“Hereinafter, The Painting”
I saw the fake one first, years ago, printed out in a report tacked on to a court filing out of New York City. There were two pictures on the first page, two sides of a painting, back and front. On the left, two rectangles, black over crimson on a background of lighter red. On the right, a wooden stretcher bisected by a crossbar. The edges of a canvas, folded over and stapled, were visible along the edge. There was a name on the back, too, and a date, written in fuzzy, impasto caps: “MARK ROTHKO/1956.”
It was the spring of 2013. I was thirty-one years old and had just moved in with the woman I would marry. I had come to Toronto two years earlier for a minimum wage magazine job at the tail end of a depression that had, for the fourth or fifth time in my twenties, scrambled my life and left me starting from what felt like scratch. Every story seemed like a last opportunity then, a last chance to prove something to myself, about who I could be and what I could do with my life.
Looking at that report, I didn’t know that it would be a story, though I thought it might be. I certainly didn’t think I’d be puzzling over it for the next eight years. It was written by a kind of fine art scientist named James Martin. It described his analysis of a 50-inch by 40-inch oil painting, Untitled, 1956. “Hereinafter” the report said, “the “Painting”.”
It was ten pages long. It broke down primers and pigments and binders. It looked at crossbar marks and the history of paint. It came to a stark conclusion. The painting, which the oldest art gallery in New York had sold to a Gucci magnate for $8.3 million, was a fraud. It wasn’t a Rothko. He didn’t paint it. Not “in 1956 or any other date.”
In November 2011, not long after he joined the New York Observer, a newspaper then owned by a thirty-year-old Jared Kushner, Michael H. Miller, an art reporter sitting on about $100,000 in student debt, received a short press release from the offices of M. Knoedler & Co., a 146-year-old art gallery on the Upper East Side. The note was barely three sentences long. It announced that, effective immediately, the gallery, which was older than the Metropolitan Museum of Art and had survived the Civil War and the Great Depression, would permanently close. The news, and the manner of its delivery, came as a shock in the New York art world and even inside the gallery itself. “It really seemed from the outside…like people just showed up that morning and had no idea that they were going to close,” Miller said.
Knoedler wasn’t the largest or the wealthiest gallery in New York. It wasn’t Gagosian, or Pace. But it was a fixture, in the city and the scene. “It was absolutely top tier, but a little bit like a dowager lady,” said Pepe Karmel, an art historian at NYU. Knoedler had been the gallery of choice for the robber barons of the 1920s. It exhibited and sold works by the likes of Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet. “Everything they did was first rate and top drawer,” Karmel, said. “It was a key part of New York City history.”
That’s what made the sudden closure so strange. The recession was over. The high-end art market was booming. The very rich, the only customers who really matter in art, were doing fine. And in the space of three sentences, with no forewarning, in the middle of an exhibition, the oldest, most storied gallery in the city was done. “A lot of galleries at that time were closing, but nothing of the stature of Knoedler. That seemed kind of impossible,” Miller said. “It was clear that there was something fishy there.”
What struck me first, when I finally saw the real thing, was the scale: a massive plane of orange and red that filled my field of vision, an empire of rectangles and colours on a Dallas wall. At the edges, in between the blocks, were whole border worlds of porous fades. Everything bled into everything else. Nothing was contained. I had always known art as something you approached, something you peered at and “hmm’d.” The Rothko wasn’t like that. It loomed. It leaned into me. It occupied space. “It’s not easy,” Rothko’s son, Christopher, told me years later. “He really asks a lot of you. And the more you’re willing to put in, the more you’re going to get out.”
In the fall of 2004, Domenico De Sole, a fashion kingpin who ran Gucci for ten years and later co-founded Tom Ford, approached the Knoedler Gallery with his wife Eleanor. De Sole, who later became the chairman of Sotheby’s auction house, was, along with his wife, a noted collector of what might be considered the art of the regular rich—very expensive, first-class work that is a level below the most famous names.
The De Soles went to Knoedler because they were interested in acquiring a work by Sean Scully, an Irish-American abstract artist known for his large, colourful images of bars and squares. Knoedler didn’t have any Scullys; the gallery wasn’t doing well with living artists. But Ann Freedman, Knoedler’s president, did offer to show the De Soles something better. In her office, she said, she had a newly discovered work by Mark Rothko, one of Scully’s forbearers and perhaps the most acclaimed American artist of the 20th century.
By any rational measure, the De Soles were and are very rich. But that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily Mark Rothko rich. A single Rothko sold at auction in 2007 for $72.8 million. The record price paid for a Scully was about $1.7 million. The Rothko Freedman showed the De Soles that day wasn’t prime, exactly. It was on the smaller side, about 4 feet by 3.5 feet. But it was painted in 1956, in the middle of Rothko’s classic period. It was an arresting crimson, black and red. It was on canvas and it was in impeccable condition. Given all that, the multimillion dollar price Knoedler offered was something of a steal.