As a journalist who has also owned an art gallery for over 27 years, I have lived in and around the art market a long time. I already had knowledge of the forgery and shady dealings happening in the art world before watching the new documentary Driven to Abstraction. Produced, directed, and edited by Daria Price, the film, which was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at London’s Raindance Film Festival, follows one of the biggest art scandals of the last 100 years. Famed New York art gallery Knoedler, its gallery director Ann Freeman, and art dealer Ramiro Gonzales were implicated in a case where, for 15 years starting in 1994, 40 counterfeit pieces of art were sold for a total in excess of 60 million dollars. Presented as originals by some of the great artists of the 20th century including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Willem de Kooning, they found their way into collections across the world, with Freeman declaring them as authentic, offering up lists of experts who had ‘looked at’ the art, suggesting they had authenticated them.
The story is a fascinating one for those who don’t know the art market. For those on the inside, including dealers, art journalists, and gallery owners, it is more or less ‘same stuff, different day’.
One thing you may or may not notice is that while the journalists interviewed attempt to examine all sides of the case, it seems clear none of them believe Freeman was an innocent dupe. There’s good reason for that. Watching the interviews with industry insiders like Senior Market Reporter for ArtNet News Eileen Kinsella, Vanity Fair Contributing Editor Michael Shnayerson, art dealer James Kelly, Robb Report art journalist Judd Tully, and art dealer and former Art Dealers Association of America board member Martha Parrish, you can read between their words. I suspect, like me, they all know Freeman was guilty as sin.
I have to agree with Martha Parrish, who is the most damning in her statements about Freeman and the Knoedler Gallery’s guilt. She says that no gallery director or owner with any integrity would attempt to resell a piece whose authenticity has been called into question, and no gallery with integrity would withhold a refund from a piece that had been proven as fake. One of the things I tell my own gallery clients is that a certificate of authenticity is only as good as the gallery supplying it. If you buy a piece of art and discover it isn’t what you were told, the gallery should return your money, but they often don’t. What recourse does a buyer have? Sue them for it?
Everything in art is about provenance. The sketchier and more veiled in secrecy the history of the piece is, the faster you should run from the deal. It is 100% the responsibility of the dealer to do their due diligence and confirm without any doubt that what they are representing is authentic. On the other hand, art collectors are incredibly trusting. I can’t tell you the number of times the people I talk to assume that if art is in an auction, it must be authentic. That’s just not true. As a vintage animation art expert, I’ve seen more misrepresentations in auctions, even the most reputable ones, that I could count.
My point is everyone in the art world knows how much fraud and misrepresentation there is in the business, regardless of the genre of art. But, of course, the rest of the world doesn’t. That’s what will make Driven to Abstraction interesting for everyone from the most amateur to the most sophisticated art collector. It has got to be eye-opening to see representatives of one of the most prestigious art galleries in the US get embroiled in a 60 million dollar fraud case. If you want to know just how dirty the world of fine art is, read the wiki page for arguably the most powerful gallery in the world, Gagosian Gallery (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gagosian_Gallery) and the article about art dealer Inigo Philbrick, who got his start at famed London-based White Cube Gallery (https://news.artnet.com/art-world/inigo-philbrick-lawsuit-1699095) I could list hundreds of such examples. It’s why so much high-priced art is bought by people seeking to launder money. The powerful few at the top of the art business do not benefit in any way from transparency.
Daria Price is to be commended for bringing this story to a broader audience through her film, and exposing the underbelly of the fine art market. As to her execution, more cinematic invention and less use of static talking heads would have given the documentary more appeal. The story is about the art world, after all, and a more creative, artistic approach certainly would have been appreciated by her target audience. Also, consideration of the fact that this story is centered on two women, in an business in which women are rarely at the center, would have added a valuable facet to the story.
3 out of 5 stars.