A Buenos Aires gallery is hosting an unusual art show through May: it features about 40 paintings that were forged by scam artists who were trying to make money on the black market. The show is made up of paintings seized by police during a raid of a band of forgers. It turns out that art forgery is big business. “Some of the copies are clumsily executed, but others are very good,” said the show’s curator Mario Naranjo, an official from the Argentine finance ministry. “This kind of crime makes millions of dollars. It is considered the biggest racket in the world, after arms and drug-trafficking.”
Interpol’s website backs up Naranjo’s statements, noting that the market for fake art is as lucrative as the black market for weapons and drugs. The 40 canvases on display in Argentina were seized in a raid organized by Interpol. The paintings include fake canvases b South American artists like Antonio Berni. The forgers went to great lengths to trick customers, even including fake certification with their forgeries. Some included small holes or other damage to the canvas designed to make them look aged. Naranjo said the paintings are probably worth about $600,000 – which sounds like a lot of money, but is not when compared with the value of the paintings they imitate, which would easily be in the millions.
With growing awareness around the world of the prevalence of art forgery, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 2199, which calls on countries to take steps to prevent trade of stolen cultural relics, like the artworks looted during upheaval in Iraq and Syria. It recognized the role of Interpol in addressing black market art, since Interpol has the ability to work across borders.
Interpol has a database of stolen works of art meant to assist law enforcement around the world. A public version of the database is available on the Interpol website. It permits people to search for recently reported stolen artworks, recovered artworks, and specifically stolen items from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Interpol hopes that prospective buyers who doubt the authenticity of art for sale with review the database thoroughly and alert the agency about suspicious activities.
The artwork in Buenos Aires runs from very good to horrible imitation. For example, a painting of abstract houses purporting to be from Uruguayan painter Carlos Paez Vilaro seems like it is a good imitation of the groundbreaking painter, who is best known for the San Isidro chapel.
On the other hand, the Berni painting is comically bad. Berni is known for charming and absurd paintings which often feature people. The forgery shows a painting of a boy with his head cropped partway by the frame.
The exhibition runs until mid-May at a gallery inside the finance ministry in the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires. The works will then be returned to the court for use as evidence in the prosecution of the forgers.