Sunday, June 01, 2008

In February, the FBI seized the inventory of a Chicago art gallery accused of selling tens of millions of dollars worth of fake prints by Picasso, Miro, Dali and Chagall.

Photo by Richard Chapman / Chicago Sun Times

The copies looked exactly like the real thing. (Local newspapers reported, "Even the experts are amazed at how good the stuff is.")

Each print was sold with an impressive looking "certificate of authentication." These certificates made no difference to the appearance of the art, but they made a big difference to the customers, who apparently did not buy art for the way it looks.

Perhaps they were seeking the wrong kind of authenticity.

Certificates of authenticity also play a key role in the financial empire of marketing genius Thomas Kinkade, who claims to use "DNA technology" to authenticate his mass produced art.

Again, Kinkade's certificates don't affect the quality of the art (which is hilariously awful) but they do prop up the prices for reproductions. One major distributor of Kinkade's pictures (who larcenously labels them as "limited edition lithographs, otherwise referred to as paintings") offered this advice on the value of Kinkade art:
Having owned five Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries for ten years I can tell you that Ebay is loaded up with fake Kinkade Paintings. It can be confusing for the novice to discern an authentic painting from an imitation. Here are some key points to help guide you in your search....

.... If they do not have an authentic Certificate of Authenticity from Media Arts Group Inc. (for pieces prior to 2004) or Thomas Kinkade Company for pieces produced after 2004, it has no value other than your enjoyment of the piece. Limited Edition Lithographs, otherwise referred to as paintings, must have their matching Certificate of Authenticity to hold their value. The certificate will list the name of the painting, the certificate number and the quantity of lithographs made in that series. The certificate number must match the certificate number listed on the bottom corner of your lithograph.
The conspicuous certifications on the face of these paintings suggest that the owners are displaying the certifications as much as the art.

Unfortunately, it turns out that even Kinkade's DNA is not enough to protect you from fraud. Kinkade has been repeatedly sued for cheating his business associates. A court-appointed panel ordered Kinkade's company to pay $860,000 for breaching its "covenant of good faith" by misleading two galleries. At least six other claims were filed against Kinkade by other plaintiffs. To make matters worse, the FBI decided to investigate him.

In the future, "authenticity" will be even more complicated. Digital art has no physical existence to "authenticate." It is a ghost, made of electricity and light. Limitless copies-- all with an equal claim to being the "original"-- can be made with no decline in quality.

And that's just the start. Famous flash artist Joshua Davis has invented what he calls "generative composition machines" which are software applications written with open source code and Flash to automate the creation of art. Davis feeds in multiple images, colors and other ingredients and his software spits out a variety of images. His machine has now created "art" for many top corporate clients, including BMW, Nike and Nokia.

Certifications of authenticity are helpful when it comes to allocating royalties, but meaningful authenticity cannot be bestowed by a certificate, just as artistic value cannot be bestowed (or removed) by market fluctuations. You should authenticate art with your eyes. Ultimately, the Kinkade distributor got it right: without a certificate of authenticity, art "has no value other than your enjoyment of the piece."


Gailavon said...

enjoyment of the art is always the best reason to purchase it.

I know some who consider it to be an investment and somehow the value of the art will exceed the purchase price.

That is something that rarely happens in the lifetime of purchaser of the art.

Enjoyment is the best reason.

ces said...

I buy what I like - be it art, books, clothes, food, etc. I could give a hoot about a "certificate of authentication" although I do have a needlepoint canvas that I bought and needlepointed in 1983 while recovering from major surgery that came with a "Certificate of Authentication." What a riot! Imagine someone copying needlepoint canvases! And no one has stepped forward and offered me 10 million dollars for it yet.

You're right though David - Kinkade's stuff is hilarious, not art.

Anonymous said...

Kinkade's paintings are trash and people who buy them are idiots.

Anonymous said...

Having derived enjoyment from several pieces Kinkade, though not enjoyed nearly enough to want to pay whatever obscene price it would take to own even a print of his, I have to say that in the end, you buy what you like.

For some people, it's the art itself and whatever feelings the piece invokes.

But let's be fair in our analysis of the business of art - a lot of people enjoy shopping through new artists in the hopes of hitting gold with the next Picasso and, whether they be right or wrong picking an artist more for their own profit than his, it's still money in a young artist's pocket.

Plus, if you have an artist with talent and the innovation to create really good stuff, regardless of who buys it one should be thankful that more of that person's art is in the public realm, rather than stored away in some musty graveyard of unsold dreams.

As for certificates- I personally think the entire debate is ridiculous, as I've seen several historically important pieces of artwork in person, and as prints, and do not find any kind of real, major differences between the two. Certainly not enough to merit spending as much as several hundred times the asking price of a print of the same piece.

But that's just my opinion. Good article as alway. : )

Unknown said...

interestingly, it's sometimes possible to get some amount of value from both, as I found after having bought a Leyendecker sketch from Illustration House. I requested a letter of authenticity and it came back signed by none other than the great Walt Reed! Talk about 2 for one..

( one of the perks of collecting illustrator art ;)

David Glassey said...

Robert Bateman (Canadian wildlife artist) has caught a great deal of heat for his limited edition prints, which are not really artist's prints but photo lithographs of his paintings. The only thing authentic about them is his signature in pencil. His business practices have made him rich but have also excommunicated him from any major gallery in Canada. Bateman finds the snubbing by the art community to be incredulous but he made his own bed mass producing his own work and selling the reproductions for far more than the actual cost of production. It made him a millionaire though. I don't know if Thomas Kinkade learned some marketing lessons from Bateman but they sound somewhat similar. At least Bateman doesn't paint as badly...painter of light my ass.

David Apatoff said...

lavon and ces, different people seem to "enjoy" art for different reasons-- for its appearance, for its message, for sentimental reasons-- so it may be difficult to say that it is wrong for people to enjoy art as a tool for financial speculation. But personally, I agree with you. I would never buy art as an investment, and I think the richest, most bountiful form of enjoyment is aesthetic appreciation.

anonymous and brad, while I think anonymous is a little harsh, I must confess that I find Kinkade's work insipid. I don't think his paintings of cozy fairy tale cottages begin to compete with the paintings that anonymous Disney artists made for the backgrounds of animated films such as Snow White, Pinocchio, or Sleeping Beauty. I find Kinkade's work inferior in every respect except for money, where he was wildly superior. I do agree with brad 100%that money in a young artist's pocket is generally a good thing, and of course people should be able to spend money on whatever they want. However, when we talk about Kinkade we are talking about putting a lot of money in the pocket of an old goat whose pockets are already stuffed full, and who tells credulous buyers that a lithograph is the same thing as a painting.

David Apatoff said...

Jim, a letter from Walt Reed is as good as gold. I have nothing but the highest respect for him. Congratulations on your acquisition!

David, I like Robert Bateman's art and that generally redeems a lot of bad behavior for me. I am less familiar with what he does to market his work. I would be disappointed to learn that he runs the kind of predatory pyramid scheme that some artists do today.

Anonymous said...

Argghh no! The master of light!

I'm so ashamed that I went to the same school as that guy. Brilliant businessman, hack artist.

Anonymous said...

Kinkade is a lot easier to take if you assume everything he says and does is a put-on - the Stephen Colbert of art. I know it's probably not true, but that way his "art" is good for a few laughs.

Don Cox said...

The interesting question is what exactly is wrong with that Kincaide picture that makes it unpleasant. It isn't the subject matter - there is no reason why a picture of a stream in a park should necessarily be bad. One problem is that everything has the same weight - there is no focus in the picture._______ Bateman's pictures seem to me to be well painted, in a traditional manner - I would happily buy a book of his work at the right price. I wouldn't buy an expensive print.

David Apatoff said...

Jones foyer, I hope that he has at least endowed a few buildings for your school.

Anonymous and don, when evaluating art I always try to make a good faith effort to separate the artwork from collateral information about the artist (so I am not condemning an otherwise good picture simply because the artist is a mass murderer in his spare time).

With Kinkade, it is awfully hard to separate the man from the art. His obnoxious "painter of light" brand demonstrates his arrogance where he should be most humble-- his handling of light and color strikes me as saccharine crap. He claims the greatest piety where his business tactics are the most shady, trading on his Christian values to persuade the gullible and the credulous to entrust him with their money. He claims artistic purity where he is most mercenary, branding the front of his paintings with a conspicuous seal that mars the image but reinforces his economic pyramid scheme.

That is a lot to overlook. But if you can get past these odious elements and focus just on the painting itself, it seems to me that his work is incredibly lame-- soft focus, gauzy pablum not worthy of a good Hallmark card. I think what Kinkade sells is pure nostalgia. In my view it has nothing to do with art.

David Glassey said...

Where Bateman gets in trouble is the cost of production of his prints versus price of purchase and the misnomer of original print that is used to describe his photo reproductions. They are not prints in the tradition of prints, as in the artist creating a silkscreen or etching, they are photographic lithographs but they are marketed by Bateman's representation as such in a way that gives the impression that they are "original" prints. The prints are given edition numbers and are hand signed but one critic stated that in their opinion the prints can be compared to baseball card collecting. Bateman said in an interview that he wanted to do the prints to make his work affordable to all who want to have an image of his on their wall. I'm not so sure that his motives are all that necessarily in the spirit of art, just listening to him say that he has no knowledge of business compared to his obvious intelligence make me think he is obfuscating the fact that the likes the money that his photo reproductions bring in. The guy was a teacher for crying out loud, I'm not an economist but I can tell that when a something costs $20 to make and you charge $1000 for it and sell 10,000 of them that sounds like a money maker.

Stephen Worth said...

I was at a book fair many years ago, and a woman came up to a dealer's table and said to her husband, "Look honey! A signed first edition of Ray Bradbury's new book!" The hard boiled book dealer in an uncharacteristic fit of honesty said, "Lady, the rare ones are the ones that Ray didn't sign!"

Artwork distributors do everything they can to guarantee that there is no secondary market left for their buyers to exploit. If an edition becomes desirable, they just crank out a slightly different look-alike to fill the demand. They do that over and over until there's no more demand left. Certificates are meaningless. All of those Kinkaide prints at ebay are customers trying to recoup some of the money they wasted listening to too much sales pitch.

See ya

Matthew Adams said...

Look on the bright side, at least the FBI now have Kinkade's DNA on file for crimes against art...

ces said...

Slightly off-topic but . . .

For some reason, this discussion reminds me of Leroy Nieman (pretty sure that was his name) who was so popular in the 70's. Anyone remember him? Anyone know what happened to him?


Don Cox said...

"But if you can get past these odious elements and focus just on the painting itself, it seems to me that his work is incredibly lame-- soft focus, gauzy pablum not worthy of a good Hallmark card. I think what Kinkade sells is pure nostalgia."____Many of Renoir's paintings are similarly soft focus. I knew absolutely nothing about Kincaide before reading this thread. I do find the examples given unpleasant. But I'm not certain why. There is an absence of any coherent color scheme, and as I said, no focus. But then, many of Escher's pictures have no focus.

Jack Ruttan said...

Art and commerce make strange bedfellows. Sometimes my illustrations pay my rent, but drawing is also relaxation. Don't know what would happen if a stupid character of mine caught on in a big way (like Montreal artist Vittorio's devil mascot for the Juste Pour Rire Festival), and I started making tons of money, but hating myself as I grew rich doing cynical knockoffs of my character.

Even Edward Lear in Edwardian times felt he had to become an assembly line to make a living from his art. The least you can do is get a good contract, and a company that makes quality reproductions (nothing wrong with those, unless you can afford that Renoir!)

I don't really want to find out more about the DNA typing of pictures. Does the artist layer a personal hair sample into the oil, or perhaps introduce some other bodily product into the mix, like Andre Serrano, or other artists who are deeply admired (big smile here) on this blog?

David Apatoff said...

David, it sounds like Bateman and his marketers are taking advantage of the ignorance of the public (although I doubt Bateman had the audacity to compete with Kinkade's description of a "lithograph otherwise known as a painting.") In the long run, if Bateman's customers got $1,000 worth of pleasure from looking at a cheap print, they could never be fleeced. They would always get what they were paying for. It's only when they look at their print as an investment and rely on that certificate that they get into trouble.

David Apatoff said...

Matthew-- Bravo!!

David Apatoff said...

Steve, that's a great story; I love it when these little glimmers of honesty penetrate the deceit of the marketplace.

ces, you can follow Leroy Nieman's trajectory by reading through old issues of Playboy magazines. He started out lean and hungry, doing illustrations for the early Playboy that weren't too bad. As Playboy took off in the 1960s, you began to see photos of him at the Playboy clubs or partying with Hef at the Playboy mansion, pinching bunnies and reveling in the publicity. Playboy marketed limited edition Nieman posters (for your swinging bachelor pad) and all kinds of paraphenalia with his trademark style. He became increasingly jaded and decadent; he grew a huge handlebar moustache and put on public painting displays wearing goofy outfits. These public displays confirmed that whatever meager talent he once had was totally dissipated. He became all style and no substance. A fascinating cautionary tale, like something out of Hogarth.

David Apatoff said...

Don, if you instinctively find these examples of Kincade's art unpleasant, I'd say-- "trust your instinct!" (I will confess that I am not a big fan of the later, fuzzy Renoir as well).

Jack-- as with all bedfellows, it seems to me that art and commerce need to at least start out with an open mind. Lots of great artists compromised a lot at the beginning. I would certainly sell out before I would starve. But once they had enough to eat, they had a duty to gradually reassert control over their talent and make meaningful art. As far as I can tell, all the ones that turned out great did that. An artist's cost / benefit analysis depends on where they are on the survival curve.

ces said...

David, thanks for the info. I remember seeing his "sports" painting in galleries in LA, and even in a couple of museums - they were selling in the thousands then, in the 1970s, which was considered "big" money. You could always tell a Leroy Nieman painting - and they definitely didn't have any substance.

Another one was the guy who painted people with the "moon eyes" - can't remember his name - but I seem to remember that eventually it came out that he hadn't done the painting after all - his wife had.

David Apatoff said...

ces, Margaret Keane's husband did her a favor by claiming to be responsible for her paintings of people with big eyes; they were absolutely horrible. However, there is a very funny story about the credit for her paintings. During their divorce trial, Margaret Keane claimed that she did the paintings while her husband claimed that he did them. The judge surprised them both by demanding that they each paint a painting in front of him. Margaret promptly did so, but her husband claimed he couldn't because of a "sore shoulder." That resolved that.

Stephen Worth said...

The "DNA" angle on authenticity started in the mid-90s with animation art limited editions. Apparently Joe Barbera gave trimmings from his barber to a company that somehow incorporated his hair into a marker pen. His signatures were advertised as "containing authentic DNA from Joe Barbera" and it was pitched as a way to determine the authenticity of the limited edition cel. I inquired with a company that does DNA testing, and they said that they could verify that the DNA was authentic, but they would need a sample from Mr. Barbera. The cost of the procedure would be many, many thousands of dollars more than the cel was worth.

See ya

Jack Ruttan said...

It's always tough when there is a market to feed. What happens if you're a Frank Frazetta-type, and get bored of painting barbarians and girls?

If you're lucky, you've made enough money you can paint what you please when you're older. But there will be fans who accuse you of 'going soft' or 'selling out.'

Reading about once-wealthy cartoonist Bob Powell, whose fun and flashy Crime and SF comics went out of fashion.

Anonymous said...

The entire art market is a fraud. Dali himself was a fraud, google "Dali and I" new book that reveals the truth about Dali alone. Many of these fakes were OVER RUNS, using the actual stones, SOME with forges signatures. The Government AUCTIONED off the last batch of fakes back to the PUBLIC! There are a lot of innocent people taking the fall. Wake up!