Ann Freedman, the art dealer at the center of the Knoedler art forgery debacle, stood in open court today and was introduced to the jury hearing the case brought against her and her former employer. Freedman’s lawyer Luke Nikas, a partner at the prominent law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner began his defense of his client with an opening statement that not only laid out the facts that rebut the plaintiff’s assertions that Freedman knowingly committed fraud and conspired with others to defraud them but also sought to humanize her. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend yesterday’s proceedings, and had to leave before Nikas finished but I look forward to hearing more. The case offers a rare opportunity to observe the machinations of the art world, as well as to document the numerous pitfalls that exist for any professionals that are involved in buying and selling fine art, particularly on the secondary market. I must confess, too, that it is gripping entertainment, watching one of the formerly most powerful dealers in New York face an angry client in front of a federal judge and jury.
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Luke Nikas is a soft-spoken lawyer who does not seem given to hyperbole. At one point, the court reporter asked him to speak up, and his strategy here may have been to seem unfazed by the many accusations hurled at his client the day before as well as to project a sense of calm. Regardless, his straightforward manner served him well as he walked the jury through Freedman’s version of the situation. His first task was to explain Abstract Expressionism to the jury—no easy job under the best of circumstances. He focused on three of the major names, since they are all painters whose works are involved in the case: Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and made the point that they were all basically alcoholics whose lives were hectic and for whom record-keeping was not a priority, the obvious point being that unlike a car, for example, there is not necessarily a paper trail for the sale of works of art…even ones which later trade for millions of dollars. Talking about a complicated, rather inaccessible thing like gestural abstraction to a group of lay-people who probably would rather not be on jury duty is not my idea of fun, but Nikas hung tough and should be forgiven for resorting to showing the scene where Pollock trades a painting for beer and falls off his bike from the Ed Harris 2000 biopic on the artist.
Nikas then described the various ways that fine art is proved to be authentic in the marketplace, stating that dealers turn to conservators, connoisseurs and art historians for this. He made what was, for me, the rather stunning assertion that “an art dealer is not an art expert,” going on to say that they are really just salespeople who need to hire others to vet the things they deal in. This would be a surprise to the Art Dealer’s Association of America, of which Knoedler was a member, whose mission statement clearly states that it seeks to “promote the highest standards of connoisseurship [and] scholarship” in the profession. It must have been beyond painful for Ann Freedman to hear her lawyer say that about her. No dealer at that level would want to be seen as merely a salesperson, without any expertise, but here is one reason why the case is such sensation in the art world—the entire concept of trusting dealers is being sullied.
Nikas went on to show that numerous experts stood up for the material Freedman was selling in an effort to demonstrate that she had good reason to believe it was authentic. It should be noted that his strategy here was shrewd; obviously these situations are two-way streets but Nikas made it seem as if experts always operate free of any outside influences. These opinions were not offered in a vacuum however; they were approached directly by Freedman, the director of Knoedler, which was a powerful gallery with an impeccable reputation. The fact that Freedman was entertaining the possibility that these works were authentic would have shaded their thinking.
While he wasn’t being really nasty, this part of Nikas’ opening statement in effect dragged the reputations of a lot of experts through the dirt. E.A. Carmean, who was a powerful curator in the 1980s and 1990s before becoming an Episcopal priest (and who joined Knoedler as head of research in 2003), wrote a letter that praised one of the works in the mess. Dana Cranmer, a conservator who worked closely with the Rothko Estate in the 1980s said she thought at least one of the ‘Rothkos’ was authentic. David Anfam, a noted scholar and author of a Rothko catalog raisonne was also apparently fooled as was the curator Laila Nasr. Even dealers David Mirvish and Ernst Beyeler along with Christie’s auction house were included as those who had accepted the authenticity of some of the various works. In addition to providing cover for his client, Nikas was trying to steal some of the plaintiff’s thunder, as many of the above are scheduled to testify and he wants to undermine them should they go on record as having had doubts about the paintings. Nikas wasn’t saying that they were stupid; his point was that these were really, really good forgeries and could have fooled anyone. But again, how awful for these men and women.
Before he got too far into all of this, Nikas asked his client to stand up and he presented her to the jury. He described Freedman as coming from a modest home and that she had worked hard to get to where she was. He also pointed out that she continues to be active as a dealer. He spoke of her 47-year marriage and her 30 years at Knoedler, pointing out that loyalty was important to her. It was a touching moment, and one meant to humanize her. Freedman does not enjoy a resounding amount of support in the art world in general at present and I doubt that this trial will do much to change anybody’s mind. But the jury had heard so many awful things about her, I felt it was an effective part of the opening statement.
Nikas went on to point out that initially, Freedman made very little money herself on the various forged paintings that passed through Knoedler, which, according to his argument, undercuts the notion that she was a greedy conspirator from the beginning. He painted her as a victim who gradually got ensnared by a crook. He pointed out that on a number of occasions, Freedman used her own money to buy works from Glafira Rosales, and that ‘she believed in these works’. Again, remember, Freedman was at the top of her profession before this scandal broke. Now she is paying a top lawyer to say that she was an easy mark for a two-bit hustler who played her for a fool, concocting stories and feeding her valuable forgeries at tempting prices.
I plan on attending more of the trial and look forward to hearing from the many witnesses on the list and will have some more thoughts as time goes on. My takeaway at this point is that an appraiser—and any professional honestly-- should always think about what their work and their actions would look like in court. Because when a trained, skillful lawyer who has the time and resources to go through a dispute starts talking about you in a courtroom, you are probably not going to like what they say—unless you are paying them yourself and then things are infinitely worse.