|Great Canadian Heritage Treasure (Trash Sure)||
Our Very Own Krieghoff!
How absolutely wonderful to find a genuine Cornelius Krieghoff at a price an ordinary person can afford and with a back-up provenance that's virtually bullet-proof.
Krieghoff is, of course, perhaps Canada's most famous painter of the 19th century and the one whose paintings attract the highest bidders from across Canada whenever another one of his original works comes on the market at an auction.
At a recent Prestige's Art Auction the conjunction of the planets proved extremely fortuitous for us. Or did it?
|Caughnawaga Indians Near Lake St. Louis - Plaqued & Signed Cornelius Krieghoff|
|Orig. watercolour - Size - 27 x 43 cm
Found & Provenance - Disclosure forbidden, under threat of legal consequences
Signed C. Krieghoff, Plaqued Cornelius Krieghoff
Here's a primer on what you should know before you throw good money after bad art...
1 - At a special preview, the painting was wonderfully displayed, and shown off by costumed staff, right in the midst of a whole host of the finest paintings by Lawren Harris, Riopelle, Robert Pilot, and several other Krieghoffs. Rare and wonderful Canadiana by Canada's top artists. A stirring display! Who wouldn't be moved - to buy!
2 - The police guards that were standing in the room. We became convinced they were there especially to protect our Krieghoff. Having seen so many press reports of how valuable Krieghoffs were, we were sincerely glad the auctioneer had fierce-looking armed police there to make sure we were not robbed before he gave us a chance to bid!
3 - The staff was extremely well-dressed, most courteous, solicitous, and helpful in guiding us to a possible purchase. The men - admittedly a homely lot - and the women - all exquisitely slim - were most spiffily attired, and most eager to show off their fine art. They were especially proud of their Krieghoffs, which, we were told, "Are very desirable at the moment. And rare to come on the market in this condition." We even found one who considered "our" Krieghoff a personal favourite. We were worried, now, that he might bid against us. We decided to bid even higher to make sure we outbid him. The auctioneers had given us the opportunity to bid on a rare treasure; we were determined not to muff the chance.
4 - The painting had a marvellous frame, that must have cost a fortune when it was new, back in the 19th century. It was definitely an ancient frame, probably from Krieghoff's time, not a 20th century repro. Definitely the owner wanted the best frame possible for his original and extremely valuable Krieghoff. Excellent!
5 - It was a picture of Caughnawaga Indians fishing on the St. Lawrence River. Double Whammy! Krieghoff was noted for painting lots of Indian men and women from the Caughnawaga Reserve near Montreal. So it is, both, a favourite Krieghoff subject, and a favourite Krieghoff painting location. A two-time winner.
6 - It was signed C. Krieghoff, down at the bottom, where Krieghoff usually signed his name. Sadly, so often, paintings like this have no name at all. With this one we were lucky, what with the name so clearly visible it could not possibly be mistaken for any other artist. And it was so authentically "Dutch looking" - Cornelius you must remember was trained in Europe. A signature is so important on an original oil. Without it an original could be worthless or less. But Cornelius' impressively authentic looking signature on this made it a highly desirable and valuable painting. We were panting!
7 - The painting had a professional looking, and expensively attached, brass plate that clearly said Cornelius Krieghoff. No one could miss the name of the famous painter who had, no doubt, slaved for countless hours over this canvas. The plaque exuded pride of ownership, and a previous owner had spared no expense to flag this heritage painting by one of Canada's top artists. Wow! Impressive!
8 - The painting was offered by one of Canada's leading art auction houses. Many of the top art buyers from across Canada and the US attend this auction to pick up the best in Canadian art. The auction house is one of a growing number that have built up huge reputations in the past ten years as purveyors of the best in original Canadian paintings, of which this one was obviously one of their proud examples.
Buying from a reputable firm is supposed to be your best assurance that when they say it's a Krieghoff you can take that to the bank, and not the fraud squad...
9 - The Prestigious Auction Label: And there, so you couldn't possibly miss the connection, was the auction house label, strategically placed, right over Krieghoff's name. Wow! What a combo! Canada's top painter; a top Canadian auction house!
10 - The back of the painting had been opened and carefully examined by top auction house experts. When we asked to see the back we saw at once that the paper - glued over the back of all good paintings to act as a dust cover - had been torn open by someone who was not too careful, telling from the ripping.
We imagined the passion of the auction house expert as he/she clawed at the back to get at the painting and see the clues of authenticity it held - obviously eager to hold the very paper that the master himself had held some 150 years before!
Knowing that auction house experts had taken an extremely close look at this painting gave us another surge of confidence.
It is common practice, that before a painting is acquired for a special auction, and added to a catalogue - most paintings offered by consignors are rejected outright - it is checked out thoroughly for authenticity, by the leading art experts at an auction house. Only bona fide works of art are offered by the most prestigious art auction houses.
There on the back again, another auction house label, showing that they had been in the back of the painting and checked it out.
11 - The Consignor: Another burst of confidence came from the code name of the consignor and the date, that all auction houses use to note the owner of the painting, clearly written on the label next to their lot number. These paintings all come from people that the auctioneers have a name and address for; they cannot be bogus because the auctioneer will be sending them a cheque! The consignor often has a past relationship with the auction house; it is a symbiotic relationship. No auction house can make a living if dealers don't send them art; art dealers - and forgers, fakers, and FAARTS, too I guess - cannot make a living without the auctioneers to hawk their wares, whether legitimate or bogus.
We knew, therefore, that auction house experts would have known whether the dealer was a crook, or disreputable, from past experience or hearsay - it is a small community and everyone knows everybody and their reputations. And there are clearly shady characters about, in the margins of the Canadian art world. And a few more who skip back and forth...
The auction house expert would - we can almost see the scene in our mind's eye - have sternly grilled the consignor, "What proof have you got this is a Krieghoff? Who owned it before? What provenance or scholarly references to it do you have? Who put on the name plate? How do you know these are Caughnawaga Indians from Lac St Louis, instead of Hopis from Port Hope, or Kickapoos from Kapuskasing?
"How do you know that this is not a forgery, using the name of a group of Indians, and a painting location commonly associated with Krieghoff, and finishing it all off with a forged "look-alike" signature?"
Obviously the auction houses would have asked all these questions of the consignor, and received reassuring answers, and absolute proof of all these claims, in all respects. Which is why they selected this work, labelled with Krieghoff's name - from among thousands - to be among the few hundred that they featured in their prestigious showcase special auction....
Crafty sleuthing by reputable art auction experts, we considered, of course, our first line of defence against being ripped off by the creeps and crooks who forge and fake Canadian art. We knew art auctioneers would not compromise their reputation by fencing a forgery - a FAART (Fake Antique Art Reproduced & Tarted-up) from FARTS (Fake Antique Art Reproducing & Tarting-up Specialists). And we knew auction houses - however patriotic - would never sell a FAART even it came from a Canadian - that is a CANFAART. (Remember, it is only Canadians who CANFAART; foreigners don't. They aren't the slightest interested in buying - let alone forging - Canadian paintings. Considering the astronomic prices garnered by British, European, and American art, Canadian art evaluations are ridiculously low and the market - even for legitimate paintings - inconsequential in the extreme; so foreigners who CANFAART don't bother, contending it is about as useful as a FAART in a windstorm.)
12 - The Expertise of Dennis Reid, Chief Curator, Art Gallery of Ontario. Dennis, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, is considered to be the top expert on Krieghoff; he wrote the definitive study on Cornelius, and produced a lavish coffee table book on his paintings.
Many art auction houses tell customers openly they send all their "Krieghoffs" to Dennis for "authentication." Dennis' name is so freely used, to certify the provenance - in the mind of a potential buyer - of a painting which would otherwise have a questionable pedigree, at best, that we hope Dennis is getting a big cut of the resulting proceeds that his name helps flow into the coffers of auction houses...
We were thrilled, of course, that this painting had successfully run the gauntlet, and passed every hurdle, to be among the rare few selected for a special annual catalogue sale. First Krieghoff had handled this work; then the auction house experts; then the top scholar, and Krieghoff expert in the country, had fondled it as well. We could imagine Dennis, in an office surrounded by the finest paintings in Canada, with his loupe, carefully going over every inch of this watercolour to make sure that his hero's reputation was not being maligned by the inferior brush work of some cackling, crooked, colourist in some back room closet on King Street.
We knew Dennis was especially keen to root out forgeries because, with Krieghoff prices climbing so steadily, bogus works by the artist were turning up everywhere.
Perhaps it had been his very fingers - animated by the thrill of the chase - that had clawed the brown dust cover from the back of the painting!
Knowing that Dennis was sleuthing out the evil doers gave us a renewed surge of pride that our national heritage - and "our" Krieghoff - was being secured and verified as authentic, by the top agent of Canada's Krieghoff cultural police.
And, of course, we were more determined than ever, to acquire this work by a Canadian master that had been vetted by so many experts at a leading art auction and at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
13 - When bidding began, the auctioneer introduced the painting as "And next up is the Krieghoff, lot 542. Now then, what am I bid?" If only my mother could have seen me then, actually bidding in response to the auctioneer's request for bids "on the Krieghoff." OK, so he was a bit weak sounding, and tentative maybe, but he said "the Krieghoff" none the less. Now I knew the thrill Ken Thomson felt when he bids on his Krieghoffs. He has scores - hundreds probably; it will take me a while to catch up...
Many auctioneers like to stretch the truth, and then some, pretending that a work they are hawking is by a famous painter when they know quite well it isn't.
You've heard the hucksters - "A very interesting painting is next. We thought this could very well be an AY Jackson - the rolling hills and all. I haven't had the back off, or had it out of the frame. Could be a signature right under the frame edge. It certainly looks like a Jackson to me. Now who'll give me $20,000 on this dead ringer for an AY Jackson? Could be your gold mine waiting right there! Whaddya say, fifteen thousand? OK, say six.... Make that six hundred..." Utterly shameless, the way some auctioneers try to wring money out of an item they know is bogus but pretend is real, just to make a buck out of a gullible and trusting beginning art buyer.
But the leading art auctioneers are cut from a different cloth. They have the prestige of their firm to think about. They would never call a painting anything other than what it is. If they announce it as a Krieghoff, and list it in their catalogue, you can take that to the bank - and not the fraud squad.14 - The painting had another advantage; we didn't need to buy the expensive art catalogue which lists everything. Since it had Krieghoff 's signature clearly written, and a metal plaque which proudly showed his name - even his dates of birth and death for those who would miss his signature in oil and might otherwise fail to recognize his importance - we thought it was a needless waste money to buy a catalogue listing for a famous painter so clearly identified. We knew too, that the auctioneer, looking prosperous in a fine suit, could read and had clearly seen the signature and the plaque, knew what it said, and approved including it in his special yearly sale.
Catalogues are good if the painter's name is missing on a painting, or illegible, or if done by a nobody. This painting was blaringly identified by signature and plaque and now rubbing shoulders with Riopelle, Carr, Borduas, and a whole slew of Group of Seven oils at a Prestige's Special Art Auction which attracted attention from Canadian millionaires from coast to coast. Wow! And it soon might be ours!
15 - The painting had a high lot number, late in the auction, by which time most people had run out of money, and could no longer afford to bid high on a Krieghoff. We had decided early on, to not buy one of those very expensive catalogues with fancy colour pictures and useless details, to save our money for this painting, and to let others bid wildly on inferior works by overly popular wallpaper artists. We didn't care if we were the only house on our street which didn't have a Jackson in it. We would put our money on Krieghoff; leaving it up to Prestige's Auctions auctioneer to see that we spent our money wisely.
In the end, we were the lucky, breathless, winning bidder...
But, but, but...
"It's a fake you bought. A Krieghoff fake!"
Our friend was not helpful, at the moment of our great Canadian art triumph...
"What do you mean, fake?" I was sputtering; my pacemaker started to make chugging sounds. Not good. "The painting is a Krieghoff. It says so everywhere, and Prestige's doesn't sell counterfeit art! You must..."
"No it says right here in the catalogue..."
"Whaddya mean catalogue? We didn't buy a catalogue! Do you know it cost over twenty bucks... We looked at the painting, that's what we were buying, the names, the signature, the labels. It says Krieghoff everywhere. We're buying the painting, not the catalogue...."
"Yeah but in the catalogue it says, look right here, it says "After Krieghoff." It was painted by someone else after the style of Krieghoff. Maybe the following year, maybe last week. After can be a very long time... Guys are painting new Krieghoffs as I speak. You can probably buy another one of the same here at Prestige's next year. You got yourself one of those ... A fake! You've been had!"
"What! You mean Prestige's sells fake Krieghoffs? I don't believe it! Why they left the signature there, and the metal plaque too. All say Krieghoff. And I didn't hear the auctioneer say that the signature is fake, or that the plaque is counterfeit!"
"Noooo. But...""Why didn't they announce that when they were selling it, if it isn't so? I mean if they know, for a fact, that it's a fake signature, and a fake plaque, why wouldn't they remove them? Why would they even use the word Krieghoff with this thing then? Why would they even sell it if they knew it was crap?"
"Business!... Look I know how you feel but this is business and only lawyers and rich people get caught. And none of them made their money honestly anyway so what does it matter."
"Some people think it matters a lot."
"Hodgins Art Auctions of Calgary for example. During an art auction last year they got worried that several of their Maud Lewis's were not by Maud Lewis. So they withdrew them from their auction - entirely. Threw them out completely and published the warning. Those were dead ringers for Maud Lewis, too, subject, size and signature - just like the Krieghoff here. But Hodgins didn't change the label and call them "After Maud Lewis." Hodgins threw them out of their sale, and sent a warning to their customers... Surely Prestige's would have done the same if they thought this was a bogus Krieghoff, and not trade on the name? What you're saying makes it sound dishonest..."
"No, no. no. It's honest in the art world. Prestige's will be the first to tell you they didn't put those Krieghoff names there. They received them like that. And that removing them would be tampering with art and they don't do that. Heh, heh..."
"But just between you and me, maybe they saw an opportunity. If an auctioneer can get a beginning buyer to think they're buying a Krieghoff, well, that's their own fault. Hey, a little plaque like that and a Krieghoff signature is money in the bank. That's why no one removes them or discounts them. The auctioneers, the pros, they all know it's fake. The in-group is not fooled. The only ones who get dicked are the amateurs - and rightly so. They have no business being here at an art auction in the first place. Pardon my French, but it serves them right. They should buy from regular art dealers not try to circumvent us by going to our auctions, where we get all our paintings for resale in our stores, and over-bidding us. Sorry, I don't mean you."
"It seems so distasteful, even sordid!..."
"Hey welcome to the art world. "Caveat emptor," which means watch out for guys wearing cravats, they'll empty your bank account."
It was an expensive, and sobering lesson. We've already decided to sell our second car to pay off the loan we got to buy our Krieghoff. It was supposed to be our retirement insurance... Now we're one car poorer, and it's goodbye retirement; we'll have to go till we drop...
Maybe we'll sell our Krieghoff on ebay, or at the Antiques Canada show... That's supposed to be an upright organization. We've seen other reputable art dealers there selling signed "Krieghoffs" exactly like this one. The dealer who was selling them may have been a bit short and chubby but hey, he wore a suit. And if you can't trust a man in a suit who can you trust.
Oh I almost forgot - first things first.
Tomorrow I'm going out to Moore's to buy a suit.
Looks like I'm well on the way to becoming a reputable art dealer.
A suit, and something for sale, how about one "genuine Krieghoff?"
Oh did I mention? I also have a sister...