Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Thank You, Flam

Let the record show that on February 3, 2016, an expert at the Knoedler trial finally used declarative sentences to express opinions about the authenticity of a work of art. Jack Flam was the star witness of the morning session and after a number of uncooperative experts and halting progress, it was bracing to watch Flam cut loose. As usual, I was unable to attend the all of today’s proceedings, but the initial questioning of Flam by the De Sole’s attorney Greg Clarick was completed before the break. 
Flam was itching to tell his story involving the fake ‘Motherwells’ that passed through Knoedler Gallery on Ann Freedman’s watch. Mr. Clarick, Judge Gardephe and even the court reporter asked him on numerous occasions to slow down as he unloosed a torrent of information, facts and opinions, all of which he clearly intended to damage Freedman. 
Flam is a serious scholar.  He is head of the Dedalus Foundation, which seeks to preserve the legacy of Robert Motherwell, and, not incidentally, is one of the authors of the Motherwell catalog raisonne. Flam had no problem distinguishing between the various different paintings as the discussion shifted among them.  He seemed to have reviewed his calendar and notes before appearing in court and had dates and facts at his fingertips.  As such, he was a very compelling witness and, in my opinion, his testimony did indeed hurt Freedman as he almost certainly intended.  He probably would have been an even better witness had he been more concise and less freewheeling.  Flam often had the bit between his teeth as he answered and often found himself ending up far away from where the question had begun.  He also sprinkled his answers with art historical and technical terms which may well have meant very little to the laymen of the jury. 
There were four Motherwells that Glafira Rosales brought to Knoedler in total, although not all were sold to outside clients.  At least one is apparently still in Knoedler’s possession, while another was bought by Freedman herself. Flam picked them all apart with cruel precision.
In short, Flam’s testimony today was that starting in 2007, he repeatedly warned Freedman that these works were likely fake but she rebuffed him every time, obstinately clinging to the fantasy of their mysterious provenance.  Flam stated that he first saw one of the group in early 2006, was told the story about David Herbert and “Mr. X” and so forth.  By later in 2007 he had seen some of the others and began to involve his staff and board at Dedalus in the process of vetting them.  While numerous meetings with Freedman took place, Flam and his colleagues began closely examining the works and doing research, after which he became deeply suspicious of the authenticity of all of them.  Flam started expressing his doubts to Freedman around then, and ever more so as time went on as his inquiries yielded worrying results.  Freedman for her part maintained all along that they were authentic.  At an impasse, they mutually decided to submit the works to forensic testing in early 2008 but Freedman was not forthcoming about the outcome of this testing.  By November, 2008, after repeated nagging from Flam, Freedman finally showed him some of the results of this scientific examination, which was damning.  Freedman nevertheless persisted in requesting additional research, which Flam/Daedalus did and which again seemed to prove that the works were fake.  Finally Freedman stopped returning his calls. 

Flam was asked if he authenticated Rothkos, which he does not and Flam expressed “extreme surprise” that Ann Freedman had out his name on the list of experts that she gave to the De Soles, stating that she never asked his permission to do so.

The expert then began explaining how a work of art is authenticated stating that there are four factors:  connoisseurship, provenance, fitting the work into the historical narrative of the artists life, which involves the work’s date, and, lastly, forensic testing.  It was his ability to explain how an expert looks at a painting and determines its authenticity that I found the most compelling.

Flam then started dishing details in a way that made it clear to me that he wanted to cast aspersions on Ann Freedman.  About the David Herbert story, he quoted Freedman as saying that Herbert was homosexual and so was Mr. X and that they were lovers, and also that the son of Mr. X is a homosexual, and because homosexuality is frowned on in Mexico it would be dangerous for any details about their identity be revealed.  He claimed that Freedman’s story "had a lot of moving parts" and that it kept changing and had also included Alfonso Ossorio.  This was all told with a great deal of eye rolling on his part.

At one point, Flam said, Freedman opined that Motherwell had gone to Mexico on a trip in the 1950s, around when the paintings were said to be made and been a guest of Mr. X.  However, Flam was at that very moment compiling a chronology of Motherwell’s life and told Freedman that the artist had not visited Mexico between 1944 and 1968.  On this, as on may other occasions, Flam portrayed himself—convincingly—as having a great command of the facts of Motherwell’s life and art which he contrasted with Freedman’s lack of interest in discussing anything but David Herbert.

As Flam came into close contact with the purported ‘Motherwells’, he started seeing problems.  The signatures on all of them were identical…”as if a template had been used”.  One of them was titled on the back “Spanish Elegy” which was indeed the title of a series that Motherwell used, but which was never, ever written on the back of any canvas.  The paint application, the areas of matte versus glossy, and the drip marks were not typical of Motherwell, in his opinion. 

Flam says he told her all of this, but she “kept bringing up David Herbert” and would never engage with his observations about the physical qualities of the works.

Of another painting he saw, Flam noticed that it was done on an old canvas, with old nail holes and an image of something else underneath it, not by Motherwell….according to Flam, this was untrue of any other Motherwell he had ever seen.  Motherwell simply did not take used canvases to make his works, it seemed fishy to him, as if someone was trying to give the appearance of age to a fake by using an old canvas. 

Furthermore, the support was warped, but the paint layer was absolutely pristine; if a canvas bows, then the paint should crack, he noted.  The whites were too white, he also said. 

All of this he told Freedman, but, Flam said, she just offered more about David Herbert, never giving her own observations about materials, methods or techniques, only provenance.

Finally, Flam agreed that he would keep an open mind if she could give him some information about Mr. X, or even the person who brought in the works, which never happened. Instead, she sent him the opinions of two experts, one of them Stephen Polcari, who "loved" the work, which Flam found laughable.

EA Carmean, the former National Gallery curator who was working for Knoedler payroll at this point, also seems to have been an advocate.  Flam told Carmean over lunch after they both examined one of the ‘Motherwells’ that “the work looked more like the Elegies than the Elegies”.  Carmean tried to argue that maybe someone else had written the wrong date on the back.  No, said Flam, that was pretty unlikely. 

The chemical testing then came about.  Supposed to bring closure to the issue, Freedman was unresponsive, said Flam, until 9 months later when she said that they had a “draft report”, but she wanted to wait until it was completed. 

Then, in January, 2009, Flam got a package containing the report, in “redacted form”, via messenger, from Knoedler that said he could read it over night, but could not copy it or discuss it with anyone else and had to bring it back the next day.  This report, while final, was not complete, because Carmean “disagreed” with some of it, so they seem to have withheld the conclusions. The next day, Flam brought it back, but at this point he was even more convinced of the fakery.  The work, according to the forensic analyst, had been sanded down with an electric sander…not the way Motherwell worked, to Flam’s knowledge.  Worse yet, there was a layer of acrylic paint UNDERNEATH the oil paint…acrylic paint which Motherwell did not use until the 1960s and which wasn’t even commercially available in 1953 when the work was said to have been executed.

Freedman stuck to her guns, asked Flam to verify that Motherwell never used a sander or that he might have had a studio assistant that did so.  According to Flam, Freedman even wondered aloud if ‘someone else’ might have signed the works, which “horrified” Carmean (objection!).

Anyway, he have his staff look into the sanding business but no dice.  Motherwell was bad with tools, didn't have a studio assistant at that time and no other paintings they knew of had ever been sanded down.

Unlike a lot of the other experts who were on the Knoedler list given to the De Soles, Flam was never in a position of having to flatter Freedman.  He never, ever said nice things about the fakes. (actually, I read Brian Boucher’s coverage of the entire day and it seems that when he first walked into Knoedler he was initially  taken…but he quickly changed his tune as he started really looking).  There are no emails or little essays or letters saying how wonderful he thought they were, in contrast to many of the other experts who are now saying the opposite. 

The cross examination was to come next, which I had to miss, but Flam was, I think, easily the most damaging witness to have testified to date.  Regardless of who one believes in this case, I think it cannot be argued that hearing Flam speak so freely and frankly was a breath of fresh air.

As a professional in the art world, I am very grateful that Flam actually described how an expert examines a painting and how they go through the process of determining authenticity.  Rather than wave a magic wand and say something is right or wrong, he laid out, in plain speech what one looks for.  The paint being perfect, for example, when the canvas is warped.  He compared the works in question to examples of Motherwell's paintings which are known to be authentic and noted significant differences. 

The defense has all along pointed out that for much of the period covered by the Rosales affair, forensic testing was not in wide use in the art world, that the technology did not exist.  So I expect that fact will be brought to bear on these ‘Motherwells’.  But even without the science, Flam showed that there is a solid methodology that can be employed, it's not hocus-pocus.  I have been complaining all along how bad this trial is making everyone look.  Flam was the exception, his behavior in this instance was something that the art world can be proud of.

Flam has spoken many time advocating for scholars and experts to stand up and say if they see fakes, he decries the secrecy that is commonplace in the art world, he thinks it gives cover to nefarious actors. It certainly is easy for him to say; he has a steady paycheck and a staff to help him perform authentications.   But he does have a point.  If more people were as thorough and transparent as he was, it would be a good thing. 

Stephen Polcari

While Flam was the star witness of the day, he wasn’t the first.  Polcari received a final going over to begin the morning session.  Luke Nikas, Ann Freedman’s attorney, reminded Polcari that he had said he never “authenticated” anything…and then flashed on the screen a number of the tear-sheet essays and catalog entries that Polcari had written which said things like “I am convinced of their quality and authenticity.”   Ouch.  Nikas actually tried to repair some of the damage that Polcari had caused himself as a witness when he had stated he couldn’t tell the Rothkos apart by pointing out that it was a long time ago.  Nikas also rattled off Polcari’s considerable academic credentials and the fact that he has done work for IFAR. 

Thus, it seems to me now that the plaintiffs wanted him to look like a buffoon to undercut Freedman…that she relied on someone she shouldn’t have…and the defense need him to be credible enough to give her cover…that she relied on someone reliable.

Polcari looked drained, beaten down.

Frank Del Deo

Frank Del Deo was called next.  Del Deo is an affable man who was a rising star in the art world, working as Associate Director at Knoedler from 1999 – 2009, and then was made President from 2009 – 2011, after which he left.  Del Deo was one of the principle salespeople at the firm, contributing to the success of one most well respected, powerful galleries in the universe and is certainly part of the considerable collateral damage that the implosion of Knoedler caused.  However, unlike some of the other employees at Knoedler, his career is far from over and he now runs a gallery with another former Knoedler employee, Ben Barzune.

While Del Deo probably had some bad luck, or at least bad timing, he can be thankful that he never sold any of the Rosales works.  It is typical among a competitive sales team within a gallery that the person who brings in the material often has the chance to sell it.  For one thing, compensation is generally calculated on one’s sales and profits.  So why would Ann Freedman share such a windfall with her subordinates? Del Deo did admit to having chatted with Rosales “several times” and been in a meeting or two, but he seemingly dodged the bullet as Freedman was playing keep-away. 

The De Sole’s lawyer, Emily Reisbaum, tried to establish what percentage of profits that Del Deo typically earned on sales, if there was a difference between consigned and owned inventory and so forth, the obvious intent was to demonstrate that Freedman was earning an astronomically high percentage compared to normal gallery practice.  Del Deo didn’t really play ball and gave ranges and hemmed and hawed, but Reisbaum was able to pin him down a bit on some of it. 

Del Deo was asked about any collectors who ever got refunds from Knoedler and he was aware of two, both because of material that Rosales had brought to them. 

There was discussion of how he became to be President (Freedman was suddenly gone) and why he decided to leave Knoedler suddenly.  Del Deo did offer the information that Michael Hammer, Knoedler’s owner, was selling the building, and they hadn’t found other space (they were thinking of moving to Chelsea!).  But as the questioner drilled down, it became clear that the entire business was in turmoil and that the FBI was nailing subpoenas to their door (not literally, I am trying to be funny).  They closed on December 12, 2011, while Charles Simonds’ show was still on view.

Because Del Deo had extensive contact with Knoedler’s lawyers as the gallery was going down in flames, a lot of discussions were covered by attorney/client privilege.  There were numerous side-bars and objections, redacted letters and so forth.  Add to that some technical glitches, as well as Del Deo’s doggedly opaque testimony and I didn’t feel that Reisbaum made too much headway.  There was a lot of “I don’t recall” out of Del Deo…hard to believe that details about such a cataclysmic event would elude the man, but they really had to drag it out of him.  They did get him on the old ‘does this refresh your memory as I read back your deposition’ once or twice, but Del Deo simply had trouble remembering a lot of stuff.

I suppose there is very little upside to Del Deo opening his mouth.  Sure, he’s probably love to see Freedman eaten by fire ants after what went on, but that might well happen without his help, and he runs the risk of exposing himself to all sorts of pain if he lets something slip while trying to twist the knife.   None of anything I have ever read before this trial, or during it has ever linked Del Deo to any of this, so he had every right to pull up the covers and hope the lawyers went away and eventually they did.  Once again, this whole affair has caused a lot of pain.

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