hedreen enjoyed the work and lent it out to local museums.
2016 – A “Modern Forgery”
The Hals painting was thrust back into the spotlight in March of 2016. Another painting from Ruffini’s collection, this time a depiction of Venus attributed to German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach, was seized from the collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein by French authorities. After finding discrepancies, the Cranach was declared a forgery. Now suspicious of the Hals painting, Sotheby’s hired Massachusetts-based art conservation lab Orion Analytical to assess the artwork. The forensic lab offered results in a matter of days: Portrait of a Man was likely a fake.
Sotheby’s quickly reimbursed Hedreen the full price of the painting before filing lawsuits against the original sellers. Around the same time, The Guardian reports that Sotheby’s bought out Orion Analytical to become the first auction house with an in-house conservation and scientific analysis unit.
2019 – Court Rulings and Settlements
The forgery case slowly worked its way through the London court system for years. It returned to news headlines in April of 2019 when dealer Mark Weiss reached a private settlement with Sotheby’s just hours before his London High Court trial. Though he still denied liability for the possible fake, he agreed to pay the auction house an estimated $4.2 million to recoup its losses. A separate suit against Fairlight Art Ventures continued to trial.
The court proceedings were colored by a warrant issued for Ruffini’s arrest in September. Italian police linked the collector to several painters suspected of running a forgery ring. By the end of the year, a British court ruled that Fairlight must reimburse Sotheby’s for its portion of the sale, estimated around $6 million.
2020 – Court Appeals and Possible Resolution
Four years after the alleged forgery first made news, the scandal shows signs of wrapping up. An Italian appeals court rejected the arrest warrants for Ruffini and the possible forger in March, essentially dropping the trail of the possible forgery ring. Fairlight Art Ventures appealed the 2019 court decision, claiming there was no contractual relationship between the company and Sotheby’s. According to The Art Newspaper, it lost the case after the appeals judge ordered Fairlight to pay a net sum of $5.37 million, plus interest and the auction house’s substantial legal fees. As 2020 draws to a close, it appears that the Hals forgery scandal may finally be put to rest.
However, the issues raised by the fake Frans Hals drama are far from resolved. One troubling implication is the auction industry’s heavy reliance on unofficial experts. Ruffini, Weiss, and Fairlight all maintained their innocence throughout the court proceedings. They continue to vouch for the painting’s authenticity based on the positive assessment of connoisseurs. A balance between the experience of experts and the tools of science has yet to be struck in the auction industry, even as more forgeries are popping up.
While the auction world decides how to proceed with these troubling issues, the Hals case serves as a useful reminder to let the buyer— and the seller— beware.
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