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Fakes, Frauds & Fine Art: Interview with Dr. Sharon Flescher, Executive Director of IFAR

An article published on December 1st of 2014 by The New York Times begins as follows: “An East Hampton man accused of selling dozens of fake paintings and sketches purported to be by famous artists, and using some of the money to buy a submarine, pleaded guilty in federal court on Monday to one count of wire fraud.” It took the FBI nine years to catch the man who defrauded collectors out of $2.5 million, and a 120-page report by the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) to get him convicted.

Dr. Sharon Flescher is the Executive Director of IFAR and the editor-in-chief of its award-winning quarterly publication, the IFAR Journal. “Let me start by saying that we are a not-for-profit educational and research organization dedicated to integrity in the visual arts,” she explains. Its primary focus is on the legal, ethical, scholarly, and educational issues surrounding the authenticity, ownership as well as theft and looting of art; it provides an administrative and legal framework that allows experts to express their professional opinions on artworks whose authorship is in question without fear of liability.

Considering Flescher holds a B.A. in English literature from Barnard College, two Masters Degrees – in English literature and art history – and a Ph.D. in art history from Columbia University, and has also attended the Wharton School of Business, she is both an astute scholar and a proficient educator who has handled the demanding challenges of her position with impeccable integrity. Since joining IFAR, she has served on advisory roundtables for the U.S. State Department, the CIA, and the National Archives and Records Administration.

ARTpublika Magazine spoke to Dr. Sharon Flescher about her love of art, IFAR’s immeasurably important work, and her own contributions to the internationally acclaimed organization.

You initially majored in English literature, what prompted your interest in art history?

It was a combination of things. I had a fabulous art history professor back in Barnard College by the name of Barbara Novak, who has since retired. She is sort of legendary; there are many prominent art people in New York today who were inspired by her. But, it was also the subject matter itself; I was interested in the interconnection between the two fields – of literature and art.

Which NYC museum was/is your favorite?

When you’re a child in New York, as I was, your favorite museum is the American Museum of Natural History. I doubt that any child, no matter what kind of family he or she comes from, prefers an art museum to the dinosaurs [found there]. But, as an adult, it’s hard for me to pick a favorite; I go to museums for different reasons

Everyone loves The Frick Collection; I do, too, but it’s a small museum. I also love the Morgan Library and Museum because, like the Frick, it has extraordinary artworks and the original furnishings of the man who founded it. I love The Met. It completely depends on what I am interested in on that particular day.

Do you have a type of art that you particularly enjoy?

Though my field is modern [art], it is very broadly defined in most universities, and certainly was at Columbia. But, my own special areas are European Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and early 20th century art, mostly French. I’d say they still remain my favorite periods, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have favorite works of art that don’t fall within those periods.

What is your favorite artwork?

I have a little magnet of Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride (1667) on my refrigerator. And, whenever I go to Amsterdam, I stop by the Rijksmuseum Museum to see the work in person. It doesn’t fall within my period, but I have to say it is my very favorite artwork in the world, both for its humanity and the beautiful way it’s painted. To me, it’s Rembrandt at his best.

How did you first find out about IFAR?

It’s kind of amusing, but it was fate that I ended up in this position. From the early 1980s I was very interested in some of the issues that IFAR was covering. I was clipping out newspaper articles, which I kept in a file in my home, whenever I saw something about the organization. I didn’t know IFAR per se. But, many years later, when I wasn’t even looking for a job, someone contacted me to say that the position of Executive Director at an organization whose name he didn’t mention was open, and that the position description fit me perfectly. When I asked what organization it was, he mentioned IFAR, which I had followed for so many years. My predecessor was in this position for approximately 13 years. I knew her, but wasn’t [aware] she had left. They were doing a national search, so I threw my hat in the ring. I knew how long people have stayed in my position – I am only the 3rd Executive Director of IFAR – and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity.

What year did you join?

I joined in 1998. Exactly 20 years ago.

IFAR was founded in 1969, is that correct?

Yes. Technically, it was the end of 1968, but we didn’t get started until 1969, which means that next year, we’ll be celebrating our milestone 50th anniversary.

How has IFAR changed and evolved throughout its 50-year history?

On the one hand we have changed a lot and on the other hand, we have changed only a little. We were originally founded to deal with scholarly issues of attribution and authenticity, to be an independent and objective body that could research artworks whose authorship was in question. People think fakes are a recent problem, but it’s not so. [For example, in] the 1960s there were highly publicized art scandals; some very well known collectors got embroiled in disputes about artworks in their collections that were said to be inauthentic.

Art specialists, scholars, and curators are often afraid to speak out about issues of attribution for fear of getting sued by unhappy owners whose works get devalued if a great professional doesn’t think the work is by the artist to whom the owner would like it to be attributed. Legislation was proposed in New York State – which was then, even more than now, the capital of the art world – to protect specialists from liability when giving their opinions. But, that part of the legislation did not get passed, so the New York Attorney General and others called for the creation of a not-for-profit organization that could weigh in on these issues, an organization that would be respected by the marketplace without being a part of it. IFAR was the answer.

IFAR was founded in the wake of those scandals and the failure to pass legislation to protect the specialists. The service that we created then, which we call the Art Authentication Research Service, still exists to this day. Then, in 1977, when art theft became a problem, IFAR conceived the idea of creating a clearinghouse where people could register a theft when it occurs, and others could search it to see if a work they wanted to acquire had been registered as stolen. This was long before computers even existed, but later, it was computerized and became the first database of stolen art accessible to the public.

It’s a tribute to IFAR that it had the courage to do this and go forward. It was an uphill battle and there was tremendous resistance initially to giving information to such a resource, because many people considered theft information to be very confidential. But they trusted IFAR. I emphasize this because people now take it for granted that databases like the one we created exist. We nurtured that database for almost 20 years and then, in 1991, when it got much too large for a non-profit organization – one that is unfortunately not wealthy – we licensed the database to a new for-profit company called The Art Loss Register, which we along with several other entities helped create. Since 1998, we no longer manage their activities, although we do publish a Stolen Art Alert in every issue of our quarterly publication, the IFAR Journal. We also organize public programs about art theft, and write articles about it, highlighting some of the broad ethical and legal issues involved.

We were one of the pioneers in bringing WWII art looting and, what you would call, cultural property issues to the fore. Cultural property generally [refers to] claims [made] by foreign countries [in regard to] objects they believe were taken out of their countries in violation of patrimony laws and international agreements. We began to cover these extensively; in fact, we were already writing about restitution and claims in the 1970s, long before these issues were on the radar of most people and certainly most publications.

In 2008, we introduced our Art Law & Cultural Property Database, an online resource, which contains summaries of legal cases as well as the full text of foreign cultural property ownership and export legislation from, currently, 121 countries. We will be adding some more countries this summer. This resource is particularly expensive for us to maintain, as we pay legal researchers and translate foreign documents into English. I encourage people to look at this database. Many universities and museums subscribe to it, as well as many individuals.

The Art Law & Cultural Property Database is one component of our effort in the last few years to revamp our website and make it an interactive educational resource. For example, we’ve always dealt with issues of forgery and fraud – these are related issues to attribution and authenticity – but, in recent years we've expanded our focus to include Catalogues Raisonnés, which are scholarly compilations of an artist's body of work. We have created another online database with comprehensive information on catalogues raisonnés. It’s an extraordinary and unique resource and I don’t know of any in the world like it. Currently, it contains information on more than 4,000 published Catalogues Raisonnés, and several hundred catalogues still being prepared. There was no such resource, but we needed one, so we created this and continually expand it. These are some of the ways in which we’ve changed.

How did technological advancements over the last 50 years shape the activities of IFAR?

When we first created the Art Theft Archive, the material was kept in hard copy in a folder. So, if someone was interested in purchasing a work and wanted to make sure it wasn’t stolen, we would physically have to go and look through the folder. Eventually, in the 1980s, we computerized the archive. As software became more and more sophisticated, we continually upgraded. So, that’s one area where technology has made an enormous difference. And, of course, there are our online databases – the Art Law & Cultural Property Database and Catalogues Raisonnés Database. We set them up to be user friendly, which they are, in addition to the fact we have a Users’ Guide. But none of this could have been done without sophisticated technology.

How did advancements in forensic technology help IFAR provide the original authentication service for the last 50 years?

Though we’re known for our provenance research and focus on connoisseurship, many of the works submitted to us are also examined in a laboratory. Obviously over the years, the types of tests and equipment have gotten far more sophisticated. Today, there are many types of new scientific equipment available to study art, not just for purposes of authenticity, but to better inform us about the artworks. Some of these are coming from outside of the art world, such as the medical field, as well as the math and engineering communities.

This fascinates me, and we have a long history of using scientific technology at IFAR. But, we will never give up on the importance of working with experts to closely look at an artwork to see whether the style, brush strokes, use of color, etc., are or are not consistent with a particular artist. We believe in doing tests when they can be informative; technology is not a miracle and it will almost never prove that a work is authentic, but it can rule out a work as being inauthentic.

That’s a great clarification.

I am a big fan of CSI, but the show makes it seem like [experts] can get answers about a committed crime after a few minutes [at the lab]. It can make some people think there are simple tests that can [reveal] if a work is by a particular artist. But, for the most part, those kinds of tests aren’t even necessary. And, they are very costly, and often very time consuming. I think it’s important to make judgment calls about when these tests are worth doing.

Do you have a close relationship with the FBI?

Yes, a very long standing one. In fact, we have a plaque in our office that’s a Thank You from the FBI. We also have one from U.S. Customs, back from when it was called the U.S. Customs Service.

Can you talk a little about your involvement in a closed case?

A man named John Re, who is currently serving a term in federal prison, had pled guilty to one count of wire fraud in connection with a decade long scheme regarding fake Pollocks and de Koonings that defrauded art collectors out of a few million dollars. That plea agreement followed an intensive FBI investigation that led to his arrest and subsequent imprisonment. I, personally, attended the sentencing in Federal Court in New York. But the reason I’m mentioning this is because IFAR examined multiple artworks as part of this fraud; the FBI subpoenaed the 120-page report and quoted it extensively as part of its criminal complaint.

What would you like people to know about IFAR that hasn’t been addressed?

We serve as a bridge between the public and the art community, which has learned to trust us and respect us as a valued resource. We organize very unusual and popular public programs and conferences, and we make sure to have different points of view represented. The issues we’ve been dealing with are even more in the news today than they were when we first started to work on them, making our work more important than ever.

Also, despite our name, we are not an endowed foundation, and have to raise all our operating money each year. We do so much for the public and art world, and could use their financial support.

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