Filmmaker Barry Avrich’s latest documentary delves into the biggest art scandal in American history – which involves what was the oldest art gallery in New York and $80 million worth of forged works.
Made You Look: A Story About Fake Art explores how the prestigious Knoedler & Company, which had been around for 165 years before it was forced to close, unwittingly procured and sold more than 60 Abstract Expressionist canvases that were supposedly created by renowned artists like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning, but turned out to be fakes.
We caught up with Avrich, who also directed David Foster: Off the Record and Prosecuting Evil, about the fascinating story and art crime documentary, which just premiered on Netflix.
After watching your film, I have to say I’m still perplexed by how Knoedler, this prominent gallery that had been around for 165 years, sold multiple fakes – resulting in over $80 million of profit, and not know it.
BA: Well, that’s the greatest question ever. It’s a hard one to answer and ultimately, results in the alchemy of avarice and desperation and being susceptible to a great con. The story had everything. It just kept giving. It was quite something.
What was your reaction when you first learned about the scandal?
BA: Well, a friend of mine who’s an art collector alerted me to the story. I was aware of it. But, being a collector and being somebody that’s sort of been in the periphery of the art world for a long time, I was well aware that fakes are being sold constantly, and there are galleries and museums around the world that knowingly and unknowingly have them on their walls, in their vaults, and in their collections – and nobody really wants to talk about it. So I wasn’t shocked. I was shocked that it went on for so long. You would think that if you’re a con artist and you went in and that you were able to con the Knoedler Gallery on one or two pieces, you would get the hell out of Dodge, but to keep this moving for ten years was insane. That’s what certainly surprised me enormously. I was incredibly fortunate to get Ann Freedman, who ran the Knoedler Gallery, and had one of the most pristine reputations in the art world, to sit down with me and then unfold her whole story here, because she just was not giving interviews.
Was she hesitant to share her side of the story for the documentary?
BA: Very. It took a lot of wine soaked lunches and dinners at The Mark Hotel in New York to gain her trust and to persuade her. I think, ultimately, what persuaded her and got her on side was the fact that I said to her that this is going to be a feature length film. So unlike American Greed, or a 60 Minutes segment, which is going to be 12 minutes, you got 90 minutes to tell your side of story. I cannot guarantee that the public will believe it. I cannot guarantee that this film will be your vindication. However, this is your opportunity to tell your story. Otherwise, the only thing that people are going to find when they Google you from now till the end of time will be the fact that you were the epicenter of a scandal and great doubt. That might still continue, but you will have your side recounted in the film. And so she agreed. We spent, I think, probably close to 40 hours filming her.
And after making the film, do you have an opinion on whether or not she knew?
BA: You know, it’s interesting. Every time we finished shooting, the crew, we would go for dinner and vacillate on one session with her. She believed they were real. Let’s give her the benefit of doubt. The next session would be got to be guilty. We went back and forth constantly, as I think people do when they watch the film. But the bottom line, for me, is that I do not believe that she entered into this in any sort of Machiavellian plan of deception or that she was the architect of the scam and this con. I do believe she should have known better halfway in or a quarter of the way in. And said, Oh, this is a real problem. But as this sort of archaeologist, this academic who wants to find the answers and keep searching and did believe in her 40 year career that art is found discovered all the time, she wanted to believe it. The troublesome thing, for me, is that the fakes that were being revealed still were coming from the same seller, this Glafira Rosales, and her partner, Carlos Bergantiños, the father of her child. That, to me, was the big red flag. That was the big issue. So, I think she should have known better ultimately, because this cost her her reputation forever.
It was pretty shocking that despite not having much “provenance” (the paper trail of its history and ownership), and many having glaring mistakes, these pieces from renowned artists were still declared real by art experts. I mean, how does that happen?
BA: Ultimately, Nicole, this was good for everyone. Not it being a scandal or a con, but it was good that there were discoveries because everybody was making money – the dealers, the art consultants, the experts, the authenticators, the foundations. This just was really good because it was putting Rothko, Pollock, de Kooning, Diebenkorn, all these great Abstract Expressionist artists back in the headlights, in a good way – because this stuff was selling and getting tremendous numbers. And so you go, okay, well, if I own a Motherwell, it’s worth this much more. If I represent a collector, it’s worth this much more. It was good for everybody. I always said in this film, there’s so much blame to go around. It’s easy to say Ann Freedman is the villain – or Glafira Rosales – but everybody sort of has to accept some blame here on the end of it. The experts that had said it was a real all sort of rushed back to say, well, I never really said it was real. I said that it looked good. She didn’t really show it to me properly. It was on a floor, she sent me an email. Everybody sort of ran for the hills with this at the end of the day.
How did this scandal impact the art world – if it did at all?
BA: Not at all. That’s the sad point. I think that maybe, because it’s a headline that people were buying art of the moment, in the moment when the scandal unfolded in The New York Times and Vanity Fair were covering voraciously. Or maybe went back if they were in the midst of buying a piece and said better double check here. And maybe more people will check now that this documentary has some heat on it. But, ultimately, people who want art want it – and they have to have it. It’s trophy collecting, it’s status seeking. When you have that kind of art, they love entertaining, they love walking around their home and showing you that I have a Rothko, I have a Pollock. It says you’ve arrived and that you’re a serious collector. So if people want it, they want it. I’ve always said that people should buy art with their eyes and not their ears. Because the biggest problem in the art world, for me, is art consultants who have trained their clients to buy art because it’s important for them to have it – versus don’t you just love it?
Is there anything that you hope that people will take away from the film?
BA: That’s it. Buy art because you love it, buy art because of the way it makes you feel. It doesn’t matter whether it’s expensive, it doesn’t matter whether it’s valuable, doesn’t even matter if it’s going to appreciate value. The point of it is that you want to walk in, especially during COVID time, art, for me, is a great salvation. I can walk into my home or my office, and I don’t have millions of dollars of art, but I can walk in and I can look at pieces. I’m looking at a beautiful piece right now. And I get lost in it as I’m talking to you. And that’s what art does. It’s an escape, just like a book or a movie. You shouldn’t buy it because it’s an investment.
And what will you be focusing on next?
BA: Specifically with Made You Look, we’re developing it as a scripted series, a limited series, so a lot of my attention is focused on that right now.
For more information, visit www.netflix.com.