Authenticity of Trove of Pollock’s and Rothko’s Goes to Court

Left, the “Elegy” painting that the dealer Julian Weissman bought from Glafira Rosales and sold to an Irish gallery that later demanded its money back; right, Motherwell’s “Spanish Elegy (Alcaraz) XV,” from 1953, which is part of the catalogue raisonné sponsored by the Dedalus Foundation.


NEARLY 17 years ago Glafira Rosales, a little-known art dealer from Long Island, walked into Knoedler & Company’s grand Upper East Side town house with a painting she said was by Mark Rothko.

She showed the small board with two clouds of bruised color floating against a backdrop of pale peach to Ann Freedman, the new president of Knoedler, New York’s oldest art gallery.

“It was immediately, from my eyes, a work of interest,” Ms. Freedman recalled later. She was so impressed that she ended up buying the work herself.

For the next decade or so Ms. Rosales frequently arrived at Knoedler’s coffered-ceiling mansion on East 70th Street with what appeared to be paintings by Modernist masters like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell.

All of them were new to the market. All were said to have come from a collector whom Ms. Rosales refused to name.

The paintings were embraced by Knoedler and Ms. Freedman, who handled at least 20 of them, including one she sold for $17 million.

But now several experts have called the works fakes. One has been formally branded a forgery in a court settlement, and the F.B.I. is investigating. Knoedler, after 165 years in business, has shut its doors and is being sued by a client who bought one of the Rosales works. (The gallery said the closing was a business decision unconnected to the lawsuit.) Ms. Freedman, who maintains that the paintings are authentic, was also named in the suit.

Few cases in recent years have roiled the art market as much as this mystery of how an obscure art merchant could have discovered an astonishing number of unknown treasures by the titans of Abstract Expressionism. Each explanation carries its own burden of implausibility.

If they are real, why do some contain pigments that had not been invented at the listed time of their creation?

If they are fakes, who are these preternaturally talented forgers who have been able to confound experts?

And if they are real but stolen, why haven’t their owners come forward to claim them now that the story is public?

Unfortunately the one person who could help unravel the mystery, Ms. Rosales, is not talking, at least publicly. A few details, however, have dripped out in court documents and through interviews with other players in the case, enough to sketch out what happened. Charming and cultured, the Mexican-born Ms. Rosales, 55, and her husband, Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz, who is from Spain, once operated a small gallery, King Fine Arts, in Manhattan on West 19th Street. The couple, who had accounts at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, have said in court papers that they owned or sold paintings by a host of famous artists, including Andy Warhol, whom Mr. Bergantiños has described as a friend.

Given this experience, it may seem odd that Ms. Rosales would have bothered with middlemen like Knoedler, whose commissions sliced into her own. Part of the answer may lie in the gap between Ms. Rosales’s and Ms. Freedman’s stature in the art world.

Tall, rail-thin and self-assured, Ms. Freedman was in charge of one of the country’s most venerable galleries, comfortable lunching with top-tier collectors like the producer David Geffen and the heiress Joan Tisch, buyers who would not blanch at the thought of plunking down a few million for a painting. She and her husband, the real estate developer Robert Freedman, were also collectors in their own right.

The two women were introduced by a Knoedler employee, Jaime Andrade, who had met Ms. Rosales at a cocktail party.

At first, Ms. Freedman said, Ms. Rosales told her only that she was handling the paintings for a friend who had homes in Mexico City and Zurich, and whose identity she had sworn to keep secret. That wasn’t surprising, Ms. Freedman said; private collectors frequently like to remain anonymous. Over time, though, more details about the owner dribbled out. Ms. Rosales told her that he had inherited the art from his father, who had collected it with the help of David Herbert, a New York dealer who died in 1995.

Herbert planned to use the works to stock a new gallery that was to be financed by the original collector. But the two men had a falling out, and the art ended up in the collector’s basement until his death.

Ms. Rosales does own a 1957 line drawing of Herbert by Ellsworth Kelly that was recently part of an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. What she does not seem to have, however, are any records that track the ownership of the two dozen or so Modernist paintings she brought to market.

Glafira Rosales and her lawyer, Anastasios Sarikas


Selling work by a major artist without paperwork attesting to the provenance is rare. So, confronted with paintings that lacked documentation, that could theoretically have been painted, as one lawyer put it, “in Ms. Rosales’s garage,” Ms. Freedman said she focused on what really mattered, the quality of the works themselves.

And they were extraordinary, Ms. Freedman declared. She enlisted several experts to check her own impressions of the Rothkos, Pollocks, Barnett Newmans, Clyfford Stills and other works that Ms. Rosales supplied. Claude Cernuschi, for example, the author of a book on Pollock, attested to the authenticity of a small painting signed “J. Pollock” and called “Untitled 1950.” The National Gallery of Art, where an authoritative compendium of Rothko’s works on paper — known as the catalogue raisonné — was being assembled, wrote that two of the Rothkos looked genuine.

By 2000 or so Ms. Freedman had bought three of Ms. Rosales’s offerings herself: the Rothko from their first meeting, “Untitled 1959,” for $200,000; a Pollock for $300,000; and a Motherwell for $20,000. “If Ann Freedman had any questions about these works, she and her husband would not have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in them,” her lawyer, Nicholas Gravante Jr., said.

But shadows began appearing in 2003 when a Goldman Sachs executive sought to confirm the authenticity of a Rosales painting attributed to Pollock, “Untitled 1949,” that he had bought from Knoedler. He took it to the International Foundation for Art Research, an independent nonprofit, and, after study, an anonymous committee declined to vouch for the painting, citing questions about its style and provenance.

The buyer asked for a refund. Ms. Freedman immediately repaid his $2 million and bought the splatter of white, black and red herself in a partnership with the gallery and a friend, the Canadian theatrical impresario David Mirvish. Mr. Mirvish, a former art dealer himself, said he was unconcerned by a report that was anonymous. (He and Knoedler also invested in two other Rosales Pollocks.)

And confirmation was coming in from other precincts. Mr. Mirvish brought the artist Frank Stella, a contemporary of the Abstract Expressionists, to the gallery in 2006. After inspecting several Rosales paintings Mr. Stella said, “Each one is too good to be true, but seeing them in context, as a group, makes one realize they are true,” according to notes of the conversation that Ms. Freedman testified about in court.

Headiest of all, perhaps, the appeal of the Rosales paintings was being confirmed in the marketplace. Ms. Freedman testified that she ultimately sold 15 or 16 of the works at Knoedler for a total of $27 million to $37 million. The most expensive was “Untitled 1950,” ostensibly by Pollock, which sold in 2007 through an intermediary dealer to a London hedge-fund director named Pierre Lagrange. Knoedler and Mr. Mirvish had jointly bought the tangle of black, red and white lines flicked across a bright silver background several years earlier for about $2 million. Mr. Lagrange paid $17 million.

A few days after the sale to Mr. Lagrange, Ms. Freedman invited to Knoedler some officials from the nonprofit Dedalus Foundation, which Robert Motherwell created to protect the legacy of modern art. She wanted them to see her latest Motherwell.

This was the seventh painting by the artist that Ms. Rosales had supplied either to Ms. Freedman or to another New York dealer, Julian Weissman, over the course of eight years. The set, with their large black slashes and blots lumbering across the canvases, appeared to be related to an acclaimed Motherwell series known as “Spanish Elegies.” Officials at Dedalus had already seen a few of these new “Elegies” and had endorsed them as genuine.

But a couple of weeks after the visit to Knoedler, when Dedalus’s catalogue raisonné committee gathered, some members began to raise questions about the signatures and style of the recently uncovered “Elegies.” The foundation’s president, Jack Flam, said he soon learned that other works from Ms. Rosales attributed to Pollock and Richard Diebenkorn were meeting with skepticism.

E. V. Thaw, the original co-author of Pollock’s catalogue raisonné, for example, said he had previously viewed Mr. Lagrange’s “Untitled 1950” as well as “Untitled 1949” at Knoedler and he told Mr. Flam in 2008 that they “were not by Jackson Pollock.”

Ann Freedman, the former president of Knoedler, who bought and sold several works from Glafira Rosales

Not everyone at Dedalus thought there was need for alarm. Joan Banach, Motherwell’s personal assistant and a veteran foundation employee, said Mr. Flam had made unqualified judgments about authenticity and had violated the foundation’s procedures for evaluating paintings. Ms. Banach has brought suit against Dedalus, arguing she was fired because of her complaints about Mr. Flam. (Dedalus denies that.)

“It is more likely than not,” Ms. Banach said in court papers, that a Rosales Motherwell she inspected at Knoedler “is a genuine work.”

Mr. Flam, however, was determined to prove the Rosales Motherwells were forged, hiring private detectives to investigate Ms. Rosales and her husband and insisting on a series of forensic analyses.

On a chilly January evening in 2009 Mr. Flam and Ms. Freedman met to discuss the results. They sat outside a viewing room at Knoedler where two “Elegies,” one owned by Ms. Freedman, were hanging. Both paintings, the forensic analyst had concluded, contained pigments not developed until 10 years after the 1953 and 1955 dates on the canvases.

Ms. Freedman disputed the results. Artists were frequently given pigments to experiment with before they were patented or marketed, she argued. But Dedalus stood firm. Ms. Rosales, the foundation later declared in court papers, was “the point person for introducing a cache of seven fraudulent ‘Spanish Elegies’ to the market.”

Word of the Motherwell controversy soon reached the F.B.I., which opened an investigation. Ms. Rosales’s lawyer, Anastasios Sarikas, has acknowledged that his client is under investigation, adding that she has “never intentionally or knowingly sold artwork she knew to be forged.”

Ms. Freedman received a subpoena at the gallery in September 2009, though her lawyer said the F.B.I. has since told his client that she is not a target of the inquiry. The following month Ms. Freedman left Knoedler. Both she and the gallery say the investigation had nothing to do with her departure. The breach, Ms. Freedman said, was precipitated by her opposition to the merger of Knoedler with another gallery. Ms. Freedman has since opened her own Upper East Side gallery above a coffee bar. Three artists, including Mr. Stella, ditched Knoedler to stay with her.

Disentangling herself from the trouble brewing over the Rosales paintings has been more difficult. Last year one of the “Elegies” supplied by Ms. Rosales and sold by Mr. Weissman became the subject of a lawsuit when the Irish gallery that had bought the work demanded he refund its $650,000.

Dedalus was dragged into the suit because, after the forensic testing, it had pronounced all the Rosales “Elegies” phony, including those it had once informally labeled as genuine, among them the one Mr. Weissman sold.

Dedalus punched back, spelling out in a crossclaim against Ms. Rosales and Mr. Weissman what it described as a large forgery conspiracy and implicating Ms. Freedman.

That case was settled in October. Ms. Rosales agreed to pay most of the refund and court costs and, at Dedalus’s insistence, the back of the “Elegy” was stamped “forgery” in indelible ink. Despite the settlement Mr. Weissman and Ms. Rosales still maintain through their lawyers that the painting is authentic. Dedalus had one day declared the painting real, then another day decided it was not, Mr. Sarikas noted, adding, “The art world is a world of illusion.”

In defending herself, however, court records show that Ms. Rosales did offer an intriguing bit of new information: the mystery owner’s name. He was John Gerzso, she told a lawyer in the case. And the original owner, Mr. Gerzso’s father, had been helped in his purchases not by David Herbert, as Ms. Rosales had repeatedly said, but by a wealthy Filipino painter, Alfonso Ossorio, who had lived near Pollock and de Kooning in the Hamptons.

Mike Solomon, a former director of the Ossorio Foundation, said Ossorio might have been someone a collector would have asked for advice. But as far as acting as a go-between, he said, “I doubt that he would do that.”

As for John Gerzso, Dedalus described him in court papers as the son of the Mexican artist Gunther Gerzso, who died in 2000. The younger Mr. Gerzso, who has been contacted by the F.B.I., said in an interview that neither he nor his father ever owned the paintings in question. “There was never a sale of anything like these paintings,” he added.

Mr. Sarikas offered only this brief response in an e-mail: “The notion that the original ‘owner’ is the ‘son of Gunther Gerzso’ is a conclusion drawn by those with wishful thinking and rich imaginations.”

Within weeks of the settlement another painting’s authenticity came into dispute. Pierre Lagrange and his wife were divorcing and he wanted to sell “Untitled 1950.” But Sotheby’s and Christie’s refused to handle it because of questions about its provenance and its absence from the Pollock catalogue raisonné. Mr. Lagrange demanded Knoedler take back the painting and commissioned his own forensic analysis.

On Nov. 29 the results came back: two yellow pigments used had not been invented until after Pollock’s death in 1956. A summary was forwarded to Knoedler. The next day the gallery announced it was closing.

In December Ms. Rosales and Ms. Freedman met again, though this time the setting was federal district court in Manhattan, where they had been summoned by subpoena to answer a lawsuit by Mr. Lagrange. He wanted his $17 million back.

The two women briefly greeted each other before Ms. Rosales invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. They have not spoken since, according to their lawyers. Mr. Sarikas said the negative publicity generated by the case was pushing Ms. Rosales toward bankruptcy.

Whether any lawsuit or criminal investigation will provide a definitive answer to the mystery of the paintings is far from certain.

Authenticity can be difficult to litigate. Pigment dating is generally viewed as reliable, but it is not necessarily the deciding factor. For example the chief executive of Golden Artist Colors, Mark Golden, whose father, Sam, created experimental paints for artists like Pollock, said he was certain that his father did not make the yellow pigments in the disputed Pollock, though he noted the individual building blocks did exist in the late 1940s. Art experts agree that a connoisseur’s eye, a comparison with the artist’s other works and provenance are also critical in establishing authenticity.

In a criminal case the bar is higher. Prosecutors would have to prove that the Rosales works are fakes when even the experts can’t seem to agree. And if they are fakes, the government would still have to prove Ms. Rosales was in on any fraud and not an unwitting dupe herself.

“The defense only needs to raise a reasonable doubt,” said Barry Berke, head of the white-collar defense group at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel. “Questions about the underlying facts — Is it real? Is it fake? — make it even harder for prosecutors.”

Meanwhile the painting at the center of the civil suit, “Untitled 1950,” no longer holds pride of place on Mr. Lagrange’s living room wall. The 15-by-28-inch wooden board is now an art world orphan, left in a kind of limbo where it waits to be hailed as a masterpiece or scorned as a hoax.