The Fake Jackson Pollock Industry

Counterfeit Jackson Pollock painting

The Fake Jackson Pollock Industry by David Lloyd Glover

Jackson Pollock’s legacy is such big business, even a fake sells for $17,000,000.  The stock price for a Pollock has risen so much, there seems to be a cottage industry in selling any drip painting as the genuine article.  This is more likely to happen over a Pollock than something a little more difficult to forge, like a Rembrandt. As the saying goes, “My kid could do better than that.”

August 8, 1949 was a big day for the art world.  That was the week the latest issue of LIFE magazine had a multiple-page spread on the new art of a painter named Jackson Pollock.  His wild skeins of paint lines swirling over a canvas literally shocked America.  Pollock looked jaunty in his paint-splashed clothing, cigarette dangling, arms folded as if to say, “I dare you to make a comment!”

My professional art career was yet to start, but by 1955 my parent’s friends would pore over my piles of childhood drawings and paintings and proclaim that I was a lot better than that Jackson Pollock guy.  When I eventually came across a dog-eared copy of that issue of LIFE, I saw something completely different.  To me, Pollock’s paintings were exciting and his process of painting without actually touching the canvas was creatively inspiring.  Compared to the post-war imagery throughout the magazine, I was struck by how modern and rebellious Pollock and his work appeared.  I never attempted a Pollock look-alike painting, but I admired his courage to throw away all convention and seek new artistic horizons.

In December 1998, my wife and I visited the MOMA museum to see the Jackson Pollock retrospective, arguably the most complete and best curated exhibition ever of his work.  Ol’ “Jack the Dripper” had his best and most famous examples on display including a recreation of his drafty little shed studio in Springs, New York.  When you finally see a body of work like this on the wall (instead of in books and magazines) you really get it.  Some pieces had great power, others were quiet and lyrical, but they were definitely most identifiable as works of one of the greatest painters of the 20th century.  LIFE actually opened their article with that prophecy, and when you consider that Pollock’s No. 5 (1948) painting on an 8’ x 4’ sheet of fiberboard sold November 2, 2006 for $140 million, it seems they got it right.

When the news of mega money art sales like this hit the mass media, you can imagine how people would want to strike it rich with their own “Pollock” drip painting.  You may have heard about Teri Horton, a truck driver who bought a drip painting in a San Bernardino junk shop for $5 as a gift for a friend.  Later, her friends figured she may have a multi-million dollar Jackson Pollock on her hands.  There is a fun documentary on the subject (Who the $%& is Jackson Pollock?) that illustrates how difficult it is to obtain authentication, even if it is legit.  Undaunted by the lack of attribution the new owners exhibited the painting in a Toronto gallery with a $50 million price tag.  The canvas remains unsold—at least at the offered price.

The 165-year-old Knoedler Gallery in New York’s Upper East Side closed after being slapped with a lawsuit from the purchasers of a $17 million dollar painting (Untitled, 1950). The lawsuit claims they were sold a Jackson Pollock forgery.  The gallery claims that 12 Pollock scholars have “expressed positive opinions” of the work.  I’m not sure who those scholars are, but it’s now impossible to get a newly found Pollock authenticated.

There was a dispute over 32 recently discovered “Pollocks” in a storage facility in the Hamptons belonging to abstract painter Mercedes Matter.   She and her husband—filmmaker Herbert Matter—were friendly with Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, which they say is how they claim to have acquired so many paintings.  With the Pollock-Krasner Foundation disbanded, New York art dealer Mark Borghi sought out a former board member Ellen G. Landau to authenticate the 32 Matter pieces.  Landau agreed to put her stamp of approval on the paintings and drawings, but Eugene Victor Thaw—a fellow authentication board member and co-author of Pollock’s catalogue raisonné—contests the attribution.

I recently viewed two original paintings in an art storage vault that were purported to be authentic Pollocks and came by way of a deceased antique restoration shop owner near Springs, New York, who claimed Pollock traded the paintings for some materials.  Not an unlikely story because Pollock indeed used some of his pieces as currency to buy beer and groceries.  After all, even a name artist like Jackson Pollock struggled to make ends meet, and relied on the largesse of patron Peggy Guggenheim to underwrite his art and lifestyle.  The two pieces I viewed were works on fiberboard, which of course Pollock used as a cheap but reliable substrate.  They were in remarkably pristine condition for their age and one even bore a painted signature on the face of the painting.  Actually the signature was not a good indication of authenticity as Pollock did not sign too many of the paintings and this particular painting was not that monumental in dimension.  Nonetheless, the dealer produced an estimated market value of $45 million for the little panel I was staring at.  No. It’s not in the catalogue raisonné, nor can you find it in any exhibition.  Just another lost Pollock.  Was it the real thing?  There never will be any way of authenticating it, so it will remain in that gray area forever.

“Image No. 8,” 1949, by Jackson Pollock

I had my own personal experience at attempting authentication of a lost Jackson Pollock painting.  In 1999, my art photographer Marque Siebenthal (known in the art world as simply “Q”) showed me what he thought to be a Pollock original.  He unrolled a large dusty canvas to reveal what indeed looked very much like a true Pollock painting.  Having recently spent a few hours examining authenticated Pollocks up close and personal, I was struck by how impressively real Q’s canvas painting appeared.  The painting was full of those unique Pollock twists and turns that was a signature of his painting style.  It was also painted in the same color order that typified his work, each skein of color layered upon the previous application not in a random way, but rather in his approach to building an image. The paints were of the same house enamels, fence paint combined with early acrylics and his favorite “Mexican chrome” metallic aluminum.  This piece was a large unstretched canvas, and you could see that it was painted on a floor with errant spots of paint on the back.

But how did Q come into owning this thing?  As he told it, he had held on to this canvas for years waiting for its owner to come back and retrieve it from him.  Q was a photographer with American Photo Repro Corp working in their Melrose Avenue shop.  Like all regular customers including myself, there was next to no paperwork involved.  We just dropped off paintings, and a few days later would retrieve them along with a color transparency.  We were all known on a first name basis.  So Q tells me that an old white haired gent named “Sam” would come in regularly with some real high-end art and order color transparencies.  He knew enough about Sam to know he was a private art dealer.  One day Sam dropped off this big roll of canvas and ordered the usual 8” x 10” color positive.  (The attached image is that very photo)  However, Sam never came back to pick it up.  Q figured the guy must have died.  The painting was then kept for years by the owners of American Photo Repro as an unclaimed asset.  Unfortunately, the owners died in a private plane crash and Q ended up with the photo business and the “Pollock.”

Was this a real Pollock?  I was willing to find out if I could have a piece of it.  Q and I made a contractual deal that gave me a percentage and I set out to get this canvas authenticated.  Contacting the Pollock-Krasner Foundation slowed my efforts down as they curtly declared that all Jackson Pollock paintings have been accounted for and they were closing down the authentication board.  Now what?

I had the canvas delivered to the art restorer who contracts with the Getty Museum and had restored and repaired many Pollock’s for the MOMA exhibit.  It was her opinion that Q’s painting was indeed consistent with other Pollock’s she had performed conservation work on.  We at least felt we were dealing with something that could be authentic, even though a conservator can’t do any more than express an opinion.  Next, we employed some forensics to attempt to date the painting.  If we could build enough facts maybe the preponderance of evidence would impress the Pollock-Krasner Foundation enough to take a second look.  The painting was sent to the Arizona State University for carbon dating of the canvas and paint (a long process, as you have to wait in line with more pressing scientific study ahead of you).

After months of waiting we got the results.  The painting was indeed old.  1957 old.  That was a full year after Pollock drove his convertible head on into a tree, and many years since his last drip painting.  We had it tested again—1957 was the second report.  Can carbon dating accurately pinpoint an individual year?  At this point I realized that even if I could produce a photograph of Jackson Pollock posing with our painting, the experts would still not award it with an attribution.  I’d guess current Pollock owners like the fact there is a defined limit on how many exist, so there is a vested interest in preventing additions to the big money club.

I had a guy willing to pay us $100,000 cash for it just because he liked the painting as is.  Q refused the offer and said he would rather hang it in his studio and dream that it was the real thing.  I don’t know what ever happened to the painting because one day I called Q to make an appointment and his voice mailbox was full.  I kept calling until I received an email from a gentleman who said he was going through Q’s stuff and found my email address.  Q died in his sleep, much too soon for a middle-aged man, and the best fine art photographer in the business.   He left no records. And the “Pollock?” Maybe it was tossed in the dumpster, mistaken for a paint-spattered drop sheet.  I will never know.

This article was written by David Lloyd Glover, a wonderful artist that has been featured on Art & Coin Television on multiple occasions.  

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