Forgery? Authentic? Scandal rocks art galleriesWhen the Seoul Auction House put four drawings by Lee Jung-seop, one of the best-known Korean artists of the 20th century, on exhibit in March before a planned auction, collectors and experts demurred.
They raised questions on whether one or two of the works ―never shown before in public ― may be forgeries. Without gathering second opinions from outside appraisers, the house went ahead with the auction anyway, displaying three of the four drawings from the exhibit, all of which had supposedly gone through the eyes of in-house appraisers.
The fourth piece, “A Fish and a Child,” was separately sold to a private dealer for 120 million won ($120,000). But when it was hung in an Insa-dong gallery later that month, appraisers from the Korean Galleries Association ― a professional art appraisers group ― unanimously agreed that the drawing must have been forged using a computer program.
“It was a decision made from a committee of experts who spent years in the field specializing in scientific appreciation of Korean art,” said Choi Myeong-yun, the senior association member who specializes in paintings and drawings, during a meeting with the press.
Thus started a scandal that has rippled through Korea’s art community and prompted doubts if other works circulating among Seoul galleries are real. Forgeries have become common in the local art scene, especially with artists such as Lee who only produced a limited number of works during his lifetime, increasing the value of forgeries.
Up to 75 percent of works attributed to Lee have turned out to be forgeries within the past year, according to the association. The drawing in question had lines that lacked “a sense of pace and liveliness,” said Choi Seok-tae, an art historian.
He theorized the piece was likely to have been traced from one of Lee’s wax paper drawings from the artist’s exhibition catalogue published in 1977. Mr. Choi also said the drawing “had marks of the person pressing the paper with a drawing tool to follow the original pattern.”
But the controversy over the drawing intensified when the artist’s family proffered a plausible defense: The drawing had been in their possession since 1953. In an April press conference, Lee’s eldest son, Tae-seong, frankly expressed bitter feelings in public about what he called “a false accusation” by the association.
The son said his family can’t provide specific evidence to prove the authenticity of the works they sold to the auction house. The family, which lives in Japan, decided to sell some of the artist’s drawings to finance moving his grave, he said.
Shortly after the press meeting, Mr. Lee filed a libel lawsuit against the association, claiming the conclusion of the appraisers had hurt the reputation of his father and their family. Police have opened an investigation.
It’s not the first time that fraud scandals have led to court action in the Korean art world. In 1991, the artist Chun Kyung-ja filed a lawsuit against the National Museum of Contemporary Art, alleging one of the paintings with her name on it in the museum’s collection was a forgery.
Chun left Korea shortly after the scandal, making the famous comment, “No mother has trouble recognizing their own children, no matter how many she may have given birth to.”
Last year, a drawing by Whanki Kim that was on loan from a major commercial gallery in Seoul for an exhibit in Yangpyeong was caught up in a forgery dispute led by a veteran committee member of the Korean Galleries Association.
Based on data collected by the association over the past 20 years, almost 30 percent of the artwork currently on sale in local galleries are forgeries, the Korean Galleries Association estimates. One shocking suspicion: As many as 30 professional forgers might be currently involved in duplicating valuable paintings in Korea, some of whom served apprenticeships under the artists whose works they are forging, according to Korean Galleries Association officials.
The association claims that appraisals of forgeries by European artists have been relatively easier to uncover compared to works by Korean artists because the technique of Korean art is much more familiar to professional forgers here.
The issue of a vast number of forgeries on the market has sparked an ongoing debate on its effect on artists and collectors. The art market is already suffering as the result of a lagging economy, and many hope the cases can be quietly resolved.
“It certainly damages our reputation,” says Paik Hae-young, a director of Paik Hae Young Gallery, a contemporary art gallery in Seoul. “We want the dispute to wrap up as soon as possible. [Forgery disputes] hardly affect contemporary artists, but if things like this happen, the general sales rate in the local art world declines.”
Others hope the forgery cases will be a wake-up call to apply clearer and more accurate scientific standards to art appraisals in Korea by gathering specific methods and case studies from other nations. Art insiders say that many galleries still fail to go through a proper appraisal procedure before they host exhibits, leading to misinformation on value and possible misrepresentation.
Experts suggest that there should be a clearer indication about the distribution route of each artwork for an accurate analysis of the work’s authenticity.
For years, major private art dealers in Korea kept their collections secret to avoid paying surtaxes imposed on “luxury items” in Korea.
“In the west, the value of an artwork is drastically different depending on who the previous owner of the work was,” Ms. Paik says. “In the Korean art world, the system of genealogy is non-existent, which builds distrust among collectors.”
Hwang Gyu-wan, an art historian, says the cases should be viewed from a more broad perspective. “If a few people closely involved in the art world take things in the wrong direction, it will create tremendous damage to artists’ honor and the Korean art world in the long run,” he says.
by Chung Jae-sook, Park Soo-mee