forgeries
A 1944 picture of artist Romare Bearden, who was a U.S. Army sergeant (r) with Pvt. Charles H. Alston, his first art teacher and cousin. Both men were members of the 372nd Infantry Regiment, stationed in New York. (Public Domain)

The recent popularity of museum shows devoted to African American artists and the increased attention being paid to these artists has had an unexpected side-effect: a significant rise in forgeries

According to The Art Newspaper, in the past few weeks, the New York-based gallerist Michael Rosenfeld has seen fakes purporting to be the work of Alma Thomas, Beauford Delaney, Charles White, Romare Bearden and Bob Thompson.

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“It’s a whole generation: you could go from A to Z through the list, from Charles Alston to Charles White. I am seeing fakes attributed to all of them,” explains Rosenfeld who championed the work of many African-American Modernists for years.

These forgeries often go unchecked because most of the artists were overlooked in their lifetimes, so the expertise it would take to authenticate their work is limited.

“You simply can’t go back to the source any more, and there is only a handful of people who worked first-hand with a lot of these artists while they were alive,” he says. Which is why forgers “know they can capitalize on that.”

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Even artists who have estates and foundations, are vulnerable as many of these organizations are weary of authenticating works due to the ever present threat of litigation.

“Foundations just aren’t doing this work any more; they can’t afford to,” says Bridget Moore of New York’s DC Moore gallery.

In 2011, it was discovered that the work of Clementine Hunter, an African-American artist who died in 1988, had been forged by artist William Toye for almost 40 years. According to FBI special agent Randy Deaton, who led the three-year-long investigation, she was one of the most significant artists to come out of Louisiana.

“It was a remarkable case because she was a folk artist,” Deaton says. “She was well known, but there wasn’t an authoritative archive on her career,” which ultimately made it easy for Toye to pass off his own paintings as hers.

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