Skip to ArticleSkip to Radioplayer

Fact-based journalism is worth fighting for.

Donate
Jan 25, 2020

Fancy galleries, fake art

Co-produced with PRX Logo

In the mid-’90s, two high-end New York art galleries began selling one fake painting after another – works in the style of Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko and others. It was the largest art fraud in modern U.S. history, totaling more than $80 million. Our first story looks at how it happened and why almost no one ever was punished by authorities. 

Our second story revisits an investigation into a painting looted by the Nazis during World War II. More than half a century later, a journalist helped track it down through the Panama Papers.

Credits

Our story about the largest art fraud in modern U.S. history was reported and produced by Gisele Regatão with help from Janet Babin. It was edited by Brett Myers.

Our story about looted artwork was produced and reported by Emily Harris and edited by Susanne Reber.

Special thanks to Mark Scheffler, Miguel Macias, Victoria Burnett and Deborah Solomon for help with the story about art fraud. It was supported in part by a PSC-CUNY Award, jointly funded by the Professional Staff Congress and City University of New York. And thanks to Le Monde, NDR and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists for production assistance with the looted artwork story and to CBC/Radio-Canada for partnering on the story.  

 Photo illustration by Brian Britigan for Reveal. 

Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Najib Aminy, Amy Mostafa, Sandra Lopez Monsalve, Claire Mullen, Katherine Rae Mondo and Cat Schuknecht. Hosted by Al Letson.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Speaker 1: If your money is in a big bank, it's working a lot harder for shareholders than it is for you, but there's an alternative, SF Fire Credit Union. As a member-owned credit union, SF Fire is committed to giving everyone in the Bay Area the financial tools and local service they need to succeed. So if it's time for your first house, a new car, or just time for a clean break from your bank, discover what you've been missing. Visit sffirecu.org to learn more.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. John Howard lives in an impressive home, a Manhattan brownstone four stories high covered in green vines.

 

John Howard: Literally, I walked into this house and I walked over here and I said, "Okay. I'll do it. I'll buy it." I didn't even go upstairs.

 

Al Letson: It's not the house that we're here to see so much as what's in it. John's an art collector.

 

Gisele Regatão: I notice the art right away. Do you have art in all the rooms in this house?

 

John Howard: Pretty much.

 

Al Letson: John's talking to reporter Gisele Regatao. She's here to see one painting in particular, one that hasn't hung in John's house for years.

 

Gisele Regatão: So it's all wrapped in brown paper. Did you wrap it yourself?

 

John Howard: I did not. It's all tied up very neatly with cord which I'm now going to cut.

 

Al Letson: It has a very prestigious signature, Willem de Kooning. He's a famous Dutch-American painter known for his abstract expressionist work.

 

John Howard: So I probably haven't seen this in, I don't know, between five and 10 years. There it is.

 

Al Letson: The painting has vibrant splashes of blue, black, white, and a peculiar yellow that John just loves.

 

John Howard: It's not a chrome yellow. It's a kind of muted yellow. It has more brown in it so it's an ochre color is what I call it.

 

Al Letson: When he bought it back in 2007, it was the most he ever spent on a piece of art, $4 million.

 

John Howard: There was a poignance to my buying it.

 

Al Letson: John's dad collected art. De Kooning was one of his favorites.

 

John Howard: My father could never afford to buy one of his paintings.

 

Al Letson: His dad was a Jewish immigrant who escaped from Germany at the beginning of World War II. For John, the de Kooning was kind of a statement like, "Look at how far we've come." It used to hang next to his fireplace. Then a few years after he bought it, he took to an expert.

 

John Howard: And the guy calls me back in a day and says this is a fake. I said, "How do you know it's a fake?" He goes, "You know that yellow on the painting?" I go, "Yeah, I know that yellow. That's why I bought the painting. That yellow is so beautiful." He goes, "Well the painting was supposed to be painted in 1953. That particular chrome yellow wasn't invented until 1990."

 

Al Letson: John fell prey to a fake art scheme, one that federal prosecutors say is the largest in modern US history, 63 fake masterpieces that sold for more than $80 million.

 

Gisele Regatão: It's a crazy story.

 

Al Letson: A crazy story that Gisele's been tracking for years. The story made international news when it broke. At the center were four immigrants, two Spanish brothers, a Mexican-American woman, and a Chinese painter.

 

Gisele Regatão: In the garage behind his house in Queens, the Chinese painter churned out fake painting after fake painting, artworks in the style of people like Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Mark Rothko.

 

Al Letson: And then they did all sorts of things to make the paintings look old.

 

Gisele Regatão: They rubbed teabags on them to make them brown. They even emptied dust buster bins on the canvases because old paintings have dirt and dust that collect on them.

 

Al Letson: But collectors don't buy Pollocks and Rothkos from strangers working out of a garage. They buy them from trusted galleries. So one of the fraudsters, a woman by the name of Glafira Rosales, approached two galleries with a story.

 

Gisele Regatão: She told them she was a dealer who was representing an anonymous European collector. He had just died and the family was selling some of his works.

 

Al Letson: The galleries bought the paintings and resold them to collectors. This started in the mid '90s and continued for the next 15 years.

 

Gisele Regatão: One of these galleries was the Knoedler Gallery. It was one of the oldest and most well-respected art galleries in the country. Of the 63 fake paintings, Knoedler sold 40 of them. Another gallery, Julian Weissman Fine Art, owned by a former Knoedler employee, sold the other 23.

 

Al Letson: Collectors like John Howard say they never doubted the authenticity of the paintings because those galleries are supposed to make sure they're the real thing.

 

John Howard: These are the most [inaudible 00:04:43], serious people, institutional people in the world and they're vetting it. So what more work could I have done?

 

Al Letson: Eventually, the FBI got involved and the whole thing came crashing down. Remember, the victims were conned out of more than $80 million, but when the investigation was over, almost no one was punished. Glafira Rosales, the fake art dealer, struck a plea deal and spent just three months behind bars. Her partners all fled the country before they could be arrested. As for the art galleries, they were never charged with any crimes and that got Gisele's reporter sense tingling.

 

Gisele Regatão: I've spent most of my career reporting on arts and culture, and I'm also an immigrant myself. So I've been fascinated with how four people who didn't speak English particularly well and were not well-connected in high-end art circles, how could they have pulled this whole scheme off. I just kept thinking that this story isn't just about them. It's also about those two art galleries that sold the 63 fake paintings.

 

Al Letson: Gisele set out on a journey that would take her from that garage in Queens to the backrooms of some of the glitziest galleries in the world. It would open up even bigger questions about the winners and losers in this massive multi-million-dollar scam. Gisele takes the story from here.

 

Gisele Regatão: The Knoedler Gallery was a legendary place. Paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer made their way through these doors. It used to sit here on East [70th] Street in Manhattan's Upper East Side, and it was in business for 165 years. When the fake dealer Glafira Rosales would show up here, she often arrived by car, clutching paintings in her bare hands, no big wooden crates which is how expensive art is generally handled. Glafira had few details to offer about where the paintings were coming from, just that she was representing a collector who wished to remain anonymous. The first two paintings that Knoedler Gallery bought from her were by Richard Diebenkorn, a California-based artist who had just died. Soon after, his daughter, Gretchen Diebenkorn Grant, says she got a call from Knoedler. It was from someone you're going to hear about a lot, someone who wouldn't agree to talk to us for this story, Ann Freedman, the gallery's president.

 

Gretchen D. G.: She said, "Some Diebenkorn's have come in and I thought you'd be interested in seeing them."

 

Gisele Regatão: The two pieces Knoedler invited Gretchen to see were a bit of a mystery. They had almost no provenance. Provenance is pretty important in the art world. It's the chronology of everyone who's ever owned a particular piece of art. In a backroom at the gallery, Gretchen and her mom looked at the paintings closely, studying them. Gretchen thought they had the right proportions, the right colors.

 

Gretchen D. G.: The tonality of it was pretty good. Well I would say quite good, but there was something wrong somehow to me. So I kept looking at it and my mother kept looking at it.

 

Gisele Regatão: She finally realized what's missing.

 

Gretchen D. G.: It didn't have any soul. It had no life.

 

Gisele Regatão: But Gretchen didn't come right out and say what she was thinking.

 

Gretchen D. G.: Because we were advised early on never to say anything was not by my father, the f-word as we refer to it.

 

Gisele Regatão: F-word meaning fake. It's a big no-no in the art world because if you say an artwork is a fake, you can be sued. Owners can come after you for defamation of property. Even though she didn't use the f-word, Gretchen says she made her uncertainty about the paintings clear to the gallery's president, Ann Freedman. Then after a few months, she got a letter from the Knoedler Gallery.

 

Gretchen D. G.: Saying that because we had authenticated this work, they had then sold it and they wanted us to know that. My mother was outraged as was I because we most certainly did not say that.

 

Gisele Regatão: Gretchen says she was never asked to authenticate the art, only to see it. Court documents show that lots of collectors who bought these fake paintings were under the impression that experts had authenticated them, but many experts testified that it never happened. So what became of those paintings Gretchen looked at? For that, we head to Manhattan's Upper West Side to meet Bernard Kruger. Bernard's a doctor. He lives in an apartment with his wife, two kids, their dog Molly, and a lot of art. Bernard has been a lifelong fan of Richard Diebenkorn.

 

Bernard Kruger: I was always attracted to the underpainting, the color feel, the subtleness of it, and the collage. I like collage.

 

Gisele Regatão: He saw several Diebenkorn exhibitions at the Knoedler Gallery. He wanted to buy some of his pieces, but it wasn't easy.

 

Bernard Kruger: I would go to Knoedler and you'd have to beg her to buy a Diebenkorn.

 

Gisele Regatão: He's talking about Ann Freedman. She was a tough gatekeeper.

 

Bernard Kruger: She was absolutely nasty about it and if you weren't somebody that she cared about, she wouldn't let you buy one.

 

Gisele Regatão: Why not?

 

Bernard Kruger: Well because this is how she gave out her favors. Finally, she let me buy one. I never got a choice of one. She never would let me buy the best.

 

Gisele Regatão: He says it was like this for years, always courting Ann Freedman, begging to buy. Then in 1994, things changed. Suddenly, he gets a call. Ann tells him that Knoedler has two pieces available for him to see, those same Diebenkorn's Gretchen and her mom looked at months earlier.

 

Bernard Kruger: I think I paid 80 for it or 75. By then, I was-

 

Gisele Regatão: I checked. He actually paid $95,000 for it, about $30,000 less than the last Diebenkorn he had bought. I asked him, "Didn't you think it was strange all of a sudden a Diebenkorn is coming your way so easily and at such a good price?"

 

Bernard Kruger: I thought it was great. Finally, I'm getting a good deal on a Diebenkorn.

 

Gisele Regatão: Knoedler was getting a good deal too. Court records show that the gallery made $45,000 on Bernard's fake Diebenkorn, a profit margin of 90%. That's way above the industry average which is more like 20% to 30%. Throughout the years as Knoedler buys more and more of the fakes, its profit margin skyrockets. In some cases, the gallery sold paintings for more than 10 times what it paid to the dealer, Glafira Rosales. I learned that, in 2003, the International Foundation for Art Research or IFAR analyzed one of the Pollocks that came from Glafira. It could not confirm the painting was legitimate. Knoedler knew about this but continued buying pieces from her anyway. Court records reveal that, between 1994 and 2011, the fakes were the only thing keeping the Knoedler Gallery profitable. The business made about $30 million over that period, but take away the fakes and it would have been more than $3 million in the hole.

 

Gisele Regatão: The art world is notoriously unregulated. It's often compared to the markets for drugs and guns. Deals are frequently sealed with handshakes. Still, there are best practices, tried and true methods that galleries use to ensure that the artwork they are selling is legit. To talk about how it's supposed to work, I turned to one of the most prominent art dealers in the country. Everything smells of wood here.

 

Marc Glimcher: That's me burning incense.

 

Gisele Regatão: Meet the metaphysical Marc Glimcher.

 

Marc Glimcher: I'm so crystals. Oh, my god. I'm way past New Age. Okay? This is about enlightenment. Am I right? I mean what else is the art world about?

 

Gisele Regatão: Marc is the president of Pace Gallery. It's one of the largest galleries in New York City. It was founded by his dad in 1960. Pace represents one of the giants of American art, Mark Rothko. Still, it's not like the gallery has his paintings sitting on shelves. They are extremely rare, but it seems it's my lucky day. So do you have a Rothko available?

 

Marc Glimcher: Yes, I do.

 

Gisele Regatão: You do?

 

Marc Glimcher: Strangely enough.

 

Gisele Regatão: Could we see it?

 

Marc Glimcher: No.

 

Gisele Regatão: Why?

 

Marc Glimcher: I'm sorry.

 

Gisele Regatão: Why not?

 

Marc Glimcher: Because I'm only allowed to offer it one person and that person's waiting.

 

Gisele Regatão: Oh, but we're not going to buy it.

 

Marc Glimcher: I know.

 

Gisele Regatão: We're just pretending.

 

Marc Glimcher: I know.

 

Gisele Regatão: Can you describe the painting or tell us what it is?

 

Marc Glimcher: Good question. Can I do that?

 

Gisele Regatão: Well he can't. All Marc can say is it's owned by someone famous.

 

Marc Glimcher: That famous owner does not want anyone to know that this painting is for sale. Okay? So that lends us towards a possibility for fraud because I can turn to you and say, "I can't tell you anything about this painting."

 

Gisele Regatão: I know.

 

Marc Glimcher: It's a secret.

 

Gisele Regatão: Marc says there's a reason it's done this way.

 

Marc Glimcher: We don't want Rothkos floating around on the open market and people discussing the prices. Is it available? Why is it available? Why does that person need the money? Et cetera, et cetera. We're a business where being the first or only person to be offered that painting is very important to value of that painting.

 

Gisele Regatão: This is part of how art dealers create excitement and control prices. They don't offer them to just anybody.

 

Marc Glimcher: We should be able to offer to one person and sell it.

 

Gisele Regatão: Marc says trusted collectors are the ones who get to buy the best work, no one else. People like me don't get to just walk in off the streets and buy a Rothko, but that's exactly what happened at Knoedler. One collector walked into the gallery for the first time and was offered a Rothko and a Pollock. He bought the Rothko. It was fake. Marc is light-lipped about his Rothko, but after some prodding, he does tell me the price, more than $100 million. Even though buyers might not have all the information they would like, Marc says there are basic safeguards to make sure people are getting what they pay for.

 

Marc Glimcher: So we say your painting's been included in the catalogue raisonne. We show you that it's in the catalogue raissone.

 

Gisele Regatão: The catalogue raissone is like the artist bible. It has all of his or her works that are believed to be authentic. In the case of the fakes, Knoedler and Julian Weissman were selling works without that. Buyers had no proof that Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, or Robert Motherwell had ever created the paintings they were paying millions for. There's another way paintings are authenticated. You can't tell me who's selling it.

 

Marc Glimcher: No.

 

Gisele Regatão: Can you give me some documentation of provenance?

 

Marc Glimcher: I can definitely give you the documentation of the provenance, but the last entry is going to say private collection, New York.

 

Gisele Regatão: Perfect provenance should trace ownership of a painting all the way back to the artist's studio, proving that it's authentic, but holes in provenance are common. So it looks like I'm going to this in the dark.

 

Marc Glimcher: You're going to be a little bit in the dark.

 

Gisele Regatão: The collectors how bought all those fake paintings were completely in the dark because the works had almost zero provenance and nothing in a catalogue raissone. Those collectors should have been more skeptical, but so should the galleries. They bought masterpiece after masterpiece that supposedly came from a single anonymous collector. What collector has dozens of masterpieces of unknown origin? I spoke to several experts who say that, after years of buying up mysterious works, the galleries should have realized it was too good to be true. If you had been in that situation, would you have bought those paintings?

 

Marc Glimcher: No, never.

 

Gisele Regatão: If people that are in this market-

 

Marc Glimcher: Right.

 

Gisele Regatão: ... commit some kind of wrongdoing-

 

Marc Glimcher: Yes.

 

Gisele Regatão: ... in the practice of your profession-

 

Marc Glimcher: Absolutely.

 

Gisele Regatão: ... don't you think they should be punished for it?

 

Marc Glimcher: Yes.

 

Gisele Regatão: Do you think they were?

 

Marc Glimcher: Probably not. We are in a business of trust, and I think that if you break trust and do not assume immediately 100% responsibility, there's nothing worse than that in the art business. There could be no greater crime.

 

Gisele Regatão: I spoke to multiple victims for this story who believe that, at some point, the two galleries must have suspected that the paintings they were selling were fake which is why this next detail raises even more questions. John Howard says a few months after he bought that fake de Kooning, he got a call from Knoedler's president, Ann Freedman.

 

John Howard: She said, "What other artists are you interested in? What other paintings are you interested in? Because you never know when we're going to come across something."

 

Gisele Regatão: John says he told her about one artist he loves, American abstract painter Robert Motherwell.

 

John Howard: There's a series of paintings he did called the Spanish Elegy series which are beautiful paintings, and they're large format ones and small ones. I said, "I know the small ones are rarer, but I'd really be interested in a small format Spanish Elegy painting."

 

Gisele Regatão: Then about six months later, John says Ann calls him again.

 

John Howard: She goes, "John Howard, I don't know ..." I remember this expression. "I don't know what lucky star you live under, but guess what I have in my hands." I pause and I think and I go, "A small format Spanish Elegy painting?" She goes, "Exactly. Can you come on Saturday to see it?"

 

Gisele Regatão: But when John sees the painting, he doesn't like it and decides to pass. That extremely rare Motherwell also turned out to be fake.

 

Al Letson: That fake painting came from Glafira Rosales. We don't know if Ann Freedman asked Glafira for it specifically, but prosecutors did find that, on multiple occasions, gallery employees went to Glafira to request specific hard-to-find works. We'll learn more about that after the break when we sit down with Ann Freedman's lawyer, Luke Nikas.

 

Luke Nikas: The document production that Knoedler made in this case was thousands and thousands and thousands of pages of research and memos and-

 

Gisele Regatão: Research on what?

 

Luke Nikas: On the story.

 

Gisele Regatão: But that was all fake. What kind of research was that?

 

Luke Nikas: Sure.

 

Al Letson: That's coming up on Reveal.

 

Speaker 1: Reveal is supported by the Real Real, the leading reseller for authenticated luxury consignment. Consign men's and women's luxury fashion, fine jewelry, watches, art, and home. The Real Real makes it easy with our free white glove service, in-story drop-off, or from-home shipping. Think sustainably. Consign with the Real Real today and earn up to 85% commission plus site credit. Authentic, sustainable luxury only at therealreal.com.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today on the show, we're investigating the biggest art fraud in modern US history, 63 fake paintings totalling more than $80 million. Dozens of collectors were caught up in the scheme. The question we're asking, "How did this happen? How did two well-respected New York galleries, Julian Weissman Fine Art and Knoedler Gallery, resell fake painting after fake painting for 15 straight years?" When we left off, collector John Howard had just passed on buying a Spanish Elegy painting from American artist Robert Motherwell. That painting will go on to expose the whole fraud. Reporter Gisele Regatao picks up the story with what happens next.

 

Gisele Regatão: Earlier, I described a catalogue raissone as a bible of an artist's work. Everything an artist has ever done should be in there. Putting on together is like a treasure hunt. You have to go around the country, the world, examining each and every work that may have been done by an artist and you try to determine whether pieces are real or fake. That's what Jack Flam was doing in the early 2000s. He's the president of the Dedalus Foundation, an organization that promotes modern art. Jack and his team were building the catalogue raissone for Motherwell's work and they got their eyes on a black-and-white painting with exaggerated drip marks.

 

Jack Flam: There was something off about the painting. Among other things, it was severely warped. I'd never seen a Motherwell painting so warped.

 

Gisele Regatão: That piece was from the gallery Julian Weissman Fine Art. Later, they see a piece from the Knoedler Gallery.

 

Jack Flam: It was out of balance. The contours were too clean. There were a whole series of compositional factors that didn't look right.

 

Gisele Regatão: So the committee decides they need to look at these paintings together. They gather images of seven different Motherwells. Four came from Knoedler and three from Julian Weissman.

 

Jack Flam: Seeing them together, they didn't look right. Six of them were dated 1953 on the back and one is dated 1955, but the curious thing is that they were signed almost exactly the same way. In other words, it was a kind of almost like a template that somebody was following.

 

Gisele Regatão: At that point, Jack turns to the group and asks-

 

Jack Flam: "So do you think they're fake?" They said yes, and I said, "I think you're right. I think they are fake."

 

Gisele Regatão: They felt they had to act right away.

 

Jack Flam: The very first thing we did was we called Ann Freedman-

 

Gisele Regatão: The president of the Knoedler Gallery.

 

Jack Flam: ... thinking we're doing her a big favor because if she's dealing with fake paintings, she should know it.

 

Gisele Regatão: But when Ann came to meet them, Jack says it was clear she didn't see it as a favor.

 

Jack Flam: Instead of saying, "Wow, thanks so much for letting us know," she started arguing with us.

 

Gisele Regatão: Jack starts suspecting that the problem might be bigger than a few fake Motherwells so he reaches out to art experts who've seen other paintings sold to the galleries by Glafira Rosales. She's the woman who would eventually be convicted for selling all the fake paintings to the galleries.

 

Jack Flam: And they all tell me that they had harbored suspicions for a long time about those paintings, paintings by other artists, by Rothko, by de Kooning.

 

Gisele Regatão: Why didn't they say anything?

 

Jack Flam: They didn't say anything for the same reason that we didn't say anything at the beginning publicly which is they were afraid to get sued for defamation of property.

 

Gisele Regatão: In other words, they didn't want to use the f-word either. If they were wrong, they could be sued for defamation, but proving a painting is fake can be hard to do. So Jack's team hires a private investigator to look into Glafira Rosales. Very quickly, they learn that her boyfriend has been sued in his home country of Spain, including for selling fake art. Jack's shocked that the two galleries don't seem to know any of this.

 

Jack Flam: If I were buying millions of dollars worth of paintings from someone who had a classic flimsy story, I would have at the very least googled her, hired a private investigator.

 

Gisele Regatão: With this new evidence, they decided to hire a forensic expert. People assume this kind of analysis is commonplace in the art world, but it's not. Million-dollar paintings are bought and sold all the time without it because forensic analysis is expensive. So it's used more as a tool of last resort. The tests on the Motherwell is conclusive. The painting could not have been made back in the '50s because some of the materials didn't even exist then, but still Jack says, even at this point, Ann Freedman keeps insisting the painting is real. So in March of 2009, he calls the FBI. As the investigation gets underway, Knoedler quickly crumbles. All the paintings from Glafira Rosales were placed on a "not for sale" list. Without them, the gallery couldn't stay afloat. At the end of 2011, the oldest gallery in New York City which had been in business for 165 years closed its doors. Then came a dozen lawsuits. Collectors, including John Howard, sued the owners and presidents of the galleries. All the suits were settled all for undisclosed amounts.

 

Gisele Regatão: We mentioned earlier that the only one to be prosecuted in all of this was Glafira Rosales, and today, the heads of the galleries like Julian Weissman are still in business. I got in touch with his lawyer, David [Baumm 00:26:54], to set up an interview, but-

 

David Baumm: Julian is not going to ... I mean I don't want to say this rudely or anything, but he's not going to sit down for an interview.

 

Gisele Regatão: No? Why not?

 

David Baumm: Why? Why would he?

 

Gisele Regatão: I explained that I wanted to give Julian a chance to tell his side of the story. David told me his client was a victim too who, just like the collectors, was scammed by Glafira Rosales.

 

David Baumm: As far as we're concerned, this is sort of behind us. It would be nice for this story to go away rather than people continuing to bring it up.

 

Gisele Regatão: But there's a reason I'm bringing it up. Without the galleries, collectors never would have bought these fakes in the first place. Clients trusted Julian Weissman and the Knoedler Gallery to get this right. So how did they get it so completely wrong? The former owner of Knoedler, Michael Hammer, also wouldn't talk to me. He still owns another gallery on Manhattan's Upper East Side called the Hammer Galleries. It's just a few blocks away from a new gallery called Freedman Art. Ann Freedman, the former president of Knoedler, is still selling art too.

 

Ann Freedman: This exhibition is a celebration.

 

Gisele Regatão: Here she is in a promotional video for the gallery. I mentioned earlier that Ann wouldn't agree to be interviewed for this story, but I did manage to sit down with her lawyer, Luke Nikas. I met him at his office on Madison Avenue. The first thing that caught my attention was his art. Tell me. What do you have here?

 

Luke Nikas: So there are three paintings. One is a painting in the style of Mark Rothko.

 

Gisele Regatão: "In the style of," that's his way of saying that yeah, he decorated his office with a few of the fake paintings.

 

Luke Nikas: The one in the center is a work in the style of Jackson Pollock, and the bottom, it's signed in the lower right-hand corner. This is the work that got some attention because Pollock is not spelled correctly.

 

Gisele Regatão: Even though they're not real, he says they have value to him. So he asked Ann if he could keep them.

 

Luke Nikas: From my perspective, if I'm not going to buy a $15 million Mark Rothko painting and this is an interesting piece of art history, interesting piece of legal history, and happens to be an interesting work of art itself, that's good enough reason for me.

 

Gisele Regatão: I ask Luke why Knoedler bought so many paintings with almost zero provenance, just a story from Glafira Rosales about an anonymous European collector. Luke insists the gallery did pressure Glafira to provide more information.

 

Luke Nikas: And Rosales's reaction is in essence, "He's an extremely private person. He is not going to reveal his name, and you have the work of art there. If you're comfortable with the work of art, then this is in essence a story that's behind it."

 

Gisele Regatão: Now, how common is that for Knoedler to be buying art with a story like that?

 

Luke Nikas: It is uncommon.

 

Gisele Regatão: Then he makes a kind of surprising argument basically acknowledging that, without Knoedler's help, the fraudsters would have had a hard time unloading the paintings.

 

Luke Nikas: So if Glafira Rosales was going to go out in the world and sell these paintings, she would not have been able to sell them most likely or it would have been a severely discounted price, the price that Knoedler paid her for example.

 

Gisele Regatão: Remember, Knoedler was making a lot of money on these paintings, sometimes selling the fakes for more than 10 times what it paid for them, but Luke says that was for a good reason because the gallery assumed most of the risk. Before selling them, he says gallery staff did a ton of research.

 

Luke Nikas: Knoedler got them and did an incredible amount of diligence to vet them.

 

Gisele Regatão: Knoedler claims it did two things to vet the paintings. First, it brought in experts. The gallery says every one of them believed the paintings were authentic. During a civil lawsuit, some testified that they did believe the works were real, but other experts say they only saw the paintings briefly or that they didn't fully authenticate them. Second, the gallery says it did research on whether Glafira Rosales's story about the anonymous collector was plausible, not if the story was true but if it was plausible. Luke says they concluded it was.

 

Luke Nikas: The document production that Knoedler made in this case was thousands and thousands and thousands of pages of research and memos and-

 

Gisele Regatão: Research on what?

 

Luke Nikas: On the story.

 

Gisele Regatão: But it was all fake. What kind of research was that?

 

Luke Nikas: Sure.

 

Gisele Regatão: You and I would have done better, Luke. I spent months examining court documents and found a letter that hasn't been reported on before. It's from then-US attorney Preet Bharara to the judge who was sentencing Glafira Rosales for her role in all this. Glafira has been silent about the fraud and wouldn't agree to be interviewed for this story, but Bharara's letter is a window into what she told prosecutors. Glafira alleges that gallery employees eagerly demanded hard-to-obtain works from famous artists without every questioning where they came from. Luke says there's a simple explanation for this, that his client, Ann Freedman, was just trying to understand what paintings the anonymous collector might have.

 

Luke Nikas: When you look over the course of the entire 14 years, Glafira was very careful about what she brought to the gallery. She'd bring one work a year. She'd bring two works a year. She would never say completely what was in the collection beyond that. The way she did that meant that she didn't create the kind of red flags that are easy to see when you look at this today backwards.

 

Gisele Regatão: Bharara's letter also says Glafira told investigators that employees at the two galleries helped come up with fake provenance. Luke sees this differently. He says Knoedler was just trying to establish provenance. Employees were doing their due diligence and he says, without meaning to, that research ended up making the fake paintings even more attractive to collectors.

 

Luke Nikas: But ultimately, this information sold works that were fake. So did we mean for that to happen? I think they'd say absolutely not. But did that happen? Of course it did.

 

Gisele Regatão: I tried reaching out to Preet Bharara about that letter, but I never heard back. However, I did manage to track down the lead federal prosecutor in the art fraud case, Jason Hernandez.

 

Jason Hernandez: This was a difficult case.

 

Gisele Regatão: Jason spent years investigating the fake art scheme when he worked at the US Attorney's Office. I asked him why the galleries were never indicted. He says it's because cases like this are tricky, that it's hard to prove the galleries were intentionally selling fake art.

 

Jason Hernandez: The burden in a criminal case is extremely high. You have to prove that someone set out to defraud another person beyond a reasonable doubt and you've got to convince 12 people of that.

 

Gisele Regatão: Jason is careful while he talks to me. He will only reveal so much about the case. One thing he does say is that while one can argue that the galleries acted carelessly, that isn't enough to charge them with a crime.

 

Jason Hernandez: Ultimately, a decision was made not to bring a criminal charge because you have to be able to prove an intent to defraud beyond a reasonable doubt.

 

Gisele Regatão: Did you agree with that decision?

 

Jason Hernandez: I'm not going to comment on any of our internal decision-making. That's not something that's public.

 

John: Given the other information in the case, it's inexplicable why the prosecution did not go forward.

 

Gisele Regatão: John [inaudible] is a former federal prosecutor in New York City and partner at a national law firm. I wanted his opinion on the case.

 

John: I've seen cases with much less evidence get convictions, much less.

 

Gisele Regatão: John was not involved directly in the case. He says there is a bias that the art world is made up of wealthy people who can take care of themselves, but he says all victims deserve justice. He thinks this case doesn't just matter to the people directly involved, but to anyone who cares about art because part of what art is about is an original idea, not just a reproduction of an idea.

 

John: If we don't have confidence in the genuineness of the art, then the art becomes diminished and it becomes almost worthless. So that what's the difference between a real Rothko and a fake Rothko?

 

Gisele Regatão: Do you think there should be more regulation or control of the art market? If so, wouldn't the pursuit of cases like that send a message?

 

John: Absolutely. Ultimately in my mind, the biggest deterrent to art fraud is a federal prosecution, pure and simple.

 

Gisele Regatão: Glafira Rosales remains the only person who's been arrested for this scheme. In 2013, she spent three months in jail before being released on bail. She could have faced 99 years in prison.

 

Al Letson: Glafira was also ordered to pay $81 million to the victims of the scheme. She sold her house and her bank accounts were confiscated. Gisele tried many times to talk with her and was told that Glafira rented a room from a friend on Long Island. Last time she went there to try and meet with Glafira, she wasn't home. She was working at her new job waiting tables at a restaurant 40 minutes away. Thanks to reporter Gisele Regatao for that story.

 

Al Letson: During World War II, Nazis looted thousands of pieces of art. The story of how one painting worth millions was finally tracked down with the help of investigative journalist is coming up next. This is Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Our next story isn't about an art forgery, but an art theft that sounds like something out of a John Grisham novel. It's connected to the Panama Papers. Now, you've probably heard of those. That's when someone leaked millions of documents to the press back in 2015. Those documents showed how wealthy businesses and politicians used offshore shell companies to hide money and avoid taxes. The CBC's Frederic Zalac was one of the journalists who started studying those documents.

 

Frederic Zalac: We often think about taxes all the time, but we don't think of the art world of being one where offshore entities are being used.

 

Al Letson: Frederic would get pulled into this story to find out what happened to one very rare and very valuable piece of art. He told his story to Reveal's Emily Harris.

 

Emily Harris: We start in Paris. It's World War II. The Nazis are in charge.

 

Speaker 16: In 1940, darkness fell over the city of light.

 

Emily Harris: Their orders include seizing and selling off anything of value that Jewish families owned.

 

Kenneth Wayne: Art was a central aspect of the Holocaust.

 

Emily Harris: That's Kenneth Wayne. He's an art historian. He specializes in modern art.

 

Kenneth Wayne: So they would loot from Jewish families and from museums too.

 

Emily Harris: One of the paintings the Nazis looted was from a gallery owned by a Frenchman named Oscar Stettiner. Stettiner's descendants believe the looted painting was a portrait now called Seated Man with a Cane.

 

Kenneth Wayne: It's a man seated, looking very dapper. He's got a mustache. He has a hat, and he looks like a Parisian gentleman. It has kind of a caricatural quality to it.

 

Emily Harris: That portrait was painted around 1918 by an Italian artist named Amedeo Modigliani.

 

Kenneth Wayne: There were all these different movements during the time period he was working, but he really did his own thing.

 

Emily Harris: Modigliani died young. He never got rich, but now, his work is more popular than ever.

 

Speaker 18: So we move to the beautiful Modigliani, Lot 8, painted in Paris in-

 

Emily Harris: In 2015, a different painting by Modigliani sold for $170 million.

 

Speaker 18: Sold here.

 

Emily Harris: That was one of Modigliani's famous nudes. That price puts his work into a very exclusive club. But let's head back to Paris. It's now 1944, July 3rd, a Monday. Allied troops have already landed in Europe. Paris will be free soon, but it's not yet. That Monday, Nazis order an auction at Oscar Stettiner's gallery. After that sale, Seated Man with a Cane completely disappears and nobody sees it publicly for more than 50 years. So where does it go for half a century? Well even when it turns up, there's very little information. It's now 1996. Seated Man with a Cane appears for sale at the swanky auction house Christie's. Christie's doesn't mention Nazis or Oscar Stettiner in the information published for the sale. The descendants of Oscar Stettiner have no idea they might be the rightful owners. Enter the art hunter.

 

James Palmer: My name is James Palmer and I'm the founder of Mondex Corporation.

 

Emily Harris: James is short and serious. He's a Canadian, but he lives in London in Hampstead, a leafy neighborhood he loves. Inside James's apartment, art is arranged quite tastefully. Art is his passion. Hunting lost art is his business.

 

James Palmer: Our company is in the business of helping clients recover looted assets and in particular art that was looted during the Second World War.

 

Emily Harris: Around 2009, James and his team are searching French archives for information about a completely different case.

 

James Palmer: We happened upon a document that referred to the court claim after the war by Oscar Stettiner for the Seated Man by Modigliani.

 

Emily Harris: James knows Modigliani's famous nudes, but he's never heard of the Seated Man and he's never heard of Oscar Stettiner. So why the big fuss about these old French court documents? Because they tell him there is a looted painting out there and he is going to find it. The papers show that Oscar Stettiner went to court after the war to get the painting back.

 

James Palmer: And actually won that court case and won an order for that painting to be returned.

 

Emily Harris: But he never got it back. Meanwhile, James finds Stettiner's grandson. He tells him about this mystery and in 2011, he helps Stettiner's grandson file a lawsuit to claim the painting.

 

James Palmer: This painting was stolen. It belonged to Mr. Stettiner, and it needs to be returned.

 

Emily Harris: And this is where the fight over the painting goes around and around in circles, Manhattan civil court. Fast-forward now to April 2016. The Panama Papers hit headlines all over the world. Here's Canadian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Frederic Zalac again.

 

Frederic Zalac: On this edition of the Fifth Estate, stolen treasures.

 

Emily Harris: Reporters collaborating on the Panama Papers first find emails about the missing painting. Then they dig deeper.

 

Phillip L.: This case has multiple moving parts.

 

Emily Harris: That's New York lawyer, Phillip Landrigan. He's done commercial law for 35 years.

 

Phillip L.: I wouldn't say that I'm an art lawyer. I prepare cases for trial.

 

Emily Harris: His favorite part of the job is appearing in court. He represents Oscar Stettiner's grandson trying to get the painting. They sued an extremely wealthy, big art-dealing family named Nahmad. One Nahmad son owns a gallery that had tried to sell Seated Man with a Cane a couple years before, but the Nahmads fight back in court. The very first paper they file, in fact the very first line written in their defense says to Oscar Stettiner's grandson, "You're suing the wrong people." This is where the Panama Papers make the difference. The Nahmads argue that a company called the International Art Center or IAC owns and controls the painting. Phillip Landrigan doesn't buy it.

 

Phillip L.: We don't believe that there's any distinction between IAC and the Nahmads because the company is not operated under normal corporate formalities.

 

Emily Harris: The IAC was actually created by that Panama firm that specializes in shell companies, the firm whose documents were leaked. Deep inside their 11 million records, reporters find evidence that the Nahmads own the IAC. So it appears they own the Modigliani painting, Seated Man.

 

Frederic Zalac: In court, there was a big debate about, "Well no, it's not the Nahmads. They don't own the painting. They have nothing to do with it," and yet in the Panama Papers, we could see that the ownership of the shell company was directly the Nahmad family. It was black and white there.

 

Emily Harris: So Frederic takes that proof to the Nahmads' lawyer, Richard Golub. Here's that interview from Frederic's CBC report in 2016.

 

Frederic Zalac: So we have obtained internal documents of International Art Center.

 

Richard Golub: Have you public records?

 

Frederic Zalac: No, actually internal documents that show, for example, that the ownership of International Art Center is Mr. Nahmad's 100% shareholder.

 

Richard Golub: Right.

 

Frederic Zalac: So Mr. Nahmad and IAC are one and the same.

 

Richard Golub: No, they're not. That's your point of view, but that's irrelevant. Whatever, whoever owns IAC is irrelevant.

 

Frederic Zalac: The person who owns the company-

 

Richard Golub: Well that's your point of view.

 

Frederic Zalac: Well it's not my point of view. It's the documents.

 

Richard Golub: I don't know what the document says and it doesn't matter what the document says. That document may be superseded. I don't know what that document means and I don't know where you got it. It doesn't mean anything.

 

Frederic Zalac: The question here-

 

Richard Golub: No, I'd like to know that.

 

Frederic Zalac: We don't go into-

 

Richard Golub: The interview is over.

 

Frederic Zalac: We don't do that.

 

Richard Golub: The interview is ... There's nothing else to say. I'm not going to ... I told you before. There's nothing else I'm going to say because who owns IAC is about as relevant to this as who's living on Pluto.

 

Emily Harris: I want to talk with Richard Golub further, but he declines. The lawyer on the other side representing Oscar Stettiner's grandson says the Panama Papers prove his allegations against the Nahmads.

 

Speaker 22: We alleged that they were the alter ego, but we didn't have the documentary evidence that the Panama Papers provided, specifically the stock certificate showing that David Nahmad was the sole shareholder.

 

Emily Harris: Still, CBC reporters want to know more. Producer [inaudible] finds a connection that blows her away. The man who bought the painting at the Nazi auction kept it all those years. His daughter and grandson sold it through Christie's to the Nahmads.

 

Speaker 23: It just seemed too much of a coincidence that the surname was the same as the seller of the painting in 1996 to Christie's.

 

Emily Harris: Other reporters are also hot on the trail. A French TV crew manages to film the painting inside the tax-free warehouse in Switzerland where the Nahmads stash it away, and that crew records something no one has ever seen publicly before.

 

Frederic Zalac: Before the painting was put back in place, the handlers turned it around.

 

Emily Harris: On the back, you can see a label from the Venice [inaudible] Art Show from 1930.

 

Frederic Zalac: There's a space for owner and it's scratched out and the address below is scratched out, but when you look at it closely, and the French team had some experts look at it, you could make out from the bits that are still there that the likely name that was there was Stettiner.

 

Emily Harris: For the art hunter James Palmer, this seals the deal.

 

James Palmer: Lo and behold, there's Oscar Stettiner's name and address. That was stunning information.

 

Emily Harris: But it's still not enough to end the hard-fought court case. It does raise new questions. Did Christie's know the painting's full history or did it hide information when the Nahmads bought it in 1996? The grandson's lawyer says this.

 

Speaker 22: The provenance in the 1996 catalog is demonstrably false.

 

Emily Harris: Christie's has said that it reviewed 10,000 documents and could not find anymore records of the painting's history. It's now been more than 70 years since Seated Man with a Cane was looted by the Nazis. The Nahmad family has fought for years to dismiss the lawsuit, but New York State Appeals Court has ruled it can go forward. Trial is scheduled to start next year. James Palmer, the art detective, says he's just found new evidence he believes will be important in that trial. He found a photo of the painting in a French archive with this note from the 1950s: "Modigliani, stolen, sought in America."

 

Al Letson: That was Reveal's Emily Harris. Thanks to the CBC and reporter Frederic Zalac for sharing that story with us. Brett Myers and Suzanne [Weber] edited today's show. Gisele Regatao and Emily Harris produced the show with help from Janet [Babbit 00:50:18]. Thanks to Mark [Schefler 00:50:19], Miguel [inaudible 00:50:20], Victoria [Burnett 00:50:21], and [Debra] Solomon for help with the story about art fraud. It was supported in part by a grant from the Professional Staff Congress and the City University of New York. Thanks to CBC Radio Canada for partnering on the story about looted artwork. Thanks also to [Lamond 00:50:37], NDR, and ICIJ for production assistance with that story. Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. An original score and sound design by the dynamic duo, J. Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man yo, Arruda. They had help this week from Amy Mostafa, Najib Aminy, Sandra Lopez [Monsalve 00:50:56], Claire [inaudible] [Mullin 00:50:56], [Catherine] Raymondo, and [Kat Shookman 00:51:00]. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor-in-chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [Commorado Lightning 00:51:07].

 

Al Letson: Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson. Remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Speaker 24: From PRX.