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Matthew Wilcox
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Published: 29 November 2017

A Case in Identifying Fake Artwork

As legal cases and headlines multiply concerning fake works of art sold by once reputable galleries and dealers, the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) reminds us of the lengths some fraudsters will go to swindle unsuspecting art buyers.  The James Brennerman Collection, a purported mid- 20th century trove of early Jackson Pollock paintings, has been investigated at length by IFAR and determined to be a complete fiction.

The Brennerman Collection came to IFAR’s attention when four different owners of Jackson Pollock paintings, who were seeking official authentication, provided Brennerman documentation as evidence of provenance.  All the paintings turned out to be fake. IFAR has seen photographs of ten other Brennerman “Pollocks” known to exist as well.  Unfortunately at least one of the first four fakes has now been sold to an apparently unwitting art buyer. 

The imaginative back-story of the “reclusive collector” is what makes this cautionary tale so gripping. As IFAR was told, Brennerman immigrated from Germany in the early 1940s and purchased a large estate called “Buffalo Park” in Chicago. Upon his death in 1974, his art collection was gifted to his faithful servants, Bert and Ethel Ramsey. Several of the current owners sited the Ramseys as their source of the paintings. Facsimiles of photographs of Brennerman’s Chicago mansion were provided, along with purported copies of Brennerman's correspondence to family members, the Ramseys and an art collector named Charles Farmer. Curiously, no letters to Brennerman were proffered, and no one could explain how so many of his sent letters remained in his possession. 

A middleman in the property chain for two of the four fakes seen by IFAR was a strip club owner from Roanoke, Virginia. According to him, no other than Pollock’s widow, Lee Krasner, was the unknown source of two truck loads of paintings mentioned in the fallacious Brennerman correspondence, allegedly acquired in 1968 and paid for with cash. The cash transactions and self transport seemed to explain the lack of invoices and shipping receipts, but the two truck loads of paintings mentioned, has caused IFAR to suspect the they have only seen the tip of this iceberg of an art scam.

Finally, IFAR paid particular attention to the photographs submitted of Brennerman’s Chicago estate.  One represented as the southern entrance to the estate proved to be a photograph of the Sforza Castle in Milan, Italy.  Another said to show an aerial view of his mansion was in actuality a view of the mid-18th century Käppele (the church Wallfahrtskirche Mariä Heimsuchung) in Würzburg, Bavaria, Germany.  Lastly, a shot of Brennerman’s impressive library proved to be a library, but one in Wiblingen Abbey in Ulm, Germany. “You can’t make these things up,” IFAR humorously noted in its effort to inform would-be art buyers and to stop this insidious scam from proceeding further.

IFAR’s full exposé on the James Brennerman Collection can be found in the IFAR Journal, vol. 17 no. 4 (2017).

 

 

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