|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|The following text is from The New York Times|
Struggling Immigrant Artist Tied to $80 Million New York Fraud
By SARAH MASLIN NIR, PATRICIA COHEN and WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM
Published: August 16, 2013 181 Comments
Pei-Shen Qian’s neighbors on 95th Street in Woodhaven, Queens, knew he scratched out a living as an artist: he often dried his paintings in the sun, propping them up on the weathered white siding of his modest house.
They were less clear on why he kept his windows covered, or why every so often a man in an expensive car would come to the house carrying paintings to, not from, a painter.
“He would bring a painting in and show it to him, for him to work on or fix up something,” Edwin Gardiner, 68, who lives across the street, said before pausing and adding, “I don’t know what he did with it.”
Parts of the mystery became clearer on Friday as neighbors learned that Mr. Qian, a quiet 73-year-old immigrant from China in a paint-flecked smock, is suspected of having fooled the art world by creating dozens of works that were modeled after America’s Modernist masters and were later sold as their handiwork for more than $80 million.
Mr. Qian, who came here more than four decades ago and struggled to sell his own works in this country, earned just a few thousand dollars for each of his imitations. New York was a center of the art world, but Mr. Qian told friends that he had been disheartened by the difficulties he encountered finding a foothold as an artist.
“He was kind of frustrated because of the language problem, the connection problem,” said Zhang Hongtu, a friend and acclaimed Chinese artist who lives in New York. “He was not that happy.”
Mr. Qian’s low profile as a painter has evaporated; federal authorities have decided that he was the artist whose fakes are at the heart of one of the bolder art frauds in recent memory.
A revised federal indictment handed up this week charged Glafira Rosales, one of the dealers accused of having peddled his works, with money laundering and tax evasion in connection with the sales.
The indictment does not name Mr. Qian, who could not be reached for comment on Friday, but people with knowledge of the case confirmed that he was the man referred to only elliptically in the charges as the “Painter.” Neighbors say agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation searched his home this week.
According to the indictment and other court papers, Mr. Qian was discovered selling his art on the streets of Lower Manhattan in the early 1990s by Ms. Rosales’s boyfriend and business partner, an art dealer named Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz, who recruited him to make paintings in the style of celebrated Abstract Expressionists. The indictment does not name Mr. Bergantiños Diaz, but his identity is confirmed by other court records.
Over a period of 15 years, court papers claim, the painter, working out of his home studio and garage, churned out at least 63 drawings and paintings that carried the signatures of artistic giants like Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell and Richard Diebenkorn, and that Mr. Bergantiños Diaz and Ms. Rosales boasted were authentic. They were not copies of paintings, but were sold as newly “discovered” works by those artists.
Ms. Rosales sold or consigned the art to two elite Manhattan dealers, Knoedler & Company — New York City’s oldest gallery until it closed in 2011 — and a former Knoedler employee named Julian Weissman, who in turn sold them for millions of dollars to customers who placed their faith in the dealers’ reputations and the supporting words of some experts.
Ms. Rosales told the dealers that the vast majority of the paintings came from a collector who had inherited the works from his father and adamantly refused to be identified. Over time, this anonymous owner came to be referred to as “Secret Santa” and “Mr. X.”
Knoedler, its former president Ann Freedman and Mr. Weissman have repeatedly said they always believed the works to be authentic, despite the lack of documentation.
So far, Ms. Rosales is the only person who has been charged in connection with what prosecutors have described as a long-running fraud. They have not indicated that either Manhattan dealer was aware that the works, which have been displayed at international exhibitions, a museum and an American embassy, had recently been created across the East River.
Long before Mr. Qian settled in Queens, he worked as an artist. He grew up in the island city of Zhoushan and in Shanghai, according to a 2004 interview with a Chinese television station.
When he was in his 30s, Mr. Qian took part in a daring experimental art movement in Shanghai in the late 1970s as the Cultural Revolution was ending.
Abstract art was considered a symbol of bourgeois decadence, but Mr. Qian and his fellow artists organized their own unofficial exhibition with work that employed abstracted forms. A 1987 exhibition at the Community Folk Art Gallery in Syracuse revisited that period with a show of six artists that included Mr. Qian.
In 1981, Mr. Qian came to New York, where he and his friend Mr. Zhang took art classes together at the Art Students League on West 57th Street. Although they were out of touch for about 20 years, Mr. Zhang recounted how Mr. Qian, a few years older, helped him find his way in an alien, overwhelming city.
“He told me how to make a living over here,” Mr. Zhang said, meaning that immigrants in their circumstances would have to take other jobs to support themselves.
“We worked together for short time at a construction site,” he said. He remembers Mr. Qian trying to sell his art on the street.
By the 1990s, Mr. Qian was becoming increasingly disenchanted with his own work. A fellow artist, Chen Danqing, recalled that period in an article he wrote for a Chinese art magazine in 2006. “The things we had done before became like dust in the wind,” he wrote. He described his friend, then in his 40s, as “homesick” and “lost.”
Mr. Qian is represented by a gallery in China. But in recent years, his neighbors said, he still spoke frequently, unprompted, of his dissatisfaction with his career in the United States.
“When he was over in China he would feel like a rock star, because when he would walk out on the street everybody knew him,” Mary Ann Gardiner, Edwin Gardiner’s wife, recalls Mr. Qian saying. “It was like night and day.”
Mr. Zhang was shocked to hear the allegations of Mr. Qian’s involvement in what appeared to be a far-flung art fraud, saying the Mr. Qian he knew was always honest and hard-working. “I can’t believe it,” he said.
It is unclear how much Mr. Qian knew of the fraud that federal investigators have described. It is not against the law to make a replica of a masterpiece or sign the name of someone like Rembrandt and sell it, as long as it is clearly identified as a fake. What is illegal is to market it as authentic.
It is also unclear exactly who was delivering the paintings to Mr. Qian that the neighbors saw, or whether they were originals or perhaps just posters of works by famous artists.
Mr. Zhang was skeptical that his friend could have mimicked the style of such different and well-known artists. His memory of Mr. Qian’s work was of landscapes and interiors that used the pastel palette of the Impressionists.
“I didn’t know he had this kind of a good technique,” he said. “He had some talent, but I don’t believe he can paint in the same style as a Jackson Pollock; it’s not easy to copy this kind of style.”
Richard Grant, the executive director of the Diebenkorn Foundation, said, “Whoever did this was extremely skillful.”
It is not impossible, however. The German forger Wolfgang Beltracchi, convicted in 2011, says he created hundreds of paintings ostensibly by 50 artists.
According to the timeline laid out in the indictment, Ms. Rosales began showing the painter’s fakes to Knoedler and Mr. Weissman around 1994.
The scheme began collapsing in 2009, when questions raised about the authenticity of some Motherwells reached the F.B.I. An increasingly bitter controversy erased a fortune’s worth of art, divided longtime professional relationships and cast shadows on the reputations of art experts who vouched for the works. Lawsuits, brought by angry buyers who include a fashion director and a Kuwaiti sheikha, are demanding that the dealers hand over millions of dollars in reimbursement and damages.
Whether Ms. Rosales has begun cooperating with the federal authorities since her arrest in May is uncertain. But though the prosecutors handling her case argued then that she posed “a substantial flight risk” and that no bail conditions could assure her return to court, persuading a judge to detain her without bail, after the new indictment was handed up this week, the prosecutors did not oppose her release on a $2.5 million bond. Steven R. Kartagener, a lawyer for Ms. Rosales, declined to comment on the case.
As for Mr. Qian, his shabby house was empty on Friday. He and his wife, Qiu Yue Xu, had left suddenly a few months ago, neighbors said. Though it was not unusual — he typically spent about half the year in China — this time seemed different. In the yard where once Mr. Qian meticulously painted and repainted a giant portrait of a geisha, newspapers and cats drifted. Several undergarments had been left hung out to dry. Piled wooden canvas stretchers could be glimpsed through a window of the garage; the doors had been left unlocked.
And in nearly every window of the two-story home, plywood or dark paper blocked out the light.
|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|The following text is from The New York Times, December 31, 2013|
"What Puts Soul In a Masterpiece?"
By Ken Johnson, Critic's Notebook
The Arts Section
Recently, The Art Newspaper reported that Pei-Shen Qian had some of his paintings included in a group exhibition in a Shanghai gallery last spring. Scandal-following readers will recognize the name as that of a Chinese artist, once living in Queens, whose imitations of paintings by Pollock, de Kooning and other Abstract Expressionists were sold as real for millions of dollars by the New York gallery Knoedler & Company, now defunct.
In China, where he regularly returned for extended visits after moving to New York in 1981, Mr. Pei-Shen, 73, is known for his own paintings. He first emerged as an artist in the late 1970s, one of a group producing and exhibiting abstract work, which Cultural Revolution authorities deemed bourgeois and decadent. In 2006, he had a 25-year retrospective at the BB Gallery in Shanghai. Some of his works are posted on various websites. Naturally, you wonder, are Mr. Pei-Shen’s own paintings any good? Would I like to review them, my editor asked?
I can’t, in good conscience, review works I’m able to see only online. But I can say, provisionally, that I’m struck by the absence of any singular vision among his pieces. My laptop screen shows earnestly made, colorful landscapes and cityscapes that evoke early Post-Impressionist paintings by Matisse and André Derain. Some mixed-media works represent faceless women in a style that hybridizes classical Chinese painting and early-20th-century Cubism, made on what appear to be surfaces of patched-together burlap.
A picture of a horse including stenciled white letters spelling “This is not a horse” echoes Magritte’s painting of a pipe captioned “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). Several paintings are of large, generalized heads rendered in a soupy, Expressionist manner.
Nostalgia seems to be the unifying mood of Mr. Pei-Shen’s paintings. That, alone, is remarkable, because the European works that evidently inspired him were revolutionary in their time. The kind of painting he emulates in his own work and the Abstract Expressionist paintings on which he has based his imitations both depended on originality and expressive authenticity, as opposed to academic tradition and technical polish. Yet Mr. Pei-Shen seems to be the opposite of original.
I suppose he works in styles he loves without worrying about whether they’re outmoded. Unless there’s something going on that can’t be seen in online images, it seems unlikely that Mr. Pei-Shen’s personal paintings will cause anything like the stir his imitations have.
That is disappointing but not surprising. I like the fantasy of the unjustly neglected genius who gets revenge on the art world by making expert-fooling works that mimic the style of famous painters. (Mr. Pei-Shen has not been charged with any crime related to the scandal.) But I think it more likely that the typical copyist will be relatively lacking in originality. Copyists need to be able to muffle their own creative selves, and if those creative selves are weak, all the better.
What they need in abundance are technical knowledge and skill. It’s not easy to make forgeries.
However hard it was for Barnett Newman to produce one of his zip paintings, making a convincing fake Newman — reverse-engineering it, in effect, as well as making it look appropriately aged — surely will be more demanding technically, if not spiritually.
Mr. Pei-Shen’s creations, which were not copies of actual works but in the style of famous artists, intrigue me more than his personal work, but not for technical reasons. They raise interesting philosophical questions: Why should we value a painting known to be made by a certain esteemed artist more than a painting that is phony but is nevertheless practically indistinguishable from the authentic work? Why is a real Motherwell worth millions of dollars more than a fake one that looks just as good?
The dynamics of supply and demand are what make any artwork worth its price. Real things are worth more than fake ones simply because they are more rare.
Demand is more fluid and variable than supply because it’s influenced by vagaries of taste and fashion; it’s less rational. Demand is partly animated by some quasi-magical beliefs about art and artists, like the idea that there’s a sort of organic connection between artists and the things they make. The artist’s soul is somehow in the work, and because great artists are supposed to have great souls, there’s more soul in their creations than there is in mediocre efforts.
From there, it’s a short leap of faith to the belief that market valuation reflects soul value — not perfectly, but at least roughly and in the long term. The most expensive works have the most soul. That’s why, if you can afford it, you buy the real Motherwell. There’s no magic, no soul, in fake artworks, so they are worth less, if not completely worthless.
Mr. Pei-Shen told Bloomberg Businessweek that he thought he was being commissioned to make paintings for art lovers who could not afford the genuine works but were willing to buy imitations. I don’t know if such people really exist, but Mr. Pei-Shen seems to have thought they did. He didn’t imagine that there was anything ethically or legally wrong with what he was doing. He was a copyist but not a forger, if intention to deceive is part of the definition of a forger.
Mr. Pei-Shen told a reporter that he was shocked to learn what art dealers actually did with his simulations, for which they paid him a few thousand dollars per piece. He also said that he thought that it was impossible to make fakes that would be undetectable as such. Apparently, he didn’t even try: Signs of age and forged signatures, prosecutors say, were added by the man who ordered the paintings, the art dealer Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz.
The art market depends on the belief, expressed by Mr. Pei-Shen, that fakes can always be detected. Collective wisdom supposes that the forgery must, at some level, betray itself, and much 'connoisseurial' scrutiny and forensic investigation goes into ensuring that as many deceptions as possible are ultimately exposed. Forgeries flooding the market unchecked would throw relations between supply and demand out of whack, causing economic chaos.
That’s what makes stories like that of Mr. Pei-Shen and the people he worked for so compelling. They are players in contemporary morality tales, myth-saturated chronicles about the upset and the restoration of order in the capitalist universe. It would make a more thrilling story if Mr. Pei-Shen turned out to be a great artist in his own right. Judging from what we can see online, however, that happy ending isn’t going to happen.
Wouldn’t it be great, however, if we could see an exhibition of all his fake paintings?
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