In July of this year, Mexican politician Angel Pereda was busted by the FBI for trying to sell at least four forged artworks purportedly by Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. It’s no surprise those were his targets. According to NYC art dealer Joseph K. Levene, those household-name painters “rank among the most forged contemporary artists.”
In fact, “billions of dollars in forged artworks get sold each year,” said Christopher Marinello, CEO of Art Recovery International, which tracks down stolen art and assists collectors in getting works authenticated.
It is not known how the art Pereda tried to sell was forged, but Marinello said it’s not hard in this high-tech age. Elevated printing techniques, online sales by middlemen who never touch the actual works, and sometimes the unwillingness of artists’ foundations to certify legitimacy (partly for fear of getting into legal tussles with disgruntled collectors) have led to a burgeoning counterfeit art market.
It is no coincidence that many forged works are contemporary. “The more complicated a work of art is, the more difficult it is to copy, as is the case with Old Masters,” Marinello told The Post.
Here are five of the most forged artists — and how the copycats get busted.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s mixed media
If a criminal is going to copy the work of an artist, he might as well focus on those who are most in-demand. Hence, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s popularity among forgers.
“He is the hottest artist on the planet,” said Levene, noting that the late New Yorker’s pieces go for $3 million to $125 million. “If you are an art collector, his work is a trophy. He’s become a cultural icon.”
However, Levene added: “Despite [Basquiat’s] facile and child-like style, it takes a lot to create one that is actually successful. The fakes lack authority.”
That includes the one (top right) that the Mexican politician Pereda was trying to peddle. It fails to convince, in part, because “there is so much iconography jammed in,” Levene said. noting the takes on Basquiat’s signature airplane, crown and big-toothed face. “It’s overkill.”
Andy Warhol’s portraits
“His process — screen-printing on paper or canvas — can benefit counterfeiters,” Levene said of the prolific Andy Warhol, who had a “factory” of employees to help reproduce his works.
Among the most copied are his silk-screened works that were augmented with paint. “If the forger can create a screen, he can create a template,” Levene said.
Warhol, who died in 1987, created 199 silk-screen paintings of China’s Chairman Mao between 1972 and 1973. Some have yet to be accounted for in the “Catalogue Raisonne of Andy Warhol’s Paintings,” the definitive record of his works, meaning a crook could claim to be selling a missing one.
A bona fide “Mao,” said Levene, would fetch $5 million to $7 million. Fakes, like this so-called “Mao” (top right), which was confiscated by feds from a Los Angeles-based art forger, often have telltale signs.
Levene said that “overall simplicity,” a limited use of paint and a “mechanical nature” raise red flags: “Warhol was never careful. He would make a mistake … and sell the mistake.”
Keith Haring’s ‘radiant’ paintings
Keith Haring’s generosity and the simplicity of his work both make him a soft target for forgers.
“He gave things away a lot,” said Levene, who bought five copies of Haring’s first catalogue; Haring did a small drawing in each one and now the drawings are worth some $50,000 a piece.
The New York-by-way-of-Pennsylvania artist, who passed away in 1990, was known for gifting works to friends — and sometimes even painting right on their apartment walls and doors.
“Every work has to come from somewhere,” said Levene. “With a forgery you need to create a false provenance.” An unscrupulous seller with a bogus Haring piece “might say, ‘It came from Keith.’ And if you don’t know any better you may believe him.”
As for this fake (left), which was part of the Pereda bust and copies Haring’s signature “radiant” characters: “It is too structured. Haring would never have made the hash-marks identical in size and the dog would never touch the border,” Levene said. “This looks like paint-by-numbers. It screams fake.”
Willem de Kooning’s abstract expressionism
“De Kooning’s work lacks precision and that makes it potentially easier for a forger,” said Levene of the Dutch-American artist, who died in 1997. “There is a lot for [a forger] to get away with.”
The problem, though, is that many fakers work too hard to imitate his style.
Looking at this copycat (top left), which is trying to emulate de Kooning’s early ‘50s “Woman” series, Levene said: “The forger tries to be formal when de Kooning was not.”
He added that to knock off this series, in particular, “takes a lot of chutzpah. There are not many ‘Woman’ paintings around.”
But it is easy to see why someone might be tempted: a real one could fetch $50 million to $100 million.
“De Kooning is a big name and this [forgery] would be a trophy for a money manager who is naive about art,” Levene said.
Roy Lichtenstein’s dot paintings
The late New York painter Roy Lichtenstein’s signature Pop Art style — particularly his early ‘60s works that use dots, much like in an old comic book — is low-hanging fruit for con artists. It helps that some of his editions are so large.
Take “Crying Girl,” a fake of which (above) was part of a 2008 federal bust in Chicago. Two versions were produced of the original 1963 print: one as a folded mailer sent out by Leo Castelli Gallery and the other as an offset lithograph on wove paper. “It was an unlimited edition — many are signed and many are unsigned. Those elements help the forgers tremendously,” said Levene. “Add a forged signature and it can raise the value by $50,000.” (A legitimate signed version, on wove paper and in excellent condition, “can easily sell for $100,000,” he added.)
But there are two things that copycats often don’t get right: the 17 ¼ inch-by-23 ¼ inch plate size of “Crying Girl” and inevitable signs of aging.
“Bold colors and a bright signature can be signs that it was recently made,” Levene said. “The [colors] should not look terrible — yellows often turn mustardy, and that is fine — but they should reflect age.”