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Art World Captivated By 'Fake Rothko' Trial


In a Manhattan courtroom, a trial is unfolding that has the art world riveted. The trial revolves around a sublime painting by Mark Rothko, worth more than eight million dollars. Or at least it was right up to the moment it emerged the painting is not by Rothko but is in fact a fake and worth, well, a lot less than eight million bucks. To learn more we called up Noah Charney. He's author of "The Art Of Forgery." And, Noah, describe the painting. I gather it's actually sitting in the courtroom, propped up on this easel next to the witness stand.

NOAH CHARNEY: It is. It's a large-scale work on canvas. It's red and black. And it's abstract the way we think of most of the Rothko works. Certainly esthetically it looks like a Rothko.

KELLY: Now, it must be an awfully good forgery. I was reading through some of the coverage of the trial, and one columnist who's covering it wrote, it's so good it almost looks as though Rothko had his hand wrapped around the forger's fist as he painted. Apparently it was good enough to fool the buyer, who is no less than the chairman of Sotheby's.

CHARNEY: It's an interesting question because authenticating art is a century's old problem. Sometimes, the forgers become more famous than the artists they forge. And so as an object, absolutely it's a beautiful one.

KELLY: Are fakes getting better?

CHARNEY: Fakes can be getting better, but they don't have to be. And this is where it's a little bit complicated. There has always been this over-reliance on expert opinion, which is subjective. But that's what people still rely on to this day. So if an expert like Ann Freedman says this is original, people are inclined...

KELLY: Ann Freedman, the owner of the gallery that sold this painting?

CHARNEY: Exactly. And so there's a reliance and a sort of gentleman's agreement within the art world that has existed for centuries now that says, you know, if we say this is authentic, it is to the best of our knowledge, and that's that. There are two other components. You can do provenance research, which looks at the documented history of the object to see if it has a biography that matches what we see on the surface. And then there's forensic testing. And very few forgeries would survive forensic tests. But they don't have to, and foragers know this. If it looks pretty good, and if the provenance is sufficiently compelling, then it will almost never be tested forensically.

KELLY: Any idea what will happen to this painting at the end of the trial?

CHARNEY: I would like to see it survive and enter a museum collection as a forgery for didactic purposes. But some countries require that forgeries are destroyed. And that's a shame because it's a beautiful object and it's something we can learn from as long as it does no harm and does not defraud anyone in the future.

KELLY: All right. That's art historian Noah Charney. Thanks so much.

CHARNEY: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Noah Charney talking about the trial now unfolding in New York City. It's a trial centering on a fake attributed once to Mark Rothko. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.