“Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art” is an engaging crime documentary directed, co-written and co-produced by filmmaker Barry Avrich. It is the story of an $80 million art fraud in New York City. In rough outline, around 1995 a woman named Glafira Rosales appeared out of the blue and told Ann Freedman, director of one of the most prestigious art galleries in New York, Knoedler & Company, that she had connections to a man whose parents had, around 1960, moved from Europe to Mexico but stopped by New York City and bought a number of paintings by abstract expressionists such as Mark Rothko. Rosales delivered a Rothko to Freedman who showed it to experts who pronounced it authentic.
Over the next 20 years or so, Rosales delivered 60 paintings supposedly produced by Rothko, Pollock, de Kooning, Motherwell and others that Freedman and Knoedler sold for $80 million. Ultimately, the paintings turned out to be fakes painted by a Chinese artist named Qian Pei-Shen who was living in Brooklyn and had been recruited by Rosales’ crooked boyfriend, Jose Carlos Bergantino Diaz.
The question raised by the movie is whether Freedman was duped or was a knowing fraudster. There were grounds to believe that the paintings were legitimate. Some were authenticated by experts. It was believable that they might have been purchased at a low price because they were supposedly bought before the painters became prominent. Rosales had a plausible story as to the paintings’ origin and it is not unusual for paintings to lack a clear provenance. And who would think that a single artist could fake the styles of so many different famous artists well enough to fool experts?
Over time, however, serious doubts should have arisen. It’s one thing for Rosales to pull one genuine masterpiece out of the trunk of her car, but 60? And some investigation would have disclosed that Rosales and Bergantino had been investigated for art fraud in the early 1990s. Furthermore, none of the paintings had paperwork to document their provenance. And Rosales sold the paintings at a very cheap price to Knoedler relative to what it would turn around and sell them for, claiming that the owner didn’t really care about money. Also, the origin story of the couple from Europe evolved to spotlight a gay art dealer named David Herbert, who was conveniently deceased. And when the International Foundation of Art Dealers refused to authenticate a supposed Pollock, the Knoedler gave its purchaser his money back, but then turned around and put the painting back on the market.
The many art experts interviewed in the movie disagreed as to whether Freedman was legitimately duped, as she claimed, or was an active participant in a massive fraud. The people we watched the movie with similarly disagreed. We suspect that no one will ever know with certainty.
This will not stop us from engaging in a small exercise of armchair behavioral ethics theorizing, because so many concepts that we produce videos about seem to apply here.
A plausible theory is that early on Freedman believed that the initial paintings were genuine. They were, after all, seemingly approved by experts. Over time as contrary evidence piled up (e.g., a misspelled signature, a painting that appeared to have aged differently than supposedly contemporary paintings, the sheer number of never-before-seen paintings, etc.), the penny should have dropped for Freedman. But perhaps it did not for some very basic psychological reasons.
In the movie, Freedman admits that she fell in love with the paintings, that she was “caught up in the excitement over the art.” An art critic for the New York Times observed that “everyone wanted to believe it. It is great for everybody if the paintings are real.” Freedman, more than anyone, suffered from motivated reasoning, the tendency to seek to reach a particular desired conclusion rather than to find the truth.
Relatedly, Freedman and Knoedler were making huge amounts of money on these paintings, well above the normal profit margins (which itself should have been a signal that something was amiss). The self-serving bias would have inclined Freedman to gather, process, and remember information in a way that supported the profitable conclusion that the paintings were real rather than the unprofitable conclusion that they were fakes.
Once Freedman and Knoedler had sold some of the paintings, then the concept of loss aversion (see our video on the topic) would have kicked in. Loss aversion is people’s tendency to hate losses even more than they enjoy gains and to therefore take more risks and be more likely to act unethically to avoid those losses. Now, if the paintings were not real, Freedman not only would have had to forgo future commissions but also faced losing her reputation as an art critic, defending civil lawsuits and possible criminal charges, and loss of her job. All those factors would make it very, very difficult for her to accept evidence that the paintings are fake.
Loss aversion would have been reinforced by the following related concepts:
- Cognitive dissonance is the psychological discomfort people feel when their minds entertain two contradictory concepts at the same time. It would have been difficult for Freedman, who viewed herself as an honest art expert, to admit that she was selling bogus paintings. Author Maria Konnikova cited cognitive dissonance as an explanation for Freedman’s behavior in the documentary.
- Confirmation bias is the tendency of people’s minds to seek out information that supports the view they already hold. This bias would have predisposed Freedman to find evidence that supported the legitimacy of the paintings persuasive, and contrary evidence unconvincing.
- Belief perseverance is the tendency of people to continue to rely on information even after it is proven false. This is one of social psychology’s most reliable phenomena.
Freedman swears: “I did not knowingly sell fakes. I was convinced they were real. I believed what I was told.” It is possible to believe that regarding the first painting produced by Rosales. It is much more difficult to believe it regarding the 60th painting, as contrary evidence continued to mount. However, if you are familiar with concepts such as loss aversion, the confirmation bias, and belief perseverance, a plausible explanation for Freedman’s behavior arises.
We end by emphasizing that we do not know whether Freedman was a crook or herself an innocent victim of a fraud. We do not have the space to go through all the additional information supporting her innocence (e.g., she bought some of the paintings Rosales produced for her own collection) or her guilt (e.g., evidence that she represented that experts had authenticated some of the paintings when they had not). In either event, the human mind has its ways of fooling us into believing that we are good people, even as we do bad things.
Craig.Anderson et al., “Perseverance of Social Theories: The Role of Explanation in the Persistence of Discredited Information,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 38: 1037-1049 (1980).
Cara Biasucci & Robert Prentice, Behavioral Ethics in Practice: Why We Sometimes Make the Wrong Decisions (2020).
Maximiliano Duron, Knoedler Forgery Controversy, One of Art History’s Greatest Scandals, Is Explored in Provocative Documentary,” ArtNews, April 28, 2020, at https://www.artlyst.com/news/duped-story-knoedlers-80m-art-fraud-netflix/.
Nick Epley & Thomas Gilovich, “The Mechanics of Motivated Reasoning,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 30(3): 133-140 (2016).
Corey L. Guenther & Mark D. Alicke, “Self-Enhancement and Belief Perseverance,” Journal of
Experimental Social Psychology 44(3): 706-712 (2008).
Joshua Klayman, “Varieties of Confirmation Bias,” Psychology of Learning and Motivation 32: 385-418 (1995).
Maria Konnikova, The Confidence Game (2017).
Ziva Kunda, “The Case for Motivated Reasoning,” Psychological Bulletin 108(3): 480-498 (1990).
M.H. Miller, “The Big Fake: Behind the Scenes of Knoedler Gallery’s Downfall,” Art News (April 26, 2016), at https://www.artnews.com/art-news/artists/the-big-fake-behind-the-scenes-of-knoedler-gallerys-downfall-6179/.
Raymond Nickerson, “Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises,” Review of General Psychology 2(2): 175-220 (1998).
Paul Carter Robinson, “Duped You: The Story of Knoedler’s $80m Art Fraud,” Artlyst, Feb. 28, 2021, at https://www.artlyst.com/news/duped-story-knoedlers-80m-art-fraud-netflix/.
Ethics Unwrapped Videos:
Cognitive Dissonance: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/cognitive-dissonance.
Confirmation Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/confirmation-bias.
Loss Aversion: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/loss-aversion.
Self-Serving Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias