Finally, a documentary has arrived about the infamous Knoedler scandal; Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art. The tale’s basic premise is how the venerable Knoedler gallery — which had been in business for an unheard of 165 years — was forced to close after they got caught selling fake Motherwells, Rothkos, and Pollocks. Without spoiling the story, it turned out that all of the participants were equally guilty. Knoedler ignored an absurd backstory about the collection of Abstract Expressionist paintings they bought and sold, which should have raised an abundance of red flags. The collectors become entrapped in the classic axiom; “If it seems too good to be true…” Ultimately, for all parties involved, it came down to a case of greed exceeding rationality.
The buyers claimed they were snookered because they relied on the gallery’s good reputation. There was some truth to that. Art collecting has always been about the integrity of who you do business with. Given Knoedler’s elite status, there was seemingly little reason to doubt their word. Then again, as the film reveals, the collectors were wealthy and sophisticated individuals. When they were presented with a provenance that could not be verified, they should have known better.
Made You Look serves as a reminder that the art market is unregulated. As prices for blue-chip paintings continue to increase, the more the art world leaves itself open to deception. The key to buying investment quality art is first-hand knowledge. It’s important to study not only the artist you’re trying to acquire, but the context the work was created in. If you’re interested in buying an Andy Warhol, it behooves you to learn not only all you can about his paintings, but about Pop art. You need to see how a specific work fits into his career and art history. You also need to research who you’re buying the picture from, regardless of whether it is an auction house, gallery, private dealer — or even online. But most of all, you need to rely on your own judgement. The way you come to trust your visual perception is “to look a lot.” Finally, never forget what happened with Knoedler; there was a reason why they Made You Look.