A fake Wyeth watercolor latest uncovered by art sleuths

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The FBI seized this "Snow Birds" forgery after it was offered at auction by Christie's.

When a great master dies, two things often follow - the artist's work skyrockets in value, and forgers emerge from the shadows, eager to make a buck. It happened to the likes of Vincent van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol.

Now, it's happening to Andrew Wyeth.

But faking Wyeth's work is proving difficult, even for skilled forgers. His wife's ferocious attention to detail decades ago is providing rare evidence to help art detectives curb this growing crime, said art historian Jonathan Lopez, author of The Man Who Made Vermeers.

The latest Wyeth forgery - at least the seventh since his death last year - was the most skilled yet. Offered at auction by Christie's in New York earlier this year, the painting was expected to fetch $300,000 to $500,000.

"This one really shook me, how close it was to the real thing," said Mary Landa, collections manager at the Brandywine Museum in Chadds Ford, where most of the Wyeth records are kept. "At first glance, it looked real."

Art and antiquity crime is a $6 billion annual business globally, according to the FBI Art Crime Team, which this week also announced the recovery in California of two dozen Mesopotamian-era artifacts looted from Iraq.

Art forgery is as old as art.

"It's been with us forever - the Romans faked Greek art," said Nina Burleigh, author of Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed, and Forgery in the Holy Land. "Museums around the world are filled with forgeries."

Wherever there's a market for art, there's a market for forgeries, Burleigh said.

Museum and antiquity thefts often draw headlines, the most recent being the $50 million Van Gogh theft in Cairo. But forgery is an equally confounding problem, said Doylestown lawyer Robert Goldman, a former national art-crime prosecutor.

"It's easier to commit fraud than to steal from a museum," Goldman said.

The latest Wyeth caper began in April, when Christie's advertised the sale of Snow Birds at an auction planned for May 20.

The 1970 painting, a watercolor and pencil on paper, was offered as Lot 59. The listing said it had been acquired by a Connecticut collector in 1972, was sold to an unidentified dealer in the early 1980s, and later was acquired by the present owner.

The offering caught the eye of a dealer in Seattle, who knew the listed provenance was incomplete. He knew that because he had recently sold the painting to someone in Washington state.

Suspicious, the Seattle dealer called Christie's, which contacted Landa in Chadds Ford.

Since Wyeth's death in January 2009, Landa has become an accidental art-crime sleuth. Lured by the promise of a big payday, forgers wrongly assume that his style can be easily copied, she said.

"People who don't really understand his work think every painting with a barn and a broken-down fence might be his," Landa said. "I guess it's because of the prices his work commands."

Sometimes, the calls are easy. One forger misspelled Wyeth's name in the signature, then had the audacity to simply correct the error and try to resell it.

But other examinations take more time. In April, when Landa first studied the photograph from Christie's, she asked the auction house to send the painting to Chadds Ford for verification.

"By the image on the screen, it looked very convincing," she said.

At the museum, Landa carted out the records that Betsy Wyeth kept. For each work, Wyeth's wife created large color transparencies, supplemented with written notes. The giant, antiquated Kodak slides betrayed the forger.

With the 8x10 transparency and a magnifying loupe, Landa said, "we were really able to see it."

First, Landa detected subtle differences in the pine trees. In the original, Wyeth used an undercoat of green, then dripped black branches over it. In the forgery, the base was black and the negative space was painted green.

Next, she noticed differences in the wash in the gray sky - a dead giveaway. "Watercolor does what it wants to do. You can't copy exactly the way it moves on the paper."

Finally, the signature looked suspicious. "It was drawn too evenly, and that's not Wyeth's style at all."

Landa called David L. Hall, an assistant U.S. attorney in Wilmington, who is a special prosecutor for the FBI's Art Crime Team.

The prosecutor sent a subpoena to Christie's, halting the auction. Hall began forfeiture proceedings; the forgery is likely to be destroyed.

Hall said that neither Christie's nor the seller knew the painting was a forgery. Asked if anyone might be charged with a crime in the case, Hall declined to comment.

Given the value of Wyeth paintings, Hall said he wouldn't be surprised to encounter more forgeries.

"You look at how skillfully it was done. Somebody really spent some time to get this right," Hall said. "But with those kind of records the Wyeths have, you're never going to make it exactly right."

That may be true, said art historian Lopez, but in this case it also appears that the forger sold the fake Wyeth to his mark and got away clean.

"Now it's the honest people holding the bag, which is often the way it works with forgery."

 


Contact staff writer John Shiffman at 301-320-6655 or jshiffman@phillynews.com.