The Peter Max Exploitation Saga

What does it mean? Buyer beware.

One of my favorite films is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with Michael Caine and Steve Martin. Michael Caine plays a high stakes scammer on the Riviera, working in league with local authorities to take advantage of wealthy, gullible older women from the States. Martin is a petty con man who thinks it a “win” when he mooches a meal off of a stranger on the train.

In the setup, we see that scamming comes in a variety of sizes. Some people aim low because that’s what they know. And then there are the art frauds.

The New York Times this week did a story on the manner in which the famed psychedelic artist Peter Max has been taken advantage of over the past few years as he slipped into dementia. The scammers were allegedly producing artwork and haiving the artist sign them.

The work was being sold on cruise ship auctions in international waters. The ruse was clever on several levels. The buyers, often inebriated, would have sketchy to know cell phone access to verify whether these were good decisions, or any confirmations of value.

According to the one article a “lawsuit has alleged that a team of “ghost painters” has created recent pieces being sold at extortionate prices, and that “the extent of Mr. Max’s involvement with these paintings is limited to merely signing his name on the artwork when it’s completed.”

This 2014 Bloomberg story tells how high seas art auctions sometimes work:
Ever Bought Art on a Cruise? Prepare to Be Seasick

The Peter Max scam has been around awhile though. See this story from 2008, before Mr. Max’s dementia.

Peter Max is not the first famous artist to be tied to fraud allegations. It’s well-known that Salvador Dali traipsed through surreal scandal landscapes.

It was said there were thousands in the marketplace; then tens of thousands; until, in 1985, Moore himself would claim that the artist had signed 350,000 blank sheets of art paper in his career.

He must have been seduced by Warhol’s quip, “Art is whatever you can get away with.”

And I guess that’s what art forgers must be thinking as well.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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