It has been a source of amazement, and some bemusement to me, to see the meteoric rise in the cost of collectible vintage watches over the last 20 or so years. They have been, for as long as I have been interested in them, fanatically collected, make no mistake – the vintage watch collector of 1995 takes a back seat to no modern collector in terms of sheer enthusiasm for the hobby, but so much money is now involved that it is scarcely possible to use the word “hobby” anymore, with more valuable and desirable vintage models selling for prices formerly reserved for works of art. At the same time, as prices have continued to skyrocket, the number of coveted vintage models that were produced in the twentieth century has not, and human ingenuity, cupidity, and criminal creativity have stepped in as they invariably do to fill the gap.
We have today a situation in which it has, for some time, now become more and more difficult to consider collecting six, or even seven-figure, vintage watches without at least some degree of trepidation. The problem is compounded by the fact that watches are not (generally speaking) artworks; often, they were mass-produced by companies who never dreamed that, one day, hundreds of thousands of dollars might depend on the verifiable authenticity of their manufacture. Add to this the often ready availability of non-original replacement parts, the dramatic increase over the last couple of decades in the ease with which non-original parts can simply be manufactured outright, and the apparent general disinterest on the part of many collectors, as well as auction houses, in making reliable objective forensics part of the validation process for high-value lots, and you have a situation ripe for exploitation to put it mildly.
It is, therefore, instructive at this particular point in the evolution of what used to be a hobby and is now an extremely cost-intensive international phenomenon to consider some of the more spectacular instances of fraud in other collectibles, and see what they can tell us about how exactly things can go off the rails. I should say at the outset that while it is tempting to frame the question in terms of heroes and villains, blacks and whites, that it is really, as with any criminal enterprise, apparently true that there is more than enough blame to go around in these situations and that both overeager and willfully gullible collectors, and overeager (and sometimes willfully gullible) auctioneers, both can contribute to sometimes spectacular derangements of common sense that end up costing tens, and even sometimes hundreds, of millions of dollars.
A Vintage Too Far: Rudy Kurniawan And The Great Burgundy Scandal of 2012
Consider, therefore, the strange and quite well-known case of one Rudy Kurniawan. Kurniawan holds the dubious distinction of being the first person in the United States to be convicted of wine fraud which, if you are naive to the world of wine and wine collecting, may seem like an equally dubious way to scam people – but boy, would you be mistaken. Kurniawan, even post-conviction (he got ten years, and his escapades and downfall are the subject of the Netflix documentary “Sour Grapes”), comes across in coverage of his exploits as a rather sympathetic character, although I am sure that anyone reading this who was actually conned by him into spending has a different opinion. The New Yorker has this to say, “His scam unfolded against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis, and his circle of boys’-club oenophiles comes across as a bunch of tone-deaf hedonists.” He almost seems like a kind of Robin Hood compared to his erstwhile acolytes, although he was not so much robbing the rich to give to the poor, as he was robbing them to enrich himself.
As with many skilled fakers and forgers, he came to a life of crime out of an honest passion for the material. His speciality was faking high-end vintage Burgundy, and his process was straightforward – he would use his indisputably sensitive nose and palate to blend modern wines to duplicate the taste of rare vintages, put the result into empty old bottles, apply an appropriate label, and sell the result to his constantly widening circle of admirers (the take would eventually run into the millions of dollars).
Kurniawan’s case is a perfect storm of money, desire, and swirling toxic masculinity – one of the few women interviewed for the documentary, says the New Yorker, well-respected expert Maureen Downey, says that, “When I was younger, I’d walk into the tastings and everyone would immediately ask whose date I was.” And according to Downey, Kurniawan is merely the tip of the iceberg – as we’ll see.
The Prince And The Painter
Another very dramatic example of the lengths to which (very) large sums of money can powerfully motivate a highly talented creator of forgeries has been unfolding in the fine art world over the last few years – a scandal of enormous proportions, involving perhaps $ 200 million or more in possibly, probably, and definitely spurious paintings. This particular chain of events began to unfold in 2016, when French investigators seized what looked at first (and second, and third glance) like an authentic work by Lucas Cranach the Elder, which supposedly was painted in the mid-1500s. (The French police are apparently permitted to seize a work of art if it is suspected of being a forgery). The painting didn’t belong to just any wealthy but anonymous collector, either – it was instead the property of the Prince of Lichtenstein, and part of a collection which was being exhibited in Aix, France.
The painting had been sold to the Prince by one Giuliano Ruffini, a dealer based in France. Ruffini claimed at first that he was just a dealer and had made no claims of authenticity, nor had he claimed to have verified either provenance or originality of the work in question, but the Cranach proved to not just be a one-off – it was, as the investigation continued, traced to the workshop of the Italian painter Lino Frongia, who was arrested in connection with the case in September of 2019. The paintings had been authenticated, it seems, simply by examination by experts in the field – no forensics had been conducted at all, and they had been widely accepted as authentic and original, with works being shown at London’s National Gallery (a forged Gentileschi) and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (a forged Parmigianino). Just as in the case of Kurniawan’s wine fraud, supposedly authentic and very valuable works had been validated without any real effort made to go beyond visual inspection (or in the case of the wine, gustatory and olfactory inspection as well, which obviously can only happen after the fact). As with the wine, the inherent exclusivity and habituated, almost pathological discretion of the high-value art auction world went a long way towards keeping the whole circus in business for many years.
“I Licked The Chair, And Voila – I Could Taste The Fraud.”
Of these three stories, I find this one – from Vanity Fair – perhaps the most gripping, partly because, at least as far as the protagonists are concerned, it seems so morally unambiguous – at least at first. While not an auction story per se, it still offers interesting points of connection with auctions proper and with collecting in general. On one side, you have an aging yet still dapper and flamboyantly outgoing gentleman who made a name for himself as one of the great experts in French furniture from the reigns of the last three monarchs prior to the Revolution – a time when furniture design, in the opinion of both himself and other experts, reached a pinnacle of universality in form and function never equaled since. That gentleman is Bill G. B. Pallot, whose opinion at one point was considered definitive enough that the Louvre bought millions of dollars worth of 18th-century French chairs through the gallery he worked for, on the strength of his confirmation that they were genuine. With a taste for the good life (one of the lawyers involved in a civil case against Pallot remarked, “I’ve seen his receipts, and he spends more on old Bordeaux in a year than I earn in my job,”), a reputation as a lady’s man, and a Porsche 911 with an interior designed by Vasarely, he is one of those who seems to float through life surrounded by an impenetrable cloud of perpetual good humor and bonhomie.
His world began to unravel in 2016, when he was arrested on charges of selling – to Versailles, among other victims – chairs which were not only modern fakes, but which had been produced under his direction and by craftsmen under his employ. This is where his dark bête noir comes in, in the form of a former protegé named Charles Hooreman, more than a decade Pallot’s junior, and like him, a dealer in antique French furniture made for a vanished class of aristos. Temperamentally, they are very different men – Hooreman is a devout Catholic who comes across in the VF story as an individual leading a rather austere existence as a “whistle-blower, upstart, purist, scold,” whose only point of connection with Pallot is their shared passion for chairs; Pallot had been his art history professor when Hooreman was a struggling student at the Sorbonne. In one of the most poetically phrased descriptions of the discovery of fakery I think I have ever read, Hooreman described to Vanity Fair the moment he realized that a Pallot-validated chair was a modern fake:
“‘I often use the same people on restorations, and I’m intimate with their strengths and weaknesses,’ Hooreman says. He knew that one of them, for example, was fond of painting a coat of melted-down licorice on the surface of reproductions, to make new wood look old and dirty. In 2012, Hooreman saw a pair of ployants – folding benches –that were for sale in the Aaron gallery showroom and were billed as the onetime property of Princess Louise Élisabeth, the eldest daughter of King Louis XV, and acted on a hunch. ‘I licked the chair and voilà,’ he says. ‘I could taste the fraud.'”
The funny thing – well, one of the many funny things – about this particular kerfuffle is that despite the fact that Hooreman is indisputably right and responsible for the uncovering of an enormous imposture, both the furniture collecting community and Parisian society seem to have turned their backs on him a bit. Pallot, at the time VF ran its story, had done four months in prison (after his release, he went right back to showing up at high profile soirées as if nothing had happened, at one point complaining that the problem with prisons is that they “are not made for intellectuals,” which is the most French complaint about jail I can think of). Hooreman became a bit of a pariah by contrast, having committed what is, in the collecting world, the unforgivable sin of embarrassing rich people and leaving a whole plethora of alleged experts with egg on their faces. A prophet truly is without honor in his own country.
Plus Ça Change, Plus C’est La Même Chose
My point in talking about these three examples of prolonged deception, and self-deception, is not so much to point out that fraud and fakery are intimately intertwined with the world of watch collecting – anyone who collects even semi-seriously is perfectly aware that there are risks inherent in the hobby, and that one is well-advised to be on the alert to the ever-present possibility of fakery. It is rather that there are interesting elements in common to each of these three stories, and that these elements can be found in spades in watch collecting. In every case, the value of very expensive and desirable objects is validated simply by the good word of respected experts in the field, rather than by any objective forensics (let’s face it, a million-dollar fraud you can expose by licking a piece of furniture probably ought to have been uncovered sooner). Also, in every case, there is a community of collectors not only with a great deal of money at stake in ensuring that the authenticity of their collection is convincing, but also with an enormous ego-investment in the prestige that goes along with the social status accorded them by their collection. There are as well experts who may very well not wish to have their status as the final authority called into question by objective forensics. And in the middle, of course, are dealers and auction houses, who must walk a very perilous tightrope between acquiring consignments which can reasonably be thought to be authentic, and which confer the requisite prestige to generate collector interest, while avoiding situations in which they will publicly be shown to have not done their homework (and have to reimburse collectors for incorrectly authenticated lots).
All this will undoubtedly sound familiar to anyone who has spent any time collecting vintage watches. The problem of authenticity and originality is already severe and will only get worse and, as in any other branch of collecting, there has long since been an arms race between the knowledge available to rigorously authenticate high-value collectible watches, and the lengths to which people will go to produce fakes. Add to this the fact that watches, like cars, are working mechanical objects subject to perfectly legitimate maintenance and parts replacement, and throw in the fact that the collector community places such a high, and in some cases rather unrealistic, value on complete originality, and you have a situation ripe for exploitation by the wily and enterprising, who have little to lose and everything to gain. I don’t know if watch collecting will ever have its own Chairgate or Winegate moment, but such traumatic events can shake things up – the world of Old Master paintings has since become much more rigorous, in terms of doing actual chemical and structural forensics.
However, if there is enough inertia, it’s possible for things to go from bad to worse even when everyone would benefit from greater accountability. In the wine world, there is so much inertia in favor of business as usual that it seems little has changed at all. Interviewed for Forbes in 2018, an exasperated Maureen Downey said, “Unfortunately, the FBI has stopped actively investigating wine fraud cases after years of having a dedicated agent dealing with the issues of wine fraud and counterfeits. Too many times when they have come across a situation where they have identified the counterfeiter and the victim, but neither the producers of the wines nor the victims are willing to come forward to allow prosecution of the crime. The FBI finally concluded that they were wasting their resources on pursuing wine fraud cases. So, in the end the consumer will lose because victims were either too afraid or too embarrassed to stand up against these criminals.”