‘Made You Look’ and the Art of the Con

Barry Avrich’s latest doc is a wild but true caper

7 mins read

Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art
(Canada, 90 min.)
Dir. Barry Avrich

“How can you have a fake Jackson Pollock hanging on the walls of your house for ten years?” moans M.H. Miller in Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art. The words of the New York Times’ Style Magazine editor precede a laugh-out-loud funny money shot in Barry Avrich’s documentary that reveals the name “Jackson Pollok” scrawled on a forgery that fetched millions. This entertaining rubber chicken of a documentary does for the art scene what Sour Grapes did for highfalutin wine connoisseurs. It’s a wild-but-true crime caper about a masterful deception and the people who don’t recognize the true worth of the riches they value.

Made You Look, which kicked off the Hot Docs at Home series on CBC Gem last night complete with a Q&A with director Barry Avrich on Facebook Live, returns Avrich to the zany world of high-priced art after Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World. While the commercial breaks and wonky buffering of CBC Gem gave a few bumps to the kick-off for the festival’s online adventure, Made You Look is exactly the kind of film that makes for a great night opening night—one can only imagine how it would play in a theatre with collective gasps and guffaws from the audience. This smart, funny, and accessible film runs wild with an incredible story while unpacking the convoluted machinery of the art world that allowed its insiders to be woefully duped.

The film explores the case of the largest art fraud in American history that brought down an esteemed gallery and left a respected art dealer with egg on her face. The central figure of the $80-million caper is Ann Freedman, a former dealer at the late Knoeder gallery of New York. Freedman and various implicated parties explain a decade-long con in which Glafira Rosales, a petty crook from Long Island, sold Knoedler a series of masterful forgeries by Chinese artist Pei-Shen Quan. Freedman marvels how Rosales trucked out one allegedly lost masterwork after another from contemporary artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Her voice still sparkles with true awe at the paintings.

The Rosales paintings, as Freedman et al explain, came with an evolving fish story about an anonymous dealer that was vague enough to be plausible. Their alleged owner also cared nothing for money, thus offering low costs and high markup potential to inspire a trained professional like Freedman to overlook the holes in Rosales’ story. To Freedman’s credit, Avrich assembles many of the parties who also believed the paintings to be genuine. It’s easy to see how she was duped, but equally amazing to note observe how the deal was too good to be true.

Made You Look unpacks the art of the con as Freedman staunchly defends her credibility with an impressive roster of evidence. Emails and letters support her claims that many other trained art critics and historians authenticated the paintings. Some curators even borrowed them for collections and displayed them alongside other Rothkos and Pollocks. The sheer volume of evidence to support the perceived authenticity of the paintings will further leave one wondering about Freedman’s complicity in the crime or the masterful hand behind the forgeries. Similarly, Pei-Shen Quan, who studied with Ai Weiwei, has a remarkable ability to recreate the my-kid-could-paint-that aesthetics of contemporary art that fetch millions. Fans of The Thomas Crown Affair: take note.

Equally juicy is the evidence presented by the victims of the art fraud. Collectors Domenico and Eleanor De Sole recall with giddy awe the experience of buying a fake Rothko at a steal for $8.3 million. They share their sense of betrayal that inspired them to take Knoedler and Freedman to trial, while other interviewees humorously recall wondering if their Rothko was upside-down while on display in the courtroom. Alternatively, Dr. Sharon Flescher of the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) explains in detail the elements that debunked the authenticity of a Pollock that Freedman sold. Flescher observes the painting’s superficial likeness to Pollock’s genuine work, but notes the details that challenged its legitimacy, such as the dubious provenance (ownership history) proffered by Morales, and the technical details, such as aging and colour pigmentation that didn’t jive with Pollock’s oeuvre and art history. On one hand, the fraud is a financial crime. On the other, the con stains the legitimacy of the artistic establishment.

At each turn, however, the sharp comedic timing of Tiffany Beaudin’s editing counters the evidence with Freedman’s rebuttals. Perhaps more fascinating than the elaborate nature of the con is the study in the psychology deception. Made You Look persuasively gathers the clues to illustrate how victims of fraud will seek to validate their experiences, rather than acknowledge red flags in retrospect. Made You Look lets Freedman present her case fairly, but even as she resolutely defends her actions, her reputation is at stake. The doc will inevitably have audiences debating whether Freedman was in on the con or simply a gullible mark who committed unprofessional gaffes while blinded by greed. It should also leave audiences skeptical of the value of the art in their collection—or perfectly content with the cheap IKEA prints on their walls.

Made You Look is now streaming on CBC Gem.
Additional titles in the Hot Docs at Home series screen each Thursday through May 28.

Made You Look screens at Hot Docs’ online festival beginning May 28.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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