Art forgery is a peculiar crime. Reliant on camouflage and deception, on the rhetoric of the believable lie, it is an act both audacious and self-effacing. For the imitation to succeed in fooling us, it must resemble one or more things that we have been led to believe are undoctored originals. Without something to mimic, the fake could not exist. And the forger of old masters' drawings, like the forger of twenty-dollar bills or U.S. passports, must be skilled enough to fool eyes that by now are practiced at uncovering deceit.
Like spies, forgers often go undetected for years. No one motive directs their actions. Some seek only money, preying on the hapless and uninformed. Others take pride in their skill, targeting museums in the hope of sneaking their manufactures into exhibition catalogues and mingling spurious creations with legitimate masterworks. Revenge against an indifferent or hypocritical art world may be involved. The Hungarian forger Elmyr de Hory confessed to feeling deep satisfaction at watching art dealers who had disdained the works he painted under his own name rush to buy those he painted under a more famous, if false, signature. Forgery can be both a crime against art and a private joke.
To copy a master's work was for centuries basic to a young artist's education. But imitation is not always flattery. Albrecht Dürer, the sixteenth-century German painter and printmaker, sued an Italian artist for copying his prints and signature without permission—the first recorded case of art forgery settled through the courts. Now, when a previously unknown Rembrandt turns up for sale, experts are called to verify the claim. Spectrographic tests can be run on pigment, ground, sizing, and canvas to date materials. The provenance of a work is checked. Anyone with access to a specialist's art library can pull down a volume that shows changes in Rembrandt's autograph over his lifetime. Two and a half centuries of classical-art scholarship have given curators an array of reliable tools with which to assess whether a sculpture is a Greek original, a Roman copy, or a latter-day forgery.
But in the fine-art photography market—smaller than the painting, sculpture, and drawing markets, and only about twenty-five years old—safeguards are fewer. Even though photographs have lately become glamorous and often expensive (a Man Ray sold privately in 1999 for upwards of a million dollars, and images by contemporary artists such as Cindy Sherman and Andreas Gursky have sold for $250,000 to $610,000 at contemporary-art auctions over the past several years), only a few books can be consulted to settle questions about materials and practices. It is still not possible, for example, to date with certainty a Mathew Brady photograph, whereas a drawing attributed to Titian can be subjected to a battery of widely accepted scientific tests.
Moreover, notions of what constitutes value in fine-art photography are notably subjective. When the photography market was born, in New York in the mid-1970s, the concept of "vintage" prints boosted its growth. These were the select few prints—or perhaps the only one—developed by the photographer immediately or soon after he made the negative, and often signed. Although the concept can be seen as little more than a marketing strategy to avert profligate reproduction, most collectors, dealers, curators, and auction houses came to agree that vintage prints should, if all else is equal, be deemed intrinsically more valuable than subsequent prints made from the same negative, whether by the photographer in later life or posthumously.
This hierarchy has a certain logic. Usually, vintage prints are rarer, and rarer is almost always better in the art market. Less logical is the romantic belief that these prints more truly reflect the intentions of a photographer. Even if an artist's darkroom technique or equipment improved in later life, as happened frequently, the first drafts supposedly bring viewers closer to the moment of creation.
This notion, however, raises a host of questions about what kind of creation a photograph really is. What constitutes the "original" in photography? Is it the negative template or the positive print? Does the value of an art photograph derive from the framing of the picture in the viewfinder, or from the magical blending and separation of tones in the darkroom? If someone makes a contemporary print from the original negative and then falsely sells that print as vintage, is this thing a "forgery"? Or should it be called something else—something less damning?
The question of forgery in photography has of late become more than an academic issue. Prices for vintage prints accelerated so wildly in the 1990s that one of these photographs might fetch a hundred times as much as a non-vintage print of the same image. It was perhaps only a matter of time before a canny soul took advantage of the discrepancy—and of the huge gaps in scholarly knowledge—to peddle newly created vintage prints for profit.
In fact, a market manipulation of this sort had already occurred. Appearing like an avatar of Walter Benjamin's "age of mechanical reproduction," a charlatan using the impish pseudonym Benjamin Walter—and operating in Paris, no less—made a killing by selling bogus vintage works by Man Ray to a number of clients. Apparently printed from Man Ray's original negatives, Walter's fakes were so luscious in tone that for years they fooled some of the smartest people in the field. The curator Maria Morris Hambourg, who heads the photographs department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was prepared to make them the backbone of a Man Ray retrospective until she noticed an anachronistic stamp on the photographic paper—a clue that they were likely not vintage prints.
These ersatz Man Rays from Europe first revealed the vulnerability of the high-end photography market to fraud. But an all-American scandal involving certain prints by Lewis Hine created a shock wave.
Photographs by Hine, a pioneer of early-twentieth-century social documentary who is best known for his melancholy child-labor and Ellis Island portraits and his stunning pictures of workers atop the Empire State Building during its construction, have never reached the price levels of photographs by Man Ray or Alfred Stieglitz. Hine, who didn't presume to be an artist, died broke in 1940. But for almost forty years his works have been perennials at auction, and prices for his vintage pictures rose steeply in the 1990s; $10,000 was a common price, and some pictures commanded as much as $50,000.
In October of 1999 the Association of International Photography Art Dealers sent its membership a bulletin suggesting that a number of these Hines were of dubious authenticity. Word soon circulated that at least as troubling was their source: none other than Walter Rosenblum, a revered photographer and teacher who had been—along with his wife, the art historian Naomi Rosenblum—a pillar of New York's photography community for decades. Both were Hine experts, called upon by dealers and auction houses to verify the dates and authorship of prints; and both are now suspected of having known that Hine photographs from their collection, which they sold as vintage or lifetime prints, were made after Hine's death—perhaps by Walter Rosenblum himself.
Walter Rosenblum has said that he did not print the disputed photographs and was not aware of any deception. But in the fall of 1999 a group of dealers—Edwynn Houk, Howard Greenberg, and Robert Mann, of New York; Stephen Cohen and Peter Fetterman, of California; and Tom Halsted, of Michigan—demanded reimbursement if it could be proved that the Hines they bought from Rosenblum as prints made by the photographer himself were not. (The dispute was handled out of court. All parties are barred by a nondisclosure agreement from speaking to the press.) From 1979 to 1999 as many as 500 Hines may have passed through Rosenblum's hands and into the art market—photographs he sold or gave to private clients and curators, or to a group of primary dealers who then resold them to their clients, including secondary dealers who resold them to their clients, and so on, a branching tree of buyers and sellers who shelled out millions of dollars altogether. "In a way it's more serious and wide-ranging than the Man Ray scandal," says Denise Bethel, who heads the photography department at Sotheby's, in New York, "because we still don't know the extent of it."
Many people in the field of fine-art photography would love to put the story of the phony Lewis Hine prints behind them, and for many different reasons. High on the list of people are the three eminent New York dealers who did a brisk trade with Walter Rosenblum over a number of years and were parties to the aforementioned dispute against him.
Edwynn Houk operates a quietly spectacular gallery (frosted glass, brushed aluminum, leather chairs, muted tones) on Fifth Avenue, just north of Fifty-seventh Street. His roster of artists includes Sally Mann and Annie Leibovitz, and he represents the estates of Brassaï, Bill Brandt, and Dorothea Lange.
Howard Greenberg, in SoHo, one of the best-liked dealers in the business, specializes in vintage twentieth-century prints and is a primary source for work from the estates of Edward Steichen, André Kertész, Ben Shahn, Imogen Cunningham, and James Van Der Zee, among many others.
Robert Mann opened a cavernous space two years ago in Chelsea, the New York neighborhood to which contemporary-art dealers gravitated in the late 1990s after SoHo rents shot up. The best-known artist he handles exclusively may be the influential color landscape photographer Richard Misrach, but he also represents the estates of Aaron Siskind and O. Winston Link, the master of American train photography.
These dealers not only have suffered embarrassment (along with the rancor of clients, including other dealers, who want their money back), but also are under suspicion of having looked the other way. In the eyes of some of their peers, they must have—or should have—known that far too many pristine "vintage" Hine prints of the same images kept coming on the market from the collection of Walter and Naomi Rosenblum. The claim that Houk, Mann, Greenberg, and the others made against Walter Rosenblum doesn't exculpate them as enablers in this mess. "I find it hard to understand how the brightest dealers in the field, the ones with the most experience and the biggest galleries, could all have been duped," says one photography dealer, who wishes to remain anonymous.
Students and academic colleagues of the Rosenblums are not eager to discuss the story. Many remain stunned. "My reaction when I heard the news was utter and complete sadness," says Alan Trachtenberg, a professor emeritus of American studies at Yale. "That feeling hasn't worn off." Unlike the mysterious Benjamin Walter, the Rosenblums have enjoyed lustrous public reputations. Thousands have sat in their seminars and lectures over the past half century.
Walter Rosenblum, now eighty-three, taught photography at Brooklyn College for more than forty years, and ran the department for twenty; he has done guest stints at Yale and elsewhere. During World War II he served with distinction, earning a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart. An artist whose work combines the social-crusading subject matter of Hine with the impeccable print polish of his friend Paul Strand, he has exhibited his own photographs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles; and throughout Europe.
Naomi is the author of A World History of Photography (1984) and A History of Women Photographers (1994), standard texts in art-history courses. Among the first to earn a Ph.D. in art history for a dissertation on a photographer (hers was on Strand), she has taught the history of photography at universities across the United States and Europe, with a base at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York.
Married for more than fifty years, the Rosenblums have both written extensively on Hine, arguing for his importance to American photography. ("I think of Walter as the guy who saved Lewis Hine's work," says Richard Benson, the dean of the Yale University School of Art.) They co-authored, with Trachtenberg, the book America and Lewis Hine (1977), and their vast collection of his photographs served as the core of a Hine retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum in 1977. Acclaimed by Hilton Kramer, in The New York Times, and Robert Hughes, in Time, among many others, the exhibition was the first one to travel from an American museum to the People's Republic of China.
For their years of devotion to photography the Rosenblums have been honored at the highest levels. In 1990 the J. Paul Getty Center chose them as scholars-in-residence; in 1998 they received the Infinity Award from New York's International Center of Photography, that institution's highest tribute.
Some feel that to prosecute a grandfatherly octogenarian who has dedicated his life to photography is unseemly. "This is all about stockbrokers making a lot of money from investing in photographs," says Michaela Murphy, a photographer and master printer. "They're crucifying an old man for their own ignorance." At least one photography critic, Vince Aletti, of the Village Voice, has chosen not to write about the suspected misdeeds of the Rosenblums out of affection for the couple. He says, "Walter's always been extremely kind to me. I didn't want to do him any more harm."
But one person unafraid to point the finger at the Rosenblums is a forty-two-year-old photography collector and former Los Alamos physicist named Michael Mattis. In October of 1999 Mattis reached an out-of-court settlement with the Rosenblums over three Hines sold to him as signed lifetime prints that turned out to have been printed posthumously. His proof for this—established by a group of paper conservators who devised tests to date twentieth-century photographs—was the foundation for the claim the six dealers brought. More than anyone else, Mattis has pushed the story forward; and unlike most of the other players in it, he is not bound by a nondisclosure agreement.
With his wire-rim spectacles and ear-to-ear beard, Mattis looks like a studious leprechaun. One photography dealer has called him "the hippie rabbi." But above all, he is a savant who can't hide his suspicion that he's smarter than his interlocutors.
Which, in all likelihood, he is. Mattis took his Ph.D. in physics from Stanford at the age of twenty-five. He was the Enrico Fermi fellow at the University of Chicago, and for a number of years the J. Robert Oppenheimer fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratories, where he did research in particle theory as a member of the staff until 2000. For the past ten years he has worked at the outer limits of mathematical physics, on, among other things, superstring theory, which seeks to reconcile quantum theory and relativity to produce a "theory of everything."
Mattis now spends his time researching photography collections and curating shows drawn from his own holdings. His wife, Judith Hochberg, who also has a Ph.D. (in linguistics) from Stanford, works at IBM; they live in Westchester County, New York, and both devote great effort and income to buying photographs, a passion they nurtured in the early 1980s while both were at Stanford.
The two own more than 10,000 photographs. Such a huge collection almost necessarily varies widely in value and rarity. Among the most valuable photographs are eight vintage prints by Diane Arbus; others include vintage prints by Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Margaret Bourke-White, and, of course, Lewis Hine.
"It's the real thing, vintage, we had it tested," Mattis told me when I visited him two years ago, pointing at a large bronze-toned print from Hine's Empire State Building series. "Note the signature, in white ink, in block letters, on the front of the photograph." (Many of the Hine prints that came from Walter Rosenblum, Mattis has found, have a cursive signature, in pencil or gray ink, on the back.)
The story of Mattis, Hochberg, and the Rosenblums began in December of 1988, when Mattis and Hochberg bought their first two Hines through a dealer in Los Angeles (one of the six who made the demand against the Rosenblums). Both images now rank among the photographer's most famous: Powerhouse Mechanic (a.k.a. The Steamfitter), circa the early 1920s, which shows a muscular young man in a singlet bending at the waist and holding a wrench to a bolt on a steam turbine; and Steelworkers at a Russian Boarding House, circa 1908, a group portrait of six handsome, moustachioed men in Pennsylvania. A year later Mattis and Hochberg acquired another well-known Hine, Three Riveters, Empire State Building, circa 1931, through another dealer. They were thrilled by the quality of the material. "We knew that Hine belonged to the pantheon of great photographers, but the prints we had seen at auction or at other dealers hadn't appealed to us," Mattis says. "There hadn't been a body of beautiful prints like these. The market needed them. We thought they were amazing."
They ranged from $5,000 to $15,000 each and were signed "Hine" on the back. What's more, all bore the stamp "Photograph by Lewis W. Hine from the Walter & Naomi Rosenblum Collection." To Mattis, this was the clincher: "It was the best possible provenance, from the two top scholars of Hine."
Mattis was already familiar with the images he and Hochberg had bought, because all three had been reproduced in Naomi Rosenblum's A World History of Photography, which has a special section on Hine. No other photographer in the book's 671 pages—not Brady, Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand, Weston, Adams, or Henri Cartier-Bresson—receives such lavish pictorial attention. Among the eleven Hine photographs reproduced is a full-page Powerhouse Mechanic. According to the credits next to the pictures, all came from a private collection. Mattis remembers thinking, perhaps naively, that having bought prints previously owned by Walter and Naomi Rosenblum, he probably now owned "the vintage photographs used for that book."
Hine made more than half a dozen negatives of the image later known as Powerhouse Mechanic. Some of these he printed and exhibited in his lifetime. Legitimate examples can be found at the Library of Congress and in the Ford Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But in those prints that came from Rosenblum the figure is angled differently. To confuse matters further, Eastman House made Hine portfolios in the 1970s to raise money. The portfolios included a print of Powerhouse Mechanic from a negative later accidentally destroyed.
The years 1989 to 1991 saw the dealers Houk, Greenberg, and Mann bring large numbers of Hine prints, mostly bought from Rosenblum, to the market in New York. Many prints went to other dealers; some were put up for auction. Mattis and Hochberg acquired several—including New York From the Empire State Building—from the Robert Miller Gallery, in New York.
But as the nineties wore on, the couple began to harbor doubts about their first three. "We started to see Powerhouse Mechanics and Steelworkers everywhere," Hochberg recalls. "And they didn't look as old as they were supposed to." Mattis agrees, adding, "But ours came with a story. They came from Walter and Naomi Rosenblum." To explain the large numbers of prints, often of the same images, that have come from his collection, Walter Rosenblum has actually told several stories. One version has Hine, the year before he died, reproducing many of his favorite images for a 1939 retrospective at the now vanished Riverside Museum, in New York. Rosenblum also claims that as a young man at the Photo League, an organization of socially conscious photographers, he aided Hine in the darkroom and received a group of prints, presumably from this retrospective, as a reward. In a letter accompanying a donation of twelve Hine photographs to the Fogg Art Museum in 1979, Rosenblum wrote, "Some of them are from the last batch of prints that he made before he died."
The catalogue of the 1939 exhibition, however, a copy of which exists in the Brooklyn Museum library, never mentions either Powerhouse Mechanic or Steelworkers.
Another story of Rosenblum's has him taking some prints that Hine had bequeathed to the Photo League. As the League's president, Rosenblum helped in the early 1950s to organize the remains of Hine's enormous and chaotic output. After the League closed its doors, Rosenblum moved the Hine archives from one New York City address to another until 1955, when, he claims, he turned over all the Hine material (just over 6,000 prints and almost 4,000 negatives) to the George Eastman House, in Rochester.
According to Anne Tucker, the curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and a scholar of the Photo League's history, members may have helped themselves to Hine prints after his death, because "they loved him and his work." The art world didn't care about the prints; they weren't valuable. Tucker has more trouble believing the first story: she finds it unlikely that Rosenblum aided the master in the darkroom ("Walter sat at the front desk. He was an office boy") or that Hine made additional prints in his last years. "He was completely broke," she says. "He couldn't afford to keep his house, much less buy boxes of photographic paper to make lots of expensive prints. Who would he have been making them for anyway? There was no market."
Throughout the mid-1990s Mattis heard a rising chorus of grumblings at auction previews about "too many prints." "There were rumors," he admits. "But people could dismiss them as sour grapes from dealers who had been cut out of the sales. There was no proof. And not all the prints that came from Walter have turned out to be posthumous, by the way." Still, that anyone visiting certain galleries in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Atlanta could open a drawer and find one—or two or three—Powerhouse Mechanics, usually signed and in superb condition, was troubling. Even if some were being sold as "lifetime" rather than "vintage" prints, the sheer numbers should have set off alarm bells. One dealer has estimated that thirty or more Powerhouse Mechanics may have come from Rosenblum over the years.
"Signed vintage photographs are rare," says Mattis, who buys them whenever possible. "They're much rarer than lithographs. In lithographs you might have seventy-five copies of an image. Whereas you're lucky to find two or three signed Westons of the same image. That's one reason they're so valuable."
Another factor casting doubt on the authenticity of all these "vintage" Hines is that many look eerily like Rosenblum's own photographs. The Chicago dealer Alan Koppel first pointed out the likeness, to the Santa Fe dealer Andrew Smith at an Association of International Photography Art Dealers show at the New York Hilton in February of 1999. Smith had a gorgeous print of Hine's Three Riveters hanging in his booth. Koppel stopped by and observed that the Rosenblum photographs he had seen and the Hine prints that dealers had bought from the Rosenblums had a "similar tonality—the same clean, hard surface and cold grays."
Back in Santa Fe a week after the show, wanting to confront his doubts, Smith wrote Rosenblum a letter asking bluntly, after some preliminaries, "Did you print Hine's work from his negatives after his death? This is becoming an issue in the Hine market." He never received a reply.
Smith also expressed his doubts about the pictures to Mattis, a client and a friend. Mattis did not take kindly to the suggestion that he might have been duped. "I had bought these pictures and hung them proudly on my wall," he told me indignantly. "It would have been easy to do nothing and accept that they were printed by Hine. I told Andy these sub rosa innuendos were tantamount to slander. I got angry with him. I decided to take action to shut him up. I didn't set out to destroy the reputation of the Rosenblums but to uphold it." To silence the whispering campaign, though, Mattis needed a reliable method for dating photographic paper.
Mattis had no background in the forensics of photographic chemistry or paper, and no time to teach himself. His schedule was consumed with writing research papers and delivering them at university conferences. Whatever time he and his wife had left they spent collecting more photographs. But Mattis hoped to prevail on a forty-one-year-old paper conservator in Boston named Paul Messier to provide the answers he needed. "I had used him for some minor work in the past, like fixing dog-ears, and been very impressed," Mattis says. "I'm not sure he would have taken the job, though, if he had known it would take years of his life."
"Michael is an empiricist, and he thought there had to be some way to date these things that wasn't based on subjective criteria," says Messier, who seems as genial as Mattis is tightly wound. "But when he posed the question, I was ill prepared to answer. I called around to some people in forensics, and they didn't know much more than I did. We didn't have the tools. There was nothing really hard, a way to say yes, that's the Kodak F surface from 1959."
Traditionally the method for dating photographs has involved little more than studying the image for signs of age. "You look for yellowing of the highlights, edge fading," Messier explains. The drawback, at least for dating twentieth-century black-and-white prints, is that the deterioration of any given print tends to level off over time, and darkroom techniques did not change radically during the century. All of which means that not even a trained eye can reliably distinguish a print seventy years old from one made forty years ago. Furthermore, different papers have gone in and out of favor, and companies such as Kodak and Agfa often guard as trade secrets data about the evolution of their products. "You'd think they'd have this stuff readily available, like wallpaper samples," Mattis says.
Using a representative group of about a dozen Hine prints collected by Mattis, Messier pursued several avenues of investigation. Messier made a scan of the Agfa stamp on the back of one Hine print and sent it to Agfa. The company confirmed that this particular logo had not been stamped on its paper until the 1950s. About a third of Mattis's sample group had this mark, indicating a problem.
Messier also got in touch with Valerie Baas, a conservator at the Detroit Institute of Arts, who had recently begun to research the use of optical brightening agents in photographic paper. "Think of a black-and-white photograph as having three parts," Messier says. "On the bottom is the paper base; in the middle is the white-pigmented baryta layer; and on the top is the gelatin where the image-forming silver is dispersed. The color of the baryta has the most influence on the highlights of the photograph. The more optical brighteners you have in that layer, the more pop, snap, and contrast you get."
Incorporating OBAs into photography became a goal of the industry in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The brighteners provided blinding-white highlights and also made the production of highlights cheaper, by allowing the use of less-refined paper pulp as a base. It was a manufacturer's dream: the papers rendered superior images and cost less. Adoption moved forward rapidly.
After chasing down current and former Kodak scientists and examining earlier research and paper archives, Baas was able to establish that OBAs had not been introduced into photographic paper until after 1955. Even better, a simple test could detect their presence: under ultraviolet light OBAs give off a cool, bluish glow. With the OBA solution in hand, Messier wondered if he could solve other date-related puzzles in photography. Paper experts directed him to Walter Rantanen, a paper-fiber specialist at Integrated Paper Services, in Appleton, Wisconsin. For more than half of his forty-seven years Rantanen has studied paper under a microscope. The supervisor of the fiber-science lab at IPS, he has in the past two years become, in Baas's words, "like a rock star to photography conservators, surrounded by groupies after he speaks." Rantanen is "even more of an empiricist than I am," Messier says admiringly. "For better or worse, I'm involved in the market. But Walter isn't from the world of fine-art photography. I've sent him prints by Man Ray and Walker Evans. He doesn't know what they are. He just looks at the paper sample and renders his judgment."
When I spoke with him, in 2001, Rantanen patiently talked me through the basics of his business and outlined the huge investigation he undertook at Messier's prompting. Rantanen created what may be the world's first chronology of photographic paper—a feat made possible by the fact that he has relatives as meticulous as he is. One of his uncles was an amateur photographer with pen pals around the world. In a set of twenty-eight albums going back to the early 1900s and ending at his death, in 1968, the uncle had kept careful records of when each picture—whether his own, a relative's, or a pen pal's—had been placed in the album. As a result, Rantanen had a very broad sample of photographic papers. "I went through the albums, taking a corner from a photograph from each specific period to look at fiber composition," Rantanen told me.
"He had this ready-made reference library for charting a chronology of photographic paper," Messier says with amazement. "Not only has he been able to discern the presence of bast and cotton fibers in the papers over the decades but he can tell the proportions of each, and of sulfites or sulfates, at various stages of paper-manufacturing history. It's a major achievement for the field."
Messier now had three guidelines for judging with some accuracy the age of a twentieth-century photographic paper: corporate logos, OBAs, and fiber composition. In March of 1999 he and Mattis put their samples, now twenty prints from various sources, to the test. "Despite our growing unease about the authenticity of the Hines, we were still stunned when the results came back," Mattis says. "All of those that could be traced to the Rosenblums flunked at least two of the three major criteria. All the evidence said fake, fake, fake, fake."
But knowing now that his own Rosenblum-stamped prints were neither vintage nor lifetime, Mattis wanted to find out what the two most reputable names in Hine scholarship had to say for themselves. On April 19, 1999, he sent a letter by overnight mail to Naomi Rosenblum, telling her that three Hines with the Rosenblum-collection stamp on the back had been declared posthumous prints by a conservator. Mattis's tone was pleasant. He suggested that an inadvertent error had occurred. Perhaps, he wrote, the prints had come "off the 'wrong pile'" from among the Rosenblums' vast holdings of Hine. Rather than go back to the dealers from whom he had bought the prints, Mattis proposed, "Maybe I could trade them back to you and Walter, in exchange for some other pictures (not even necessarily by Hine)."
The next day an apologetic Walter Rosenblum called to suggest that Mattis and Hochberg come for a visit, so that the problem could be resolved.
Mattis and Hochberg went to the Rosenblums' house, in Queens, on April 24, and their copious notes from the meeting are the only record currently available of Walter Rosenblum's response to questions about the misrepresented Hines. Naomi was not present, but she must have known about the matter, since the letter was addressed to her. In her stead was their daughter Nina, a filmmaker.
Nina Rosenblum knows something about charges of misrepresentation. A documentary she co-produced has become an infamous example of what happens when dubious facts are recruited for a noble cause. Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II, about black Army soldiers who endured racism from their countrymen and then supposedly went on to help liberate Dachau and Buchenwald, met with an enthusiastic response when it first aired on PBS, in 1992. It proposed historic solidarity between blacks and Jews in the crucible of the Holocaust, and was nominated for an Academy Award. But in a 1993 story for The New Republic, titled "The Exaggerators," Jeffrey Goldberg published interviews with black Army veterans who either said that their units, the ones mentioned in the film, had never entered the concentration camps or couldn't remember when they did. And the American Jewish Committee issued a report that cast doubt on the testimony of several veterans who appeared in the documentary.
Both father and daughter were hospitable when Mattis and Hochberg arrived at the house, but Walter Rosenblum was hardly forthcoming. "This is the last time I'm having this conversation with anyone about these pictures," he announced. He showed no interest in the scientific report that the two visitors had brought. "He pushed it away," Mattis says. Instead Rosenblum spoke ardently about how he and his wife had devoted decades of their lives to reviving Lewis Hine's "fallen reputation." He repeated a story he has told many times, about Hine's befriending him when he was a young photographer and introducing him to potential employers as "a new and better Hine." "Can you imagine such kindness?" Rosenblum said.
Mattis mentioned a Hine photograph in the catalogue for an upcoming Sotheby's auction. Another Three Riveters, valued at $20,000 to $30,000, it came authenticated with a letter from Rosenblum stating, "This is to certify that the Lewis Hine photograph 'Three Riveters' is an original print made by Mr. Hine in my presence. I was his assistant when he printed this photograph for an exhibition of his work at the Riverside Museum in New York ... This print was later given to me as a gift by Mr. Hine."
When Mattis pressed him about the letter, Rosenblum quickly retreated. He had written it, he said, "as a favor" to the consignor of the picture, whom he would not name. He hadn't really "looked" at this particular picture, and certainly hadn't realized that the letter would be published in the auction catalogue. "That's part of life's stupidity," he said, admitting regret about the incident. When Hochberg suggested withdrawing the lot, Rosenblum said it was "too late." (On April 28, 1999, the picture sold for $20,700 to an unseen bidder. There is good reason to believe that the buyer was Rosenblum himself, but Sotheby's will neither confirm nor deny this.)
Rosenblum boasted that the 1977 exhibition of Hine's work at the Brooklyn Museum "broke attendance records" and toured the world. As a result prices shot up and "people began to wheel and deal in Hine pictures," he said. "For some reason I've become the center of this affair." He claimed that the 600 Hines left in his collection had come from various sources over the decades, including Hine and his son Corydon, who died in 1988.
But Rosenblum couldn't really explain how he had ended up with the bogus lifetime prints that Mattis and Hochberg had bought. He speculated that people might be forging his collection labels, stamping new prints with the Rosenblum name because "it makes them more valuable." Nor did he know why so many signed Hines were turning up, although he spoke repeatedly about people's printing them at the Photo League. "I can't tell a Hine signature," he said. "It's such an easy signature to copy." He added, "In this day and age, when photographs are worth a lot of money, all sorts of strange things happen." When Mattis pointed out that many galleries relied on Rosenblum's good name and considered opinion to verify Hine prints, he declared, "I think it's the purchaser's responsibility to ascertain, as you did, whether the picture is what it's supposed to be." When Mattis asked what would happen if dealers, too, found that prints had been misrepresented, Rosenblum declared coldly, "Let 'em call."
Mattis and Hochberg did not immediately receive the compensation they sought. Rosenblum wanted to barter his own photographs for the posthumous Hines, a trade that didn't interest them. In frustration, they hired a lawyer. After six months the prints were exchanged for three Strands in the Rosenblums' collection. Although the settlement specified no wrongdoing by the Rosenblums, they never refuted the allegation that the Hine prints were posthumous. "In six months they never once asked to see the scientific report," Mattis says. He and Hochberg obtained independent confirmation that the Strands were indeed authentic lifetime prints; they dated from roughly 1960, even though the Rosenblums had claimed that two of these, too, were vintage prints from the 1930s. "We were astonished and dismayed that in the eleventh hour of our negotiations they would continue to misrepresent prints by another of photography's masters," Mattis said.
The Rosenblums may have hoped that an out-of-court agreement would quietly put an end to the issue, but in fact their troubles had only begun. In October of 1999, soon after settling his lawsuit, Mattis turned over his lawyer's and Messier's reports to Houk, Greenberg, and Mann. Mattis also informed Robert Klein, the president of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers, which alerted its membership to beware of certain Hine photographs and not to speak to the press about the matter.
The behavior of the three dealers up to this point, however, is open to interpretation. Mattis praises their reaction to his news. "They told me—to a man—it was their intention to do right by their clients even if they received nothing from the Rosenblums," he says. He has no trouble understanding how the problem could have gone undetected for so long, especially since Greenberg and Mann were personally close to the Rosenblums. "Whenever Bob Mann or Howie Greenberg would have butterflies about all these exquisite Hines floating around," he says, "they would call up Walter and Naomi and get the pep talk of their lives. The dealers were betrayed by people they held in the highest esteem as authorities on photography in general and Lewis Hine in particular. If it were anyone but the Rosenblums, it would have taken ten weeks to expose this scam, not ten years."
The rate at which Rosenblum supplied the three dealers was, to say the least, unusual. By the late 1990s secondary dealers could call Houk, Greenberg, or Mann, request a signed Powerhouse Mechanic for a client, and have the order filled two or three weeks later. This is akin to how L. L. Bean runs its business; it is not the modus operandi for fine-art galleries specializing in vintage photographs. Seventy-year-old pictures, signed by a dead master and worth $50,000, are exceptionally rare, as every dealer knows.
In fact, of the 6,000 Hine photographs in the collection of the George Eastman House, fewer than two hundred are signed, and most are smaller than Rosenblum's prints. The Eastman House doesn't own the negatives for some of the most popular Hine images seen in the past twenty years, including the variant of Powerhouse Mechanic that came from the Rosenblums. This image and Steelworkers were represented by posthumous prints in the 1977 Brooklyn Museum retrospective. If the curators of this exhibition presumably couldn't locate a first-rate vintage or lifetime print in 1977, why did so many turn up in the 1980s and 1990s? One likely possibility is that Rosenblum did not turn over all the Hine negatives to the Eastman House in 1955.
As the matter stands now, all parties have agreed to test any suspect prints; Rosenblum has reportedly pledged full reimbursement if they are proved posthumous. Gallery clients have been informed by letter about the potential problem. (This is a courtesy that Sotheby's and Christie's, regrettably, have not extended to many of their clients who bought Hines. Both auction houses have a policy against any repayment five years after a sale, even if the work is later found to be a fake.) Millions of dollars are at stake. The Rosenblums reportedly deposited $1 million in an escrow account last year for possible disbursement. Many clients who were burned have accepted compensation in photographs rather than cash. Meanwhile, the FBI has opened a file on the case. If the Rosenblums took deductions for museum donations of vintage prints that were fakes, charges of tax fraud could be forthcoming.
Grant Romer and I sat one hot summer day in the tearoom at the George Eastman House. The head of the conservation department for the past twenty-two years at this august photographic institution, Romer ranks as a leading expert on photographic preservation and processes. With his small tortoiseshell glasses, his conversation often punctuated by a raised eyebrow or a faint smile, Romer has the catlike reserve of a middle-aged English don. When I complained about finding four different dates in auction catalogues and photography histories for Powerhouse Mechanic, he nodded. "We think we know quite a lot about photography," he said. "But when you start to press on some of the basic assumptions about the medium, it quickly starts to crumble like a cracker."
Digital fakery, in Romer's view, presents the next "scary issue" for collectors. Since the invention of photography, in the 1820s and 1830s, it has been possible to photograph a positive print in order to make a negative (from which to make more positive copies), but not without a telltale loss of definition. Digital technology may soon eliminate that problem. "From a good reproduction in a book you'll be able to make a near flawless negative," Romer predicts. "Right now, if I were a smart crook" (hint of a smile), "I'd be making Arbuses in my basement. Will the paper fluoresce? Yes, but it's likely that some of the prints she made herself would too. You won't have to be a master criminal to pull this off."
It will be a shame if the scandal eclipses Hine's accomplishments—if from now on the first question viewers ask when seeing his work is whether or not the print came from his hand. But this is precisely what has happened in the market, where Hine prints will be suspect for many years, although the conspiracy-minded are floating a theory that dealers have badmouthed Rosenblum's prints in order to buy them up at rock-bottom prices and then resell them in a few years at a huge profit. Some clients, even when informed that they own fakes, have decided to keep rather than exchange them. "I can imagine a sale down the road of Lewis Hine photographs printed by Walter Rosenblum, once collectors understand the full implications of their status," says Rick Wester, the former international director of photography at Christie's. "Why not?"
The voices of the art marketplace—upper-tier dealers, longtime collectors, department heads at auction houses—like to say that the Man Ray and Hine cases have benefited photography. Naiveté is no longer a valid excuse for a bad attribution, and the presence of fakes is a strong signal that these photographs are rising in value. Whether the conservators' new analytic weapons will keep pace with the medium's devilish reproducibility remains to be seen. It could be nerve-wracking for those who have money at stake. "Photographs are much more complicated than we would like them to be," Romer says. "If these cases prove anything, it's that it's in everyone's interest now to get a whole lot smarter."