The artist Mark Rothko’s son, Christopher, testified Monday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, in the case focusing on a forged Rothko purchased by Domenico and Eleanore De Sole from the Knoedler gallery in 2004 for $8.3 million. The De Soles allege that the gallery knowingly misrepresented the work as real, and are suing Knoedler and its former president, Ann Freedman, as well as the gallery’s holding company, for $25 million.
Part of their argument is that Freedman provided them with a letter stating that eleven “specialists” with expert knowledge of Rothko had viewed the painting, and that this document verified the work’s authenticity. Rothko’s son was included on the list.
But on the witness stand, Rothko said that he had “never” authenticated a work by his father, and that he was unaware his name was being used in relation to Knoedler’s sale of the painting. When asked by Aaron Crowell, one of the De Soles’ lawyers, why he doesn’t authenticate his father’s work, Rothko said, “It gets me involved in all sorts of questions that, frankly, I don’t want to deal with.”
He said that he visited Knoedler a number of times, including at one point to view a different work that Freedman said was by his father, but which also turned out to be a fake. This was one of eight fake Rothkos—including the one the De Soles ended up buying—that were brought to the gallery over the course of several years by Glafira Rosales, a dealer who told Freedman that the paintings all came from an anonymous Swiss collector who wished to keep the family name private. (She also consigned or sold to Knoedler forged work attributed to Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock, among others.) The Swiss collector, Rosales claimed, bought the works directly from the artist with the help of David Herbert, a low-level employee at several galleries that exhibited Rothko and his contemporaries in the 1950s. The painting Rothko’s son went to the gallery to view was purchased in 2002 for $5.5 million by a trust set up by construction magnate Martin Hilti. Crowell asked Rothko what he thought of the work when Freedman showed it to him.
“I believe I described it as ‘beautiful,’ ” he said. “I believe it was descriptive, but I didn’t want to go further than that.”
“Why not?” Crowell asked.
“Because I didn’t want to be sitting here today.” He added, once more, “I don’t get involved in questions of authenticity.”
He then returned to the gallery and viewed the Rothko the De Soles would later buy. Rothko recalled describing it as “pristine,” but once again stated that he did not comment on whether or not the work was authentic.
During his cross-examination by Freedman’s attorney, Luke Nikas, Rothko said that he deferred questions of authenticity to David Anfam, the author of the catalogue raisonné for Rothko’s works on canvas, who also testified on Monday. Anfam’s name appears on the list of experts who viewed the Rothko at the center of the trial. But Anfam testified to never having seen the De Soles’ Rothko in person. In July of 2005, Freedman sent him transparencies of the work, which were presented in court. Freedman sent her letter with the list of experts on it to the De Soles on December 11, 2004. Anfam said that his name appearing on such a list “constitute[s] a proxy authentication,” and that the letter was “outrageous.”
“You don’t put people’s names on lists of anything without asking their consent,” he said. As for Knoedler having had a cache of undiscovered works by Rothko, previously unpublished in the catalogue raisonné, Anfam said, “The idea of eight Rothkos going under the radar simply strains credibility.”
But in 2008, as Anfam explained to Nikas, he put one of the Rosales works—a Barnett Newman painting—in an exhibition he had curated at the Haunch of Venison gallery in New York, unaware that it, too, was a forgery. In a letter from May 2008 to art historian Jack Flam, which was later forwarded to Freedman, Anfam said of the Newman painting, “I am not aware of any reason to deem the canvas inauthentic.”