Framing Fakery

Art Forgery and Theft

Since the dawn of civilisation, art has been fascinating and challenging people all over the world. With just a few brushstrokes, a painting can capture the essence of a moment in time forever; a sculpture has the power to start a conversation or even a revolution.

Art is undoubtedly a powerful medium, and it is highly subjective. What one person scorns as rubbish may very well be a masterpiece in the eyes of another – and a golden opportunity to criminals. Art forgery and theft continue to be problems for all aspects of the Australian art industry. Aboriginal artists like Freddie Timms and Bronwyn Bancroft have taken action to stop their work from being illegally reproduced, the NSW Art Gallery got more than it bargained for from a shifty art dealer, and outdoor art exhibition Sculpture by the Sea suffered the embarrassment of having a valuable artwork by an international artist vandalised and then stolen. Stopping scammers, con artists, and thieves in their tracks remains an ongoing battle, despite the development of increasingly sophisticated methods, such as chemical fingerprinting, to establish the authenticity of artworks.

Art forgery and theft tends to bring to mind fakes going under the hammer at auction for millions of dollars and elaborate heists to swindle international galleries. According to the government’s Art Facts website, the global art market is 150 times bigger than the Australian market. While Australia may be small fry compared to the global art market, there have still been many reports of forgery and theft over the years, particularly concerning the Aboriginal art industry.

In March 2006, the ABC reported on calls from Major Fraud Police in Western Australia to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (the ACCC) to investigate allegations of criminal activity in the Aboriginal art industry. Police failed to get official complaints as the informants refused to make any written statements; however, they did hear allegations of sweatshop labour involving elderly Aboriginal people being forced to paint for hours at a time for unfair payment. There were also numerous allegations of fake Aboriginal works being produced by backpackers, artists posing for photos beside paintings that were not theirs, and the disappearance of grants. These allegations sparked a two year investigation.

Fraudsters will go to great lengths to prey on local and international buyers interested in Aboriginal art. Importing art made in China, Vietnam, Bali and Indonesia in bulk and falsely labelling it as “genuine” or “authentic Aboriginal art” is an unscrupulous but common industry practice. In April 2009, Tony Antoniou – the director of Adelaide based art wholesaler Australian Dreamtime Creations – was under investigation from the ACCC for engaging in misleading conduct and making false representations about the country of origin of goods. Mr Antoniou sold fake Aboriginal artworks and ornaments imported from Indonesia under the pseudonym Ubanoo Brown, promoted on the company’s website as a highly talented artist from the Murchison River, Western Australia. Customers were offered Ubanoo Brown’s Dreamtime story or a bush tucker story with some of the artworks. Some of the artworks even had stamps reading “Traditional Hand Painted Aboriginal Art Australia” or “Authentic Original Aboriginal Art” and fake certificates of authenticity.

The Federal Court disagreed with Mr Antoniou, who believed that the artworks were not misleading in nature as a person of non-Aboriginal descent could paint authentic Aboriginal art. Justice Mansfield made orders to prevent both Dreamtime Creations and Mr Antoniou from engaging in similar practices in the future. The Arts Minister at the time, Peter Garrett, condemned the trend of importing fake Aboriginal art and said that it damaged the high international standing of Aboriginal artists.

Making false claims about the authenticity of Aboriginal art is more than misleading to consumers; it is offensive to the Aboriginal peoples – especially if sacred symbols have been used without permission. Australian Aboriginal art is incredibly diverse, encompassing both traditional and contemporary styles that vary over time and from region to region. Contemporary Aboriginal art has appeared on Qantas planes, a Queensland Rail Tilt Train, and even a digital mammogram truck. Jirrawun artist Freddie Timms created Australia’s first chemically protected Aboriginal artwork ‘Wunubi Springs’ in September 2008. The chemical fingerprinting technique utilises different chemicals that are mixed with each paint that the artist uses, forming a unique code that can only be detected with a laser. The chemical code cannot be removed from an artwork or forged. The technique was developed by Rachel Green, a forensic scientist at the University of Western Australia researching ways to tackle art forgery.

Bronwyn Bancroft – one of Australia’s most famous Aboriginal artists, illustrators, and fashion designers – had her painting ‘Eternal Eclipse’ illegally reproduced, but not on canvas. Her painting was used as the fabric print for a dress by clothing manufacturer Dolina Fashion Group Pty Ltd for Grace Brothers (now known as Myer). In a story noted by Aboriginal history and culture website Creative Spirits, Bronwyn realised that her artwork had been turned into a “really revolting outfit” while flicking through a catalogue and was so furious that she rushed into the nearest Grace Bros store and began ripping the dresses off the racks. When a manager questioned what she was doing, Bancroft exclaimed, “This is my work. How dare you? I demand to see your manager. I want to know who supplied this. I demand they be taken out of this shop immediately.” The case was later settled out of court, with Dolina Fashion Group and Grace Brothers blaming Japanese fabric manufacturer Sastani, which Dolina stylists had approached requesting an Aboriginal look.

Art theft is worth an estimated $6 billion a year. In October last year, police executing a search warrant in a Wiley Park home in Sydney’s south-west discovered over $1.5 million worth of stolen art. Police uncovered a collection of 18 paintings and sketches by prominent Australian artists including Arthur Streeton, Norman Lindsay, and Pro Hart, regarded by many as the father of Outback art. The art collection was reported missing from the Darling Point penthouse of property developer Peter O’Mara three years earlier. In an exclusive interview with the Telegraph, Peter said, “It’s a gut feeling, but the whole thing had to be set up – I think it’s been set up for a while. Not many people knew the artworks were here. You can’t exactly see them from the road.”

High profile galleries are prime targets for scammers and thieves. In 2004, the Art Gallery of NSW paid $300,000 to antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor for a thousand year old stone carving of Ardhanarishvara – a composite androgynous Hindu deity of the Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati. It was later confirmed by Indian police that the statue had been stolen from the Vriddhachalam temple (approximately 200km south of Tamil Nandu’s capital Chennai) sometime after 1974, when it was last photographed at the temple.

Art that is not confined behind walls is even more vulnerable to theft, and the threat of vandalism becomes much greater. Sculpture by the Sea is Australia’s premier outdoor sculpture exhibition. The much-loved annual event is free to the public, inviting everyday people to come and enjoy the world of art. In March 2012 at Cottesloe Beach in Perth, a sculpture valued at $64,000 by Chen Wen Ling (one of China’s top ten sculptors) was vandalised and then stolen from Sculpture by the Sea. The sculpture “Childhood-Morning”, of a bright red boy, was a part of the famous Red Memory series by the artist. Despite the presence of security guards at the exhibition, the perpetrator managed to snap the sculpture off at the ankles and steal it, leaving behind the pair of feet. Police found the upper half of the sculpture following a brief search and later convicted two young men in relation to the crime. Unjaded by the unpleasant event, Chen remade the sculpture and presented it as a gift to the people of Western Australia in January 2013. The two perpetrators volunteered to assist people with disabilities at Sculpture by the Sea the same year.

Cases of art forgery and theft in Australia and internationally are just as complex and interesting as art itself. For Aboriginal artists, recognising the true value of their work will pave the way towards a fairer and more sustainable future. There are a number of Aboriginal owned and managed art co-operatives and galleries with industry approved ethical accreditations that give buyers peace of mind. These institutions provide access to truly authentic Aboriginal art. Chemical fingerprinting has been a significant development in the fight against forgery, but the industry still has a long way to go. Since art exists to be appreciated, experienced, and in some circumstances interacted with, sometimes all the security systems in the world are not enough to keep a valuable work or collection safe. The good news is that as long as there are artists, there will continue to be masterpieces great enough to make the world look, think, and feel.

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December 19, 2018, 5:30 PM AEDT