IN 2008, the Oklahoma City Museum received a package from a long-term benefactor, Mark Landis, containing paintings attributed to the nineteenth-century French artists Paul Signac and Stanislas Lépine. The museum’s registrar, Matt Leininger, was delighted—until he discovered the same works listed in the collections of the Savannah College of Art and Design, and the St Louis University Museum of Art. Those too had been donated by Landis, and it emerged that the philanthropist had been sending counterfeits, crafted by himself, to museums for 30 years. In an interview with the BBC, Landis explained that he enjoyed being “treated like royalty.” With no money exchanged—and with the burden of due diligence on the museums—Landis hadn’t broken any laws, and was never punished for his little con.
Contrast that to an art heist, unearthed last year, involving the Mumbai socialite Sheetal Mafatlal. Mafatlal currently faces criminal charges for the theft, planned and executed over two years, of paintings worth R100 crore from her husband’s family mansion. With the help of willing as well as gullible accomplices, including a celebrity photographer, a fashion designer, five sheikhs from the United Arab Emirates, business tycoons, policemen, politicians and bureaucrats, Mafatlal allegedly replaced numerous original works—mostly paintings by Indian masters—with fakes.
Landis pursued pleasure while Mafatlal chased profit, but both banked on the fact that value in the global art market—much as in other luxury markets—is based as much on connoisseurship as it is on conspicuous consumption. The art market is estimated to be worth $66 billion, making it one of the world’s largest unregulated markets—that is, unsupervised by the law. By this valuation, it is worth more than the gross domestic product of many countries, including Kenya, Luxembourg, Bahrain and Lebanon. Yet the idiosyncratic workings of this insular, informal market are little understood, making it extremely susceptible to overconfidence.
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