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Martin Gordon Auction's Diego Rivera Conundrum
A Diego Rivera print recently auctioned by a local gallery has been called into question. Not the print itself, which is believed to be genuine, but the signature on the print. This raises serious concerns about many auctioning practices in the growing online marketplace. It is not the intention of this article to address blame or impropriety on anyone's part regarding the information we have. However, we are of the opinion that such happenings are of importance to our readers and feel the situation must be brought to their attention for the purposes of enhancing discrimination among fine-arts patrons. It is therefore the aim of this article to illuminate and discuss the events, and their relevancy to buying art, as they have transpired to whatever extent this is possible.
First the facts:
On June 3rd, 2007, Mr. Robert McDonald of the Bond Latin American Gallery in San Francisco won a piece that was part of an online auction hosted by the Phoenix based Martin Gordon Auctions. The description of the piece listed on their eBay live auction site and cross-listed on their site read:
Diego Rivera (Mexican, 1886 - 1957)
Open Air School [Escuela al Aire Libre; Maestra Rural]. Lithograph. 1932. Edition of 100. Signed "Diego Rivera," lower left. Warm, fine impression. 12 3/8 x 16 3/8 in. (314 x 416 mm). Prints by Rivera are becoming increasingly scarce. The last sale of this print was Sotheby's New York, 11/1/2001, at $11,400.
Mr. McDonald paid $10,000.00 and a $2,000.00 buyer's premium for the piece. Sounds ok so far right? Well In hindsight, Mr. McDonald probably should have asked for clarification when the listing didn't say what number in the edition the piece was. For example, the "last sale of this print" they refer to was 41/100. I found that out with one e-mail to a person I've never met, and later found a slew of websites to be equally informative. So in that respect I'm inclined to say it's a case of caveat emptor. In any event, the piece he received was, of course, not a part of the numbered edition. But proof copies of lithographs have been known to make their way into the marketplace. On a whole, the wording could've been better but it's still arguably a misunderstanding. Right?
Unfortunately the listing also says the piece is signed, which I think any reasonable person would assume means that the signature is Rivera's. It's not and the website listings for the auction did not display the signature in the image of the print. It does say "Diego Rivera" but after Mr. McDonald received the print he was, to put it mildly, skeptical.
"As soon as I looked at the lithograph it was obvious that the signature was incorrect," says McDonald.
Signatures have a connotation in lithographs that don't apply to other forms of art work. The signature on a lithograph represents a kind of makers-mark, it establishes that the artist approved of the print to be part of an edition, while an unsigned print could be a proof copy or one that the artist was not satisfied with that they planned to discard. Even so, unsigned lithographs do turn up though they're rarely valuated equal to prints from the numbered edition. The information I've received seems to suggest that a bad signature will lower the value of a genuine lithograph because an unauthentic signature amounts to little more than damage.
McDonald contacted several Latin-American art experts (who respectfully requested to not have their names published in connection with this article) and they all agreed that the signature is obviously not Rivera's (see photos). Having confirmed his suspicions, Mr. McDonald and his wife contacted Martin Gordon Auctions to try and get them to take the piece back. What they told Mr. McDonald's wife (communicating on his behalf), at that time, was that the piece
"... was consigned from a very reputable company with headquarters in Mexico City. They warranted the lithograph to be authentic and based on our examination of the print we had no reason to doubt them. After further recent conversations with them, they advised us that they acquired the print from the family of an individual who had been in the employ of Diego Rivera. They absolutely believe the print to be genuine. As to the signature, they indicated that they understood the print was signed by Rivera late in life, well after the print was pulled."
The auction house representative also said in the same communication that if the signature could be verified as unauthentic they would gladly issue a refund. Mr. McDonald provided them with the information he'd received from the experts he contacted; and�after what I understand to be a fairly lengthy communication between the two parties' lawyers�the auction house sent Mr. McDonald a repayment agreement which was subsequently rejected because it contained a clause that would leave the signature in dispute. At the time of this article no agreement has been achieved.
Now to be perfectly honest, this isn't as infrequent as one would hope. It is unfortunate of course, but it happens, and it happens for a very good reason. At some point professional forgers realized there's money to be made in pretending to be someone famous. It's almost like celebrity impersonators in a way, and in fact there's nothing stopping someone from painting a copy and selling it as long as they make it perfectly clear that it's a reproduction and they don�t violate any copyright laws. Earlier this month a it was discovered that a fake William Dobell oil sold for just over $3000.00 on eBay and earlier this year a string of fraudulent Norval Morrisseau's were listed on the site. This isn't a new problem, the internet just facilitates it.
Furthermore, it's often the case that fakes get sold as genuine works with the seller honestly believing the piece is legitimate, as Martin Gordon Auctions claims. In 1993, for example, Christie's in New York had to reprint an entire catalog run because the picture they had originally used on the cover turned out to be a copy of a Fernando Botero painting.
Such attention to detail doesn't seem to exist on the particular Rivera in question. One of the experts Mr. McDonald contacted described the signature as "spurious". The amazing thing about that, if I may, is that when you get right down to it signatures are the easiest part of a piece of art to fake. So no one really knows where this signature came from.
The question arises: who verified the signature in the first place?
Some believe the burden is on the buyer if anything about the auction seems questionable, such as the missing edition number or the lack of a photograph displaying the signature on the auction site. In some respects that's very true, as buyers should be knowledgeable about the piece they are buying. Others may be inclined to say that the auction house should have done a better job of verification because it's their responsibility to verify the claims of their consignors. This is equally true because repeated instances of similar situations would undoubtedly have an effect on an otherwise reputable auction house. Certainly mistakes can happen; but private sellers, auction houses, and galleries have a responsibility to the artistic community to protect the institution of art. It is equally possible that the currently unnamed consignor, being "a reputable company" was taken at their word by Martin Gordon Auctions in good faith based on previous dealings. It could be that private owner who sold it to the consignor had a very convincing story. Today, over 70 years after the lithograph was created and 50 years since the death of the artist it is almost impossible to determine when in the individual print's history the signature was added, or by whom.
The artistic community is largely self-contained, but individual buyers aren't always as knowledgeable, especially young collectors just getting started. The incident with Martin Gordon is actually fortuitous for the community as a whole because it was spotted very early on, but it could just have easily have been sold to a private collector and remain unnoticed for years or even decades. Everyone needs to help keep the market free of fakes, forgeries, and attempts like this by unknown persons to increase the value of a piece through unscrupulous means.