Expert Jane Kallir puts Egon Schiele’s works under the microscope

There’s nothing like a good art forgery scandal to get the blood flowing: beautiful people in elegant settings, big money and big egos, a starving “artist” fooling the experts…. It’s practically irresistible – like the movie How to Steal a Million, where Audrey Hepburn snatches Cellini’s Venus from a Parisian museum in order to conceal her father’s forgery.

In real life, the discovery of a scam leads to scandal, arrests, ruined reputations and even the closing of galleries. This was the case with New York’s famed Knoedler Gallery, which went on trial in January after it was discovered to be dealing in “Rothkos” and “Pollocks” that turned out to have been forged by a 75-year-old Chinese immigrant in his Queens garage. The fact that they sold for millions and passed muster with some of the most prominent names in the art world just made it all the more delicious. Who wouldn’t be tempted by a bullish art market that registered sales over €51 billion in 2014 alone?

This is a topic about which the gallerist Jane Kallir knows a great deal. As co-owner of the St. Etienne Gallery in New York – which was opened by her grandfather in 1923 with a major retrospective of the work of Egon Schiele –  she authored the first comprehensive catalogue of the artist’s work and is the person art buyers contact when they want to know if a Schiele is authentic. Speaking at the Wien Museum on April 12, she captivated her listeners with “war stories” from  the front lines of her tireless quest to expose the fakes and preserve the artist’s legacy.

Schiele’s angular rawness seems to invite forgers; but few come close. The artist worked fast, Kallir said, with a fluidity of line and color that is difficult to emulate. Also people tend to copy Schiele’s most famous works, she said, showing examples. This makes them easier to unmask, as Schiele never made duplicates, drawing poses that were often similar but never the same. Unlike the Knoedler Gallery case, most Schiele forgeries were contemporary, made between 1910 and 1918, when the artist died of the Spanish Flu. Some fifty works come across her desk each year, out of which only ten percent appear genuine. The most imitated  is Schiele’s self-portrait, whose forgeries vary from exact to those altered with shading or color.

Although forensic analysis and carbon dating of materials is now routine, the judgment of experts is still the most credible method of authentication. But nothing is foolproof, and the growth of online trade favors art forgers, thanks to the lack of auction previews or expert vetting. But Kallir doesn’t intend to make it easy for them.