At least one mystery remains: To this day, the FBI agents do not know who actually painted the forgeries. Copying of a painting is itself not illegal; it’s only when you try to sell it as authentic that it becomes fraud. Some experts say the painter is unlikely to have been American, because American art schools now rarely teach traditional oil technique. They suggest that a more likely place is China, which is flush with ultracheap labor. “The Chinese have a lot of people doing it,” says Denis Dutton, an art expert and professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Given the high quality of the Gauguin copy she saw, the Wildenstein Institute’s Sylvie Crussard thinks the painter must have been young and vigorous. “You can’t be old,” she says, “to do that.”
When news of Sakhai’s arrest reached the art world, dealers had one question: How did such a nervy scheme go undetected for so long? “What’s just phenomenal to me is that he’d sell the real [paintings] publicly,” says Warren Adelson, president of Adelson Galleries, which specializes in Impressionists. “It’s like a death wish or something. It’s like a B-movie.”
Yet the forger’s success may lie in the art world itself—and how deftly he navigated its politics. By avoiding the New York market, he ensured that he’d generate little local heat. Moreover, Japanese art buyers are particularly reliant upon certificates of authenticity; because they’re so far from Europe, Tokyo collectors do not have easy access to the experts who can spot a fake Chagall at 50 feet. As a result, “the Japanese are famous for being kind of obsessed with certificates of authenticity. They’re almost more important than the actual painting,” says Judd Tully, editor-at-large of Art & Auction. A forger who transferred a real certificate to a counterfeit could be sure that few Japanese experts would spot the deceit. What’s more, since the paintings in question were not famous, few experts would be familiar with them, making it less likely someone would notice a fake. (A Japanese buyer might fly an expert in from Paris to authenticate a $20 million painting, but not a $500,000 one.) Culture helped out, too. When Japanese dealers discover they’ve been cheated, they’re less likely to raise a fuss than European or American ones, because they feel ashamed.
But the alleged scam also relied on one unexpected fact. In the art world, crying “fake” is surprisingly difficult. One might imagine that dealers are manic about authenticity and would be quick to publicize any possible chicanery. But when million-dollar reputations are on the line, openly claiming that someone else has been suckered—or complaining that you have been—can get you slapped with a libel suit. Even when a dealer spots a clear forgery, few people are willing to burn bridges by speaking out.
In the art world, crying “fake” is surprisingly difficult. Even when a dealer spots a clear forgery, few people are willing to burn bridges by speaking out.
“What’s your motivation if you see a forgery on the wall at Sotheby’s?” one New York dealer says. “What are you going to do—raise hell until they begrudgingly take it down? No. You think, Maybe I won’t mention this.” Indeed, the dealer criticizes Christie’s and Sotheby’s for doing a lackluster job of spotting the Impressionist fakes. In some cases that the FBI examined, when a collector unwittingly consigned one of the forgeries to auction, the houses blithely listed it in their catalogues—discovering the fake only after receiving puzzled phone calls from Tokyo.
As you’d expect, this sniping annoys the auction houses. “We do our best” to verify authenticity, says Christie’s spokesperson Andrée Corroon. That means not merely giving the artwork a smell test but tracking the paperwork for as many previous owners as possible. Yet even when a fake is suspected, the repercussions can be mild. Auction houses don’t consistently turn a suspected forgery over to the police; they can just send it back to the owner. If the owner doesn’t want it, the auction house sometimes keeps the painting, taking it out of circulation, according to Corroon. And, as observers point out, the sheer economics of the business means that auction houses can’t afford to lavish days on the history of each “middle market” work that brings in only a small commission. “If it’s not a $5 million picture, it’s not the bread and butter,” Tully says. By sticking to lesser-known paintings, the forgery scheme neatly leveraged this market reality.
It is also likely that a plot of this sort could never work again. When the forging scheme began, it was the early nineties, and communication between the U.S. and Asia was much slower. A decade later, when every auction incorporated online bidding and most galleries had Websites, victims could quickly figure out the scam’s central flaw: that a single painting was in two places at once. “Maybe he was sort of living in the past,” muses one New York dealer. “Today, with the Internet, people get the message really, really quickly. It was an astonishing story.” For a forger to pull off a similar scheme today, he’d have to avoid the auction houses altogether, and do everything extremely quietly, through private dealers. Or, like a few great forgers of the past, he’d need to invent “lost” works from scratch, in the style of great artists, with no originals to trip things up—requiring the rare, talented painter who can pull it off.
As for Sakhai himself, he’s still out on bail, and still drives in from Long Island to visit his Manhattan gallery. Customers still come by to assess nineteenth-century candelabra, Victorian vases, the paintings that crowd the walls. But Sakhai isn’t talking; at one point, he calls up to explain, quietly and politely, that it wouldn’t be in his interest. “To be honest, I wanted to come and talk to you,” he says, “but my lawyer advised me don’t. I wish I could.” And then, muttering a quick thank-you, he hangs up.