Intrigue in the World of Photography II: The Fake Man Ray Prints

To continue sort of fluidly from my last article about the fake Lewis Hines, this issue will look at another incredibly famous figure from the History of Photography (yes, it does require capitalisation today) whose photographs were forged and sold. His name is Man Ray and once upon a time someone bought fake Man Ray prints. I actually wrote a little about his imagery already, so check it out, yo, right here.

How to Detect a Forgery?

When you consider forgeries in the art world you’re more likely to think of some elaborately conceived oil painting from the Renaissance, not an artsy-fartsy black-and-white print from the mid-20th century. The differences and similarities between the concept of forging paintings and photographs is fascinating in itself. An artist usually creates one painting, not multiple copies of the same thing, whereas the photographer creates one negative from which multiple copies may be made. 

Where the oil painting forger attempts to become the artist in an effort to feel his motivation, the photography forger has a choice: whether to mimic the original intentions of the photographer or improve the technique itself ever so slightly. While an oil painting can, with extreme precision and skill, be back-dated so as to appear to be from a different century, it becomes increasingly harder with photographs. In some respects photographs are even simpler to forge than oil paintings because what you start out with (a negative) is effectively a blueprint for creating copies of the original image. But, as I’ll hopefully show, a negative does not necessarily a original create. 

The Case of the Fake Man Ray Prints

In the mid-1990s, a German collector named Werner Bokelberg purchased what he believed to be 78 vintage Man Ray prints. Over the course of several years, he paid almost £1.8 million for a collection of prints including some of the most famous images that Man Ray ever made. He bought them from a man named “Benjamin Walter”, an improbable and suspicious name for anyone in art circles if ever you heard one. [1]

Walter initially claimed that his father, Lucien, worked as an immigration official and had befriended Man Ray upon his return to Paris from New York. He said that it was through this friendship that his father had acquired prints directly from the artist. Not all of the prints derived from his father’s collection, however, some also came from a friend. As provenances go, it’s about 50-50 in terms of believability (which is apparently not a word but absolutely should be).

In 1995, Bokelberg showed his prints to Maria Morris Hambourg of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. She decided to dedicate a show to them and even had plans to acquire a selection of them when the show had ended for the museum’s permanent collection. But things didn’t quite go to plan. 

Your run-of-the-mill web search for “fake man rays”

Fantastic Forgeries and How To Make Them

It isn’t impossible to make forged photographs. According to experts, a forger in possession of an original Man Ray negative would need to source blank photographic paper from the 1930s and rely on the fact that proving authenticity would also mean damaging the print itself in order to ascertain an accurate manufacturing date for the paper. [3]

As we know (or as I’m about to tell you) photographic paper was never, and is not, a constant; that’s to say that there isn’t just one style of paper in constant production throughout the past hundred years or so. It’s in development and it changes, new ranges are introduced and discontinued, often with short lifespans. But with the advent of scientific testing it became faster to date photographic paper because of the chemicals contained within it, specifically Optical Brightening Agents (OBAs) which were designed to brighten and whiten the paper and which also fluoresce under black light. 

In the mid-2000s, Paul Messier conducted a study on a selection of photographic papers and discovered that the transition towards brightened paper had already begun by the mid-1950s, with the first detectable usage between 1955 and 1960. [4] How does this help? Well, if you know for certain that a photographer died in 1930 and you’ve just stumbled across a print purporting to be printed by him you can test for OPBs. If the paper fluoresces under black light you can be sure that the paper you’re holding was made no earlier than 1950. 

What we also know, and what this issue is going to look at, is that in some instances the negatives can be misused after the photographer’s death. In most, fortunate, cases, a foundation or trust is established to protect the photographer’s copyright. In some cases, after the photographer’s passing, the foundation will release a specific number of prints in a limited edition (click through for a previous TFG issue about limited editions in the primary market) all the while keeping very strong control over the prints being released. But, as we’re about to see, some prints are created without the say-so of the estate, trust or foundation, which makes their authenticity flounder.

All this amounts to a certain amount of detective work. Let’s do another “for instance”. If you find a photographic print that the seller claims was printed in 1930, but you know the photographer died in 1925, you need to check this out. Was it printed posthumously by the estate? If not, who printed it? Has it been authenticated by the photographer’s estate? There are a lot of questions to ask. 

“The quality that links the photographs I’ve collected is originality.”

WERNER BOKELBERG [2]

The Bokelberg Prints

The Bokelberg prints passed several rounds of inspection, notably by Gerard Levy, a respected photography collector and expert. When Maria Morris Hambourg examined the prints that Bokelberg was due to lend the Met, she discovered an Agfa stamp on the verso of several prints. [5]

Concerned about their origins, Hambourg pulled the plug on the exhibition, leaving Bokelberg to continue his inquiries. He contacted Agfa and sent them some of the prints he’d bought; they came back to him on February 1, 1997, with the results: the majority of the photographs were printed on paper that was only available between 1992 and 1993, while the others were printed on paper that had been manufactured no earlier than 1959. [6]

If It Sounds Too Good To Be True, It Usually Is

Bokelberg was by all accounts quite a extensive photography collector, so it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that he was targeted. Walter approached Bokelberg in 1993 and offered to sell him four “vintage” Man Ray prints: Le Violon d’Ingres, Kiki on the Beach, Tonsure and Portrait of James Joyce. This wasn’t the first time that Bokelberg had purchased Man Rays from a secondary source; at the Hotel Drouot auction in 1983, he’d acquired his first two Man Ray prints, Transatlantique and La Priere, both of which had been authenticated by Levy and were also due to appear in The Met’s Man Ray show. [7]

When Man Ray returned to Paris, he first hired Pierre Gassmann as his printer, who worked only on Ilford paper. In the late 1960s, Man Ray had a falling-out with Gassmann and began working with a new printer, Serge Beguier, at the PhotoBac Lab. [8] When Man Ray died, in 1976, his former secretary Lucien Treillard took over. [9] When Bokelberg pursued his investigation, he discovered that Benjamin Walter was known in various Paris nightspots as “Jimmy”. And that he was in a relationship with Helene Beguier, Serge’s former wife. Walter revealed that after Serge and Helene Beguier separated, he and Helene started a relationship. After Serge’s death, Helene visited his studio and discovered a handful of Man Ray photographs. Thus the story of acquiring these prints from a friend, rather than his father.

Was it also possible that Walter’s association with Helene Beguier brought him into contact with the original Man Ray negatives from which Beguier had printed? You don’t have to answer this.

“Juliet Man Ray came to the sale.
If she had the slightest doubt, she would have let me know, right?”

GERARD LEVY [10]

He Says, He Says

“Walter” did return at least $900,000 for the photographs in an out-of-court settlement. When the scandal became public knowledge, the Parisian fraud squad launched an investigation. Le Monde and American Photo also began their own inquiries, and discovered significant gaps in the narrative. Walter admitted that he didn’t know his father so well, and that he was not an immigration official but rather a painter. Levy swore blind that he hadn’t committed any crime and that he met Lucien Walter several times, including once in Man Ray’s studio. And Bokelberg admitted that he was, in his own words, “a sucker” who “wanted to believe at any price.” [11]

And there’s more:

Walter claimed that, over the two year period that he was selling prints to Bokelberg, he advised him several times to get the prints authenticated himself, but Bokelberg refused, and only asked for two prints to be authenticated by Levy. 

Bokelberg claimed that he was won over by Walter’s charm, the five or six certificates of authentication from Gerard Levy that Walter provided, and that Walter would only allow prints to be examined by Levy.

Levy claimed that Juliet Man Ray came to the 1983 Man Ray sale at Drouot and didn’t find any issue with the prints that he had authenticated. 

Les Larmes Are Real

Shortly after Le Monde broke the story of the faked Man Rays, the investigation deepened. It’s accepted that Man Ray made at least 13,500 negatives and contact plates during his lifetime; 5,000 of these are held at the Pompidou. Preempting a Man Ray show at the Pompidou, French writer, Michel Guerrin, discovered during his research that over 100 Man Ray negatives were missing from their archives. They had been archived there since 1994. In conjunction with one of the museum officials, Guerrin disclosed that the forged Man Rays had not been cropped like the artist had been known to do, but were printed full frame. It’s important to note that not all the 78 prints purchased by Bokelberg corresponded to the 100 or so negatives missing from the Pompidou.

To take a specific example of potential forgery, one of Man Ray’s most well-known images is Les Larmes, a tightly cropped portrait of Kiki de Montparnasse’s face. Her mascara-laden eyes gaze upwards toward the heaven (presumably) while glass tears fall tragically down her cheeks. The original Les Larmes features a smear in the negative on Kiki’s nose. Bokelberg’s version featured no such mark on the print, lending weight to the suspicion that it was forged and even done so digitally. [12] At one point, Guerrin even proposed that prints of Les Larmes were forgeries, including one bought by Elton John, but that particular suspicion was allayed. [13]

“I was a sucker – the biggest sucker.
I wanted to believe at any price.”

WERNER BOKELBERG [14]

The Aftermath

Of course the entire affair is mired in suspicion. Juliet Man Ray had a drinking problem and after Man Ray’s death she was inundated with offers from collectors to liquid lunches. According to Lucien Treillard, she required a helper, and he found one: Helene Beguier, who was having money problems. Even so, at the time of the 1983 auction Treillard was suspicious of the prints that were on offer. He recalls that, like Gassmann, Beguier made four prints in order to get one good one. This was not irregular in itself, but that the rejects remained intact and not destroyed was cause for concern. [15]

Ultimately the proximity of Helene Beguier to Juliet Man Ray must have allowed her specific inside knowledge and access to Man Ray’s studio where myriad prints could be found. Beguier and Walter weren’t just selling Bokelberg the reject prints that Serge had left behind, they were printing new ones. By 1993, they were clearly so good that they fooled photography experts like Levy. An interesting point raised by American Photo magazine is that Serge Beguier died in 1991. Is there a connection between his death and the drastic improvement in quality of these forgeries? 

“It’s simply a mess.”

ANON [16]

However Bokelberg had an alternative theory altogether. He believed that someone else was involved, “X”, who printed the works, not Beguier or Walter. He revealed that the first time he met Walter, the latter was accompanied by a young guy, Philippe, who Bokelberg estimated was about 30 years old. Was Philippe “X”? 

Current Affairs

Whatever the fallout from the forgery scandal, the market for Man Ray prints hasn’t exactly slowed. The infamous Noire et Blanche (1926) was sold in 2017 by Christie’s for €2,688,750. [15] But equally, and somewhat worryingly for institutions and collectors, nor has the body of forgeries that still litters the market. According to Steven Manford, Man Ray scholar par excellence, although 20 years have passed since the Bokelberg scandal, there are still problematic Man Ray prints and many of these may be present in significant museum collections. Of course, I’d be able to provide explicit information on this topic and neatly tie up the ends of this issue if the cost to shipone journal from the US weren’t$40. 

Well, with many grateful thanks to IFAR, I was able to read Steven Manford’s article. And since this issue is getting more unwieldy with every word I type, I’ve decided to dedicate a separate issue to his article and the analyses contained within. But before I go, Manford does emphasise that the Bokelberg scandal was not a particularly elegant one. In his view, the hoax only succeeded because the Man Ray scholarly circle was perhaps not as informed as it is today.

“The Bokelberg ruse […] succeeded because few people could actually tell the difference between a real Man Ray object and a copy.”

Steven Manford [17]

Conclusions?

On this occasion, and somewhat unsurprisingly, none. Despite the original drama having unfolded over twenty years ago, the danger of fakes in the market is still present. One imagines that as long as the market for Man Ray prints continues to strengthen, so the desire to profit off this will continue.

Bokelberg’s entire collection featured some of the greatest and most important works in the history of the medium, including a Gustave Le Gray seascape, Stieglitz tonal study, and numerous mid-19th century prints by masters such as Nadar, Charles Negre, and Henri Le Secq, none of whom I’ve previously written about but chillax, the history of photography is vast and I write too much anyway.

After the fake Man Ray prints debacle, Bokelberg lost interest in collecting. But he did present his entire collection for sale through noted dealer Hans P. Kraus. Asking price? No less than $10 million. [18]

References

  1. The original Walter Benjamin wrote perhaps the most influential and certainly famous text of the 20th century: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936. Find an extract here:
    http://www.berk-edu.com/VisualStudies/readingList/06b_benjamin-work%20of%20art%20in%20the%20age%20of%20mechanical%20reproduction.pdf
  2. Werner Bokelberg quoted by David Schonauer, “Werner Bokelberg,” in “The Great Collectors,” in American Photo Magazine, July 1998, (pp.61-82) p. 64.
  3. Adrian Darmon, “Major Man Ray Scandal in Paris,” in ArtCult.com, n.d: http://www.artcult.com/_Photography/Fiche/art-0-1013363.htm [accessed March 23, 2020].
  4. Paul Messier, “Notes on Dating Photographic Paper,” in Topics in Photographic Preservation, Vol. 11, 2005, (pp. 123-130) p. 124.
  5. Agfa: Agfa-Gavaert AG, the German film and photographic paper company.
  6. An OBA test under a black light further confirmed that the papers used had been manufactured after 1950
  7. I’ll point out here that I’m going to look at Steven Manford’s recent article which talks a lot about faked Man Rays and how the problem actually predated the 1983 auction.
  8. Jean-Jacques Naudet, “The Man Ray Affair,” in American Photo Magazine, July 1998, (pp.48-52, 92, 95) p. 50.
  9. Treillard is President of Association of Friends of Man Ray
  10. Levy quoted in Naudet, “The Man Ray Affair,” p. 92.
  11. Bokelberg quoted in Naudet, p. 51.
  12. Walter Robinson, “Man Ray Forgeries Exposed,” in ArtNet Magazine online: http://www.artnet.com/Magazine/news/robinson/robinson12-2-97.asp  [accessed March 20, 2020].
  13. Elton John’s dealer and subsequent experts verified the provenance, in Naudet, p. 52.
  14. Bokelberg quoted in Naudet, p. 51.
  15. Christie’s online: https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/man-ray-1890-1976-noire-et-blanche-1926-6105841-details.aspx [accessed March 25, 2020]
  16. Anonymous quoted in Naudet, p. 95.
  17. Steven Manford, “Man Ray Photographs: The Problems Have Not Gone Away,” in IFAR Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1&2, 2019, (pp.18-42) p. 20.
  18. David Schonauer, “Werner Bokelberg,” in “Great Collectors,” in American Photo Magazine, p. 64.