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Charles White, Sound of Silence, 1978. Photo: The Charles White Archives.
Charles White, Sound of Silence, 1978. Photo: The Charles White Archives.

Dealers Say Counterfeit Artworks by African American Artists Are on the Rise

As African American artists have done increasingly well in the art market, shattering auction records and creating a surge in demand, there has been a corresponding growth in the number of forgeries attributed to African American artists, ranging from Alma Thomas to Charles White.

The New York dealer Michael Rosenfeld told the Art Newspaper that over the last few weeks, he has seen a number of works allegedly by Beauford Delaney, Romare Bearden, and Bob Thompson, among others. “It’s a whole generation: You could go from A to Z through the list, from Charles Alston to Charles White. I am seeing fakes attributed to all of them,” Rosenfeld said.

The gallerist noted that, since many of the counterfeit works he encountered are by artists who were overlooked or didn’t receive the recognition they deserved during their lifetimes, there is a limited amount of scholarship on their practice and output. The lack of research on these creatives makes it easier for forgers to take advantage of collectors and capitalize on the artists’ recent success. Even artists with estates and foundations dedicated to preserving their legacies are being targeted. Many organizations are cautious about authenticating works out of fear of litigation.

While exercising caution when attributing works to artists is a good thing, the Miami art dealer Jumaane N’Namdi told Artnet that it can also be problematic because it could leave some authentic works unrecognized. The popularity of African American works is also prompting galleries to scramble to conduct provenance research and write up exhibition histories for many pieces that lack documentation.

According to conservator and forgery specialist James Martin, “generally speaking, problems with forgeries become easier to spot when seen in large numbers.” An excess of works by the late African American artist Clementine Hunter led to a three-year FBI investigation that uncovered an art scam run by artist William Toye and his wife, Beryl. They pleaded guilty to conspiring with a New Orleans–based dealer in 2011, but were able to keep their forgery ring running under the radar for nearly forty years.

According to Artnet, roughly $2.2 billion has been spent on works by African American artists at auction over the past ten years, and in May 2018, Sean Combs, the rapper and producer known as P. Diddy, placed the winning $21.1 million bid on Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times, a monumental canvas that first debuted at the Whitney Biennial in 1997. The hammer price, nearly double the original estimate from Sotheby’s, set the new auction record for a work by a living African American artist.