Within the hallowed halls of galleries and museums lie intriguing tales of subterfuge, crime and controversy. Art, as it often mirrors life, isn't immune to the occasional scandal, some of which have left an indelible mark on art history and contemporary society. From stolen masterpieces and questionable authenticity to moral transgressions and unexpected revelations, the world of fine art has been no stranger to scandal. The intersection of art and scandal often serves as a stark reminder of the vulnerable underbelly of the art world.
For artists, a scandal can result in either ostracisation or an unintended boost in their reputation and market value. For collectors, scandals can lead to financial loss and, in certain cases, a tarnished reputation. Perhaps the most profound impact is on public perception of art. Scandals can generally undermine the public's faith in the integrity of the art world, but may also provoke broader engagement with the subject, triggering discourse on authenticity, value and the role of art in society. Embarking on an exploration through the top 10 art world scandals, we encounter tales of intrigue that have sent shockwaves across the art world. The shocking narratives that unfold are as compelling as the works they surround, each revealing the power and controversy that can exist beneath the veneer of creativity.
Salvator Mundi, a painting of Christ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, was sold for an astounding $450.3 million at a Christie's auction in 2017, breaking records as the most expensive artwork ever sold. The buyer was initially kept secret, but was later revealed to be Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, a relatively unknown member of the Saudi royal family. However, the New York Times later reported that he was acting as a proxy for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, adding another layer of intrigue to the already mysterious history of the artwork.
The journey of Salvator Mundi has been filled with uncertainty and controversy, primarily due to questions surrounding its true authorship. For centuries, the painting was thought to be lost to history – it resurfaced in the 20th century, but was attributed to a follower of Leonardo and sold for £45 at auction in 1958. It wasn't until after an extensive restoration process in the 21st century that some experts began to attribute the work to da Vinci himself, an attribution that was critical in driving up the painting’s value. However, the authenticity of Salvator Mundi as a Leonardo original has been the subject of contentious debate among art historians and experts. Some critics cite discrepancies in technique, style and quality to suggest that the painting might not be solely Leonardo's work, or possibly not his work at all. They argue that the work could have been produced by assistants or students, or that it could be a product of a follower but not directly from Leonardo's hand.
The secretive nature of the painting's sale, its unprecedented price and the lack of consensus in the art community regarding its attribution have cast a long shadow of doubt. The painting has gained infamy in contemporary discourse, especially as it was revealed that it was hanging in the Saudi prince’s yacht for several years after purchase.
The Knoedler Gallery was a distinguished art institution since 1846, and held a high reputation in dealing with upscale authentic works of art. However, a surprising turn of events took place in the late 1990s, when the gallery began selling an array of previously undiscovered paintings allegedly painted by famous Abstract Expressionist artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell. These paintings were acquired by the gallery's director, Ann Freedman, from an enigmatic art dealer named Glafira Rosales, who claimed that the works came from an anonymous Swiss collector. The truth, however, was that the paintings were forgeries created by a Chinese artist named Pei-Shen Qian.
Over a span of 15 years, Freedman and the Knoedler Gallery made a fortune selling over 60 forged paintings to wealthy collectors, garnering over £64 million from these transactions. The gallery and Freedman maintained that they believed the works were genuine, relying on the alleged provenance provided and the superficial stylistic similarities to the artists’ genuine works. After 165 years, the Knoedler Gallery closed its doors in 2011 due to the scandal, while numerous lawsuits were filed by defrauded collectors. Rosales ultimately pled guilty to charges of wire fraud, tax evasion and money laundering in 2013, while Qian fled to China to avoid prosecution. The saga was the subject of Netflix’s documentary Made You Look.
The Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Marbles, are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures, inscriptions and architectural pieces that were originally part of the temple of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis in Athens. They have been the subject of a heated dispute between the United Kingdom and Greece since the early 19th century, when Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin and British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (which controlled Greece at the time), had these works removed between 1801 and 1812. Elgin's agents took approximately half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, as well as sculptures from the Propylaea and Erechtheion. The Earl claimed he was motivated by a desire to preserve the marbles from damage, but his acquisition methods and motives have been a matter of controversy. Elgin later sold these marbles to the British government in 1816, and they were subsequently housed in the British Museum in London, where they remain on display to this day.
The Greek government, as well as many Greek and international citizens, have officially called for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece since 1983. They argue that the marbles were taken illegally during a period of Turkish occupation and that they are integral to the understanding of the Parthenon, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Furthermore, with the completion of the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece claims it has the facilities to appropriately house and display the marbles.
The British Museum and British government have resisted these calls, maintaining that the marbles were acquired legally and are accessible to a broader audience in the British Museum. They argue that the museum's purpose is to present the marbles in the context of world history, something that would not be achieved if the marbles were returned to Greece. This ongoing dispute over the Elgin Marbles reflects broader debates about cultural heritage, ownership, and the repatriation of historical artefacts.
The painting The Scream by Edvard Munch is one of the most recognisable artworks in history, but it also holds the dubious honour of having been stolen not once, but twice. The artist actually created four distinct versions of the work, two of which were the target of thieves. The first heist happened in February 1994 during the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, when two men broke into the National Gallery of Oslo and stole the 1893 version of the painting. The thieves left a note reading, "Thanks for the poor security." After the museum refused to pay a ransom for the work, the Norwegian police, with the help of British detectives, conducted a sting operation and successfully recovered the painting later that year. The painting had been damaged due to the harsh treatment during the theft, but it was successfully restored by the museum.
The second theft happened in August 2004, when another version of The Scream – along with Munch's painting Madonna – was stolen from the Munch Museum, also in Oslo. Masked gunmen entered the museum in broad daylight, threatening museum guards and visitors with handguns before forcibly removing the paintings from the wall and fleeing in a getaway vehicle. The paintings had been unprotected by glass because the museum was preparing to move them to a safer location. Two years later, Norwegian police recovered both works. However, like the first instance, both artworks suffered damage, but they were once again restored and eventually returned to display.
These dramatic thefts highlight the allure and value of high-profile artworks like The Scream in the black market, and especially underscore the importance of stringent security measures in museums and galleries – no matter how safe the country housing them is.
Ana Mendieta, a Cuban American artist known for her work in performance art, sculpture, photography, and video, died tragically and under controversial circumstances on September 8, 1985. She fell from the window of her 34th-floor apartment in New York City, and her husband, minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, was charged with her murder. On the night of her death, neighbours reported hearing a loud argument from the apartment, followed by a woman screaming "No, no, no, no," before Mendieta's fall. Andre initially told the police that they had argued, but later claimed that Mendieta had slipped and fallen out of the window. During Andre's trial, the defence argued that Mendieta had been depressed and suggested that she might have jumped. In contrast, the prosecution maintained that Andre had pushed her out of the window during a drunken argument. In a controversial decision, Andre was acquitted of all charges in 1988.
Mendieta's death and Andre's subsequent acquittal have been the subject of ongoing debate and protests within the art world. Over the years, numerous artists and activists, including the feminist art group Guerrilla Girls, have organised protests and actions to raise awareness about Mendieta's death and the gender dynamics at play in the art world. Mendieta's untimely death and the circumstances surrounding it continue to be a significant part of her legacy, as does her influential body of work.
The young art dealer Inigo Philbrick was once a rising star in the art world, beginning his career working at London’s prestigious White Cube gallery before ambitiously establishing his own galleries in London and Miami at the age of just 24. Philbrick’s ascent, however, was marred by manipulation as he misrepresented hundreds of art deals, inflating valuations and reselling the same artwork to multiple buyers.
Philbrick was convicted of orchestrating complex financial arrangements such as loans and guarantees to secure artworks, before selling or pledging those same pieces to different investors – often at inflated prices. In one famous example, Philbrick sold a 50% stake in a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat to multiple investors, amassing more than 100% in ownership shares. The elaborate scheme allowed him to secure millions of dollars in investments, but eventually led to the collapse of his galleries and his eventual sentencing to seven years in prison in 2022.
Ai Weiwei, one of China's most famous contemporary artists and political activists, was arrested by Chinese authorities on April 3, 2011. His arrest was widely seen as part of a broader crackdown on dissent in China, especially following the online calls for a “revolution” in the wake of the Arab Spring. Authorities initially did not disclose the reasons for his detention, but later accused Ai of tax evasion, bigamy and spreading indecent images on the internet. Supporters of the artist, however, largely saw these charges as politically motivated and an attempt to silence Ai's outspoken criticism of the Chinese government.
Ai's arrest provoked international outrage, with various governments and human rights organisations calling for his release. After 81 days in detention he was released on strict bail conditions, including limitations on his travel and a prohibition on speaking to journalists or using social media. Over the following years, Ai has continued to be a vocal critic of the Chinese government, and he has also created art addressing themes of freedom of speech, human rights and political oppression. Ai's arrest and his subsequent work have drawn further international attention to issues of censorship and political repression in China.
Richard Prince, an American painter and photographer, is known for his work in the field of appropriation art. He's been involved in several high-profile copyright lawsuits, the most famous of which involves a series of works he produced called Canal Zone. The series involved Prince taking photographs from a book by French photographer Patrick Cariou and modifying them by adding further artistic elements. These were then presented as his own works, which were displayed and sold for significant amounts of money.
Cariou sued Prince for copyright infringement in 2009. Initially, a US District Court ruled in favour of Cariou in 2011, stating that Prince's work did not constitute fair use. However, this decision was partially overturned by an Appeals Court in 2013, which ruled that 25 of the 30 works in the Canal Zone series were protected under fair use because they presented a new aesthetic and were transformative. The case for the remaining five was remitted to the District Court for reconsideration, but Prince and Cariou settled out of court before a decision was reached.
In 2014, once again raised questions about the nature of art, copyright and privacy with his New Portraits series. In these works, Prince took screenshots of other people’s Instagram photos without their permission, added his own comments and printed the images on large canvases. These included images from famous personalities, as well as those from lesser-known Instagram users. The portraits were exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery in New York and sold for hefty sums, reportedly as high as $100,000, without any compensation to the original Instagram users.
Apart from raising issues of copyright law, this latest series also created controversy due to the matters of consent and the monetisation of social media content. Several of the individuals whose photos were used expressed outrage, both at the appropriation of their images without permission and at the fact that their images were being sold for substantial sums without financial compensation. Prince defended his actions by arguing that the images were essentially public because they had been posted on a public social media platform. He also contended that his additions – primarily in the form of comments – transformed the images sufficiently to qualify as new works, a principle that has some legal backing in "fair use" copyright law, at least in the United States. In 2023, two plaintiffs secured early victories against the artist, although it remains to be seen how the rest of the case will play out,
Prince’s career has brought significant attention to the boundaries between appropriation art and copyright infringement, having had significant implications for artists who use similar techniques.
The art of Amedeo Modigliani, an early 20th-century Italian artist known for his languid, elongated portraits and sculptures, has been the focus of a prolific number of forgeries, which have been widely distributed and have fooled collectors, museums and auction houses worldwide. There are a few reasons why Modigliani's work is particularly susceptible to forgery, such as the fact that his distinctive style is somewhat easier to replicate compared to other artists and the fact that he was not commercially successful during his lifetime – as a result, he did not keep an inventory of his work, making it difficult to authenticate genuine pieces. Additionally, he was known to exchange artworks for meals or room and board, creating a scattered provenance history that can be exploited by forgers.
One of the most notable scandals involving Modigliani forgeries occurred in 2017 in Italy, when an exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale in Genoa included 21 alleged Modigliani works with dubious authenticity. After an art critic and a few others expressed doubts, the Carabinieri Art Fraud Unit, the Italian police force specialising in art crime, seized the works and determined that they were indeed fakes.
As a result of the prevalence of Modigliani forgeries, the market for his work has been affected, and potential buyers are often highly cautious. Some experts estimate that as many as a fifth of all Modigliani pieces could be fakes, illustrating the broader issue of art forgery and the importance of provenance research and technical analysis in art authentication.
Since its beginnings in 2017, the #MeToo movement has been a catalyst for change by exposing sexual harassment and assault in many industries, including the art world. As in other sectors, the movement has revealed numerous instances of misconduct and abuse of power within the art community, impacting artists, curators and administrators, with prominent figures in the art world having been implicated. For example, Knight Landesman, a publisher of Artforum magazine, resigned in 2017 after multiple women accused him of sexual harassment. In another high-profile case, photographer Nicholas Nixon retired from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design after students complained of inappropriate behaviour. More recently, German gallerist Johann König was accused of sexual misconduct by 10 women, causing several artists to desert his once-prestigious gallery.
However, the #MeToo movement in the art world extends beyond just these individual cases. It has prompted a reevaluation of certain artists and their work, and art that was once accepted or celebrated is being reexamined in the light of problematic behaviour by the artists, leading to complex questions about whether and how such art should be displayed. This has affected the legacies of several prominent artists, including Chuck Close and Pablo Picasso.
Moreover, the movement has spurred calls for more equitable representation in the art world, which, like many industries, has long been dominated by men in positions of power. This includes not just a push for more women artists, but also more women in leadership roles in museums and galleries.
The world of art, for all its aesthetic grandeur and intellectual prowess, is not immune to controversy and scandal. From egregious instances of forgery and theft to accusations of sexual misconduct and debates over cultural appropriation, these incidents serve as potent reminders of the intersections between art, power and ethics. They challenge us to question the authenticity, legality and morality within the creative realm and remind us of the often complex, fraught journey an artwork may undertake before it meets the viewer’s eye. As we move forward, it is essential that transparency, responsibility and respect for both cultural and personal boundaries inform our approach to creating, buying, selling and appreciating art. In doing so, we can hope for an art world less beset by scandal and more focused on its core purpose: the celebration and exploration of human creativity.