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Sunset, 1916-1918, from the “Canyon Suite.”  But who painted it? The 5 Million Dollar Question:  deliberate fraud or accidental misattribution? 

Sunset, 1916-1918, from the “Canyon Suite.”  But who painted it? The 5 Million Dollar Question:  deliberate fraud or accidental misattribution? 

By Dale Dalenberg, M.D.

March 2, 2014

Ok, I know this is supposed to be the popular literature blog, which means science fiction, mystery, westerns, and the like.  But, I’ve been doing this for over a year, and I think it is time to re-introduce Dalenberg’s Context Theory of Art Criticism, which I originally set forth in an article I wrote for the family literary newsletter back in September, 2000. But current events cry out for a re-introduction of my concepts, which I intend to return to from time to time in this blog.  By current events, I am referring to the ignominious demise of the once-venerable art house of Knoedler and Company on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. 

It turns out that Knoedler and Company has been selling art forgeries.  Some Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko pieces, among others, ended up being sold for millions of dollars that later turned out not to be the real thing.  How many stupid rubes have you overheard at art museums looking at modern art and muttering “What makes that art–I could draw something like that” ?  Well, apparently somebody did just that, and then they passed it off as the real thing.  Maybe the ignoramuses you overheard at the art museum aren’t so stupid after all.  Maybe one of them took the idea home and turned it into money.  I don’t think Knoedler and Company meant to sell art forgeries.  They were legitimate art dealers.  But they hadn’t read my article in the year 2000, and they hadn’t thought long and hard about these issues.  They could have. As long ago as 1993, modern artist Richard Diebenkorn’s family informed Knoedler and Company that some Diebenkorn drawings they were selling may not be genuine.  The problem isn’t that Knoedler and Company were intentionally perpetrating art frauds.  The likelihood is that they just got so wrapped up in the money aspect of the art deals (big money) that they let down their guard.  Now, they have a spate of big investors suing them for failing to vet the authenticity of works that they sold, and their once venerable name has gone to the dogs.   

The topic of art forgery is vast and interesting, and it is not as simple a story as you might think.  For instance, what is the difference between a forgery or a clever, well-executed homage to a famous artist’s work?  Is it a forgery if a work from a famous artist’s student gets accidentally attributed to the master?  What about forgeries that got so famous that they themselves inspired forgeries?  (That has actually happened, believe it or not.)  Were the works of the ancient Romans forgeries of the Greeks?  Or were they masterpieces in their own right? 

My interest isn’t specifically in art forgeries.  But my interest is in what forgeries teach us about art criticism and value of art in general. 

Now that I’ve invoked the recent forgeries that have destroyed Knoedler and Company, let’s go back to what I had to say in 2000, and lay the groundwork for Dalenberg’s Context Theory of Art Criticism.  Perhaps I won’t be able to say it all in this one blog, but the general, guiding principal of Dalenberg’s Theory is that most of what gives art value, indeed most of what makes art Art, subsists in its context, not in any inherent feature of the work.  This is not a put-down of modern art, or of any art.  It is just an important fact to know as we try to interpret, appreciate, understand, value, and create art.  And by art, I am referring to all the arts, from plastic arts, to music, to literature, to film. If we understand Dalenberg’s Context Theory, we just might be able to avoid spending millions on a forgery.  At the same time, we can begin to glean the difference between a Jackson Pollock and a 5-year-old’s scribblings that are magneted to the refrigerator at home.  

The legitimate art world is generally oblivious to Context Theory, and in fact is often actively threatened by such a theory.  Unfortunately, there is a lot of art in museums that would lose respect and be considered trash if we applied the principles of my context theory.  In fact, that just happened.  A tantalizing piece appeared in the newspaper only this week. As quoted in the Kansas City Star on Feb. 20, 2014:  “A cleaning woman in Bari, Italy, unwittingly threw away contemporary artworks that were supposed to be part of an exhibition.  Her boss said the woman ‘was just doing her job’ when she removed two artworks, including one involving pieces of cookies scattered on the floor.”  Dalenberg’s Context Theory understands this situation implicitly.  The cleaning woman threw away the artworks because she didn’t recognize them as art. She wasn’t aware of the context of the trash she was discarding.  The broken cookies were not art for her, because she had not been apprised of the context in which broken cookies scattered on the floor were to be interpreted.  For her, they were trash.  Someday, I’ll write a whole essay about why the broken cookies episode speaks volumes about the value of art and what makes art Art.  But for now, you get the basic point, which is:  Context informs the value and meaning of art far more than any innate features of the art. 

There were two big events in the art world in 1999-2000 that got me thinking about this topic.  Since then, I’ve had my notions reinforced in a thousand ways, from attending local galleries to something as seemingly unrelated as reading Glenn Gould’s comments on music, to the Knoedler and Company mess.  The events in 1999-2000 involved two modern artists and works of theirs that fell into questionable provenance:  Richard Diebenkorn (of whom, incidentally,  Knoedler and Company were major dealers) and Georgia O’Keeffe. 

In 1999, the art world received the shattering and embarrassing news of the questionable authenticity and provenance of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Canyon Suite watercolors. Those works were venerated as important rediscovered O’Keeffe’s until they were suddenly devalued as frauds.  The 90’s were good times for O’Keeffe and her legacy.  The opening of the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe was a historical event.  O’Keeffe was one of the few names in fine art who was almost a household word. 

But let’s divert from O’Keeffe for a second to talk about e-Bay, the Internet auction company.  During the same general time frame as the Canyon Suite debacle, there was some publicity over an ugly green and orange abstract expressionist painting that was put on auction on e-Bay.  The seller offered the story that he had purchased it at a garage sale in the Bay area.  Photos were put on-line showing the initials R.D. in a lower corner of the painting.  This stimulated furious bidding, because bidders were willing to speculate that this was a previously unknown work by San Francisco artist Richard Diebenkorn, whose paintings from the 1950’s had recently been selling for over 1 million dollars apiece. 

The Internet auction story became very muddy when inconsistencies were discovered in the seller’s story about the provenance of the painting.  For instance, the seller had claimed that a hole through the signature on the painting had been made accidentally by the handle of his child’s tricycle, but the truth came out that the seller was unmarried and childless. Then, e-Bay suspended the seller when they found that he had submitted shill bids (which is where a seller submits bids, usually under a false of concealed ID, on the item he is selling in order to drive up the purchase price or underscore the authenticity of the item’s value). 

Eventually the fake Diebenkorn sold for over $135,000 to a buyer in the Netherlands, who had purchased it sight unseen.  Ultimately, the seller and two accomplices pled guilty to federal wire and mail fraud charges, because of placing the shill bids.  They never actually claimed that the work was a Diebenkorn, but the seller later admitted that he had forged Diebenkorn’s initials to the work in order to give that impression, then he and two buddies placed bids to drive up the price. 

My point in telling this strange tale is that the art collecting community was all in a dither over this rediscovered painting, and art collectors were willing to bid hundreds of thousands of dollars on it just because of the initials R.D. and the fact that it was “discovered” in the Bay area where Diebenkorn lived and worked.  Investors were willing to risk hundreds of thousands, just so that maybe they could make a million.  Crazy?—you tell me.  These bids were being made, some by foreign investors, sight unseen.  Nobody had seen the painting, other than a photograph tantalizingly suggesting that it might be a Diebenkorn from the 1950’s.  The thing was unattractive; it was green and orange and had a hole in it.  The price didn’t reach $135,000 because of anything intrinsically valuable about it but two forged initials in one corner of the work which put it potentially in the context of other works that had sold for a million dollars.

Now, on to Georgia O’Keeffe:  The Canyon Suite were a group of watercolors that were allegedly painted by O’Keeffe in 1916 to 1918 while she taught at a small Texas college.  She developed a friendship with Ted Reid, a student, cattle drover, and nature lover, some say her lover, at the time.  She allegedly gave the paintings to him in 1918 before he departed for service in World War I.  Later, after O’Keeffe had left Texas, he returned home, married, and had a family, and he hid the paintings away.  They were passed on to friends or family members and eventually allegedly rediscovered for what they were in 1987.  At that time, when they surfaced, experts in the art world heralded a major rediscovery and authenticated them.  They were purchased for 5 million dollars from a reputable New York art dealer by R. Crosby Kemper, Kansas City collector and philanthropist, in 1993.  They were a central feature of the opening of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City in 1994 and displayed in a much ballyhooed exhibit. 

A book was published in 1997 devoted just to the Canyon Suite.  In light of what we now know, the hyperbole devoted to the paintings shows how silly and how wrong much art criticism can be when works are uprooted from an artificial context and evaluated for just what they are, splashes of watercolor on cheap paper.  The book Intimate Landscapes: The Canyon Suite of Georgia O’Keeffe includes such passages as: “The remarkable paintings work on two levels:  they present a stirring vision of the majesty of a vast landscape while simultaneously delving into intimate personal territory.  For the first time we see the solitude and meditation that characterize much of O’Keeffe’s later work.”  But the paintings do not bear up under the weight of so much praise.  The fact is, the ONLY reason for such praise is the O’Keeffe name, not anything intrinsic to the works themselves. 

The excrement hit the rotating blades when an official catalog of O’Keeffe’s work, based on meticulous research, was published and failed to list 210 works on paper, including the entire Canyon Suite, which had previously been regarded as genuine O’Keeffe’s.  Some of the same experts who persuaded Kemper to buy the works in 1993 went on record denying their authenticity.  Using information not available in 1993 about the paper the works are painted on, and referencing against extensive catalogs of paper varieties from around the world, it became possible to determine that the Canyon Suite papers date most likely from 1930-1965.  Also, newer research showed that O’Keeffe did not use a wide variety of papers and tended toward light cream colored paper, whereas the Canyon Suite employed a variety of papers, even a tan-brown construction paper and one Italian paper that wasn’t available in the U.S. until 1965. 

The Kansas City gallery ended up returning the paintings to the dealer for a refund.  The announcement was made that the Canyon Suite paintings were essentially worthless, although I supposed that they would have some value for being at the center of such a controversy.  The dealer apparently made some type of restitution (I believe he gave a couple of paintings to the gallery that were supposedly worth something by current art community criteria, although I submit that such criteria are called into question by the entire Canyon Suite incident.)

Now, tell me:  how is something that was worth 5 million dollars, about which books were being published and much praise was being heaped, now be worth nothing, zilch, nada???? The answer is, because context is everything.  The works were only worth 5 million because of their context.  Deprived of their context, they were worth very little. 

Dalenberg’s Context Theory says that there are two aspects to every work that require evaluation before coming to a meaningful critical appraisal.  Those two aspects are essentially the intrinsic and extrinsic attributes of the work, what I call the Innate Value and Contextual Value of the work.  I am not chiefly concerned with the price of fine art, but price is one aspect of value. If you understand Dalenberg’s Context Theory, you begin to understand the ins and outs of the sometimes crazy pricing of art.  One of the reasons art prices can be so crazy (going from zillions to zero like the Diebenkorn and O’Keeffe examples) is that the art world fallaciously values the Contextual (extrinsic) factors over the Innate (intrinsic) factors.  Thus, a crappy Diebenkorn of doubtful authenticity (with a hole in it, no less) can sell for $135,000, while a really fine piece by an unknown artist can be extremely affordable; and a 5 million dollar set of O’Keeffe’s can suddenly be almost worthless. 

The critics who praised the O’Keeffe paintings and waxed eloquent about their artistic attributes committed a critical fallacy.  They thought they were responding to the Innate Value of the works, but in reality (and unbeknownst to them) they were really responding to the Contextual underpinnings of the works.  When the Contextual Value of the works changed suddenly, the works became monetarily valueless and critically condemned.  If the works had had any Innate Value in the first place, the changing of the Contextual Value should not necessarily have resulted in such a gross devaluation, monetarily or critically.  What should have happened, if the works had been full of Innate Value, is that an all-out search should have begun for the genius who really produced the works, since it was somebody other than O’Keeffe.  But that didn’t happen.  The art world felt that the works had little Innate Value, so nobody is searching for the unsung genius. 

In the art world, this Fallacy of Confused Value (mistaking Contextual Value for Innate Value) is common.  A related critical fallacy is something that I call The Emperor’s New Clothes Fallacy.  Suffice it to say that the Emperor’s New Clothes (in the Hans Christian Andersen story) had no Innate Value, because they did not even exist.  Their only value was a kind of Contextual Value, because it was fashionable to praise the clothes, either because you had to pander to the king’s whims or because everybody else was praising them too.  It took an innocent with no understanding of the context to look at the clothes themselves, fail to see any Innate Value in them as clothes, and point out the truth. The child in the Andersen story is the same as the cleaning woman who threw out the scattered cookie pieces.   The Emperor’s New Clothes Fallacy is a little different from the Fallacy of Confused Value, but you can see how it is related.  One might also call the Emperor’s New Clothes Fallacy by some other name, such as the Fallacy of Popularity or The Fallacy of Expected Critical Opinion.  After all, newly discovered O’Keeffe’s!—what a marvelous thing!—how could any self-respecting critic fail to jump on the bandwagon of praise?  Does that mean that if some self-respecting critic had been give the chance to buy an O’Keeffe for, say, $100 in 1916, that he or she would have jumped at the chance?  Probably not, and therein, my friends, lies the critical fallacy of praising the Canyon Suite as if you would have liked it without knowing it was by O’Keeffe or bidding hundreds of thousands on an orange and green garage sale find because of two little letters you find forged in the corner. 

In future blogs, we’ll look at how Dalenberg’s Context Theory will help you wend your way through any modern gallery and sort out the quality from the junk, the priceless from the preposterous.