SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. This week, an art dealer named Glafira Rosales pleaded guilty to wire fraud, money laundering and tax evasion after she admitted that she sold paintings that she claimed were by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning to a couple of Manhattan galleries.
They were actually painted by an artist living in Queens. Those paintings sold for $80 million. I'm joined now from New York by Jerry Saltz, senior art critic for New York magazine. Thanks very much for being with us.
JERRY SALTZ: Thanks.
SIMON: So shouldn't sophisticated Manhattan galleries know the difference between fake Jackson Pollock and real?
SALTZ: Well, boom, you usually would expect a gallery, in particular the oldest, most reputable gallery in the United States, Knoedler, would kind of do due diligence when they heard a story as cockamamie, far-fetched, and unbelievable as this.
SIMON: Now don't hold yourself back. Somebody had to schlep these paintings in to the gallery, right? And what was the story?
SALTZ: My understanding is this Miss Rosales suddenly turned up 63 masterpieces, big names only - hmm. All of them came from - when they asked the name of the collector it was Mr. X. And then they changed it to much more complete Mr. X Junior. This is like an email you get from Nigeria twice a day. And here was the claim of the provenance, and in our brainy art world language that means where did the paintings come from, who else has owned them?
Here's the quote: A foreign collector who was of Eastern European descent and wished to remain anonymous and had inherited the works from a relative. If anyone listening to this would buy art based on that story, you should go to jail. You're just being dumb.
SIMON: Well, these had to be pretty convincing in appearance, right?
SALTZ: Well, look, I can imagine that faking a Pollock by somebody that's pretty good at it could do it. Have I been fooled? Absolutely. Do I know? No. Look, if you are an art dealer at Knoedler, you have an ethical failure of will, intentional or sociopathically unintentional, to research those paintings before you dare try to pass them off as real, let alone start selling and profiting from them.
SIMON: Now, we'll note, Mr. Pei, the artist living then in Queens, I guess has returned to China, how he hasn't been charged because it's not as crime to paint something that looks like it might be by Jackson Pollock, right?
SALTZ: No. Everybody at home, go do it. If you have a great one, Jerry Saltz at New York magazine, send me a picture. I'm good for 125 bucks. I'll pay. I swear.
SIMON: But Mr. Pei has to be a pretty good artist, so I'm wondering what makes a Jackson Pollock, a real Jackson Pollock worth so much money?
SALTZ: Mr. Pei has a skill set that allowed him to replicate, fairly accurately, evidently, the skill sets of some other abstract expressionists from the 1940s and '50s in America. That does not mean he could invent something. In a way, you have to think about Pollock as inventing fire, as inventing something that's been with us, Scott, since the beginning, the drip.
No one had ever thought to deploy the drip as anything other than an accidental, you know, drip. And Pollock, when he first made his first drip painting in 1948 or '9, he looked at his wife. Instead of saying is this a good painting, he said to her: Is this a painting? He didn't even know if this still fit in the category of art.
I just think those paintings put off more energy than went into making them, and that's one of the definitions of art.
SIMON: Jerry Saltz is the art critic of New York magazine. Thanks so much.
SALTZ: Thank you.
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