Exclusive: How George Condo Is Fighting His Forgers

We’re on the trail of an international outfit knocking off one of the most sought-after living artists on the planet, plus Julia Fox’s Lucien birthday bash marks the return of the IRL art party, and more in this week’s column.

BY NATE FREEMAN

IMAGES FROM GETTY. 

In 2018, George Condo had become one of the most sought-after artists alive, scrapped over by the wealthiest and most powerful collectors across the globe. With new works being sold on the primary market to only the top arts patrons, the only option for many would-be Condo owners was to spend a fortune on one at auction. The demand was so insane that even dashed-off drawings estimated to sell for prices in the mid-five figures were selling for as much as $400,000.

That November one such drawing—a small black-and-white work—was consigned from “a private collection in Greece” to Sotheby’s. It was estimated to sell in the auction house’s Contemporary Art Day sale for $80,000 to $120,000, but—shockingly—failed to find a buyer. Sotheby’s, it turned out, dodged a bullet. The world’s oldest auction house didn’t know at the time that the work wasn’t worth anything close to $120,000.

It was fake.

That Condo work and several others are now in the possession of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, True Colors can reveal, as they were created as part of a forgery ring that has produced works that have circulated in recent years through private collectors, major auction houses, and mega-galleries. They came at a particularly savvy time in Condo’s career, with his having achieved a big-tent pop-culture crossover status that few contemporary museum-cosigned painters ever do. Condo designed the artwork for Kanye West’s 2010 album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and in his track “Picasso Baby,” Jay-Z rapped about having “Condos in my condos.” Let’s hope they were real ones.

“George is a celebrated, world-famous artist, and it is unfortunate but unsurprising that an artist of his caliber would be the subject of attempts to benefit from his success in an illegitimate way,” Cristopher Canizares, a partner at Hauser & Wirth, Condo’s gallery since early 2020, told me this week. “The art world has seen this in the past, with artists like Warhol, Lichtenstein, Picasso, and many others, and we are very happy that the D.A. is taking appropriate action.”

In conversations with a number of sources close to the fraud—collectors duped by the scheme; reps for Condo’s studio gobsmacked by the quality of the fakes; and dealers at his galleries—a picture emerged of a criminal enterprise running concurrent to the opaque but legitimate reselling of real Condos. In addition to the work that ended up at Sotheby’s, other works later deemed to be fake were sold at regional auction houses, and, once they were sent to Condo for inspection, the artist denied that they were his.

When emailed for comment, Condo’s studio account hit back with an auto-response indicating that the artist would not be checking email until February 15. I left my number. Later that evening, I got a call from Richard Golub, Condo’s longtime attorney, and a longtime fixture in the art world, known for aggressively fighting counterfeit pictures. He immediately confirmed that the studio had indeed identified the fake works and turned them over to the Manhattan D.A.

“Fakes are circulated and sold for almost every artist. There’s counterfeit paintings for everyone, and the market’s flooded for fakes,” Golub said. “We were told that in 2018, there were George Condo fakes out there, and indeed there were fakes.”

These days Condo’s market is nearly as hot as it was four years ago. His biggest collectors include billionaire trader Steve Cohen, Groupon cofounder Eric Lefkofsky, and hedge fund titan David Ganek. But the entire high-wire act of maintaining stratospheric numbers for graphite-on-paper drawings could be dismantled by the knowledge that a factory of fake makers exists in the land of Olympus, mysteriously pumping out fugazi Condos.

“Seemingly, there are fakes still out there,” said one collector who was offered work in the scam. “Remember a few years ago when Condo paper works were just flying? These guys were selling that whole time.”

When asked if the works all came from Greece, Golub said yes, and offered up the same unmistakably Hellenic name that other sources pinpointed. Golub said that he’s “the person who seems to me to be at the center of this.”

Who he is, exactly, is less clear. I was unfamiliar with the name, as were nearly a half dozen art advisers who were deep into the secondary Condo business circa 2018. The name and another known alias don’t have much of a digital imprint, and he did not respond to an email address provided by a source.

Whoever he is, many familiar with the case agree that he acted as what’s known in the biz as a “runner.” They aren’t art advisers per se, and they aren’t art dealers with ties to a particular gallery. Instead, they act as middlemen between an anonymous entity with works to sell and an entity that wants to buy. So a runner has a list of things for sale and can offer them to other runners, who then flip them back to top collectors. The circumstances can be a little dodgy, but the process often results in slashed price tags.

In this case, the Greek runner claimed to be sourcing his Condos from far-flung Byzantine provenances: a friend in Greece, or another a friend who was gifted the works by Condo after he came to do a residency in Greece.

Golub said he didn’t buy it.

“I don’t get the feeling he’s telling the truth,” Golub said. “He said to me that he bought these from another guy and another guy and another guy, but I think he’s lying. And he never called back, which is indicative of the fact that he’s lying.”

Golub said that he first heard about the fakes when a few works sans provenance showed up consigned to Doyle, a mostly niche auction house based in Manhattan—with outposts in Beverly Hills and Kensington, Maryland—that flies under the radar of most fine art folk. In November 2016, a tiny, untitled graphite-on-paper work purportedly made in 2009 sold for $23,750, more than the $15,000 high estimate. In May of that year, Doyle sold another work by Condo, this one a colorful, 11 5/8 x 8 1/4-inch pastel, graphite, and marker drawing of a broad-chinned man in a red Breton-stripe shirt, for $9,375, more than the $7,000 high estimate.

Both were fakes. Golub said the works in the catalog match the fake works in the sham-slinger’s inventory, images of which now reside in the hands of the authorities. No provenance was listed. (A representative for Doyle did not respond to a request for comment.)

In 2018 one collector I spoke to was offered a work from the same outfit, but the smell got too fishy, so they sent an image over to Swedish gallerist Per Skarstedt, who was representing Condo at the time. A director there got a bad feeling about the work and sent it to Condo’s studio. When the artist saw it, he declared that he had not made the work.

A few months later, in November 2018, the Condo at Sotheby’s came to market, and failed to sell—a rarity, as Condos were so in demand at the time. The collective head-scratching was enough to inspire a post on the Instagram account @boughtinatauction, which highlights notable passes at auction. After one commenter noted that the work had been “Shopped to death prior to auction,” another noted that he had been offered another work.

“Smaller work from same series was the one that got oversold, it had blue accents and was slightly smaller!” said one commenter.

It turns out that the blue-accented work had already been sold privately, and the red-accented one would end up being questioned by the next dealer who was consigned the work. That dealer sent it to Condo’s studio, and it was dubbed a fake. Both the red and blue versions are forgeries, sources confirmed, and are currently being used as evidence in the investigation.

Sources said the Greek runner has admitted to the fakes when questioned by nonplussed buyers, writing in emails that he thought they were legit when he bought them—but said that he himself wasn’t part of the forgery ring, and that he had gotten them from elsewhere.

Whether or not he’s telling the truth, all will be resolved soon. Since 2020, the fraud ring has been sifted through by a unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. It was first led by James Graham, one of the assistant D.A.s who led the charges brought against Paul Manafort, and is now being overseen by Aaron Ginandes, an assistant district attorney in the Major Economic Crimes Bureau. Reached this week, the D.A.’s office declined to comment.

“There’s a lot of people out there who are eager to make a buck, and we’re taking very positive steps to quell any sale of fake Condo drawings,” Golub said. “We’re trying to nip this in the bud.”The Rundown

Your crib sheet for comings and goings in the art world this week and beyond…

Gwyneth Paltrow got the A.D. treatment this week, and boy is her Roman and Williams–dripped Montecito house gorgeous. And yes, a hanging sculpture initially ID’d as a piece by the great Ruth Asawa was actually proven to be a similar-looking work by the artist D’lisa Creager, who was taught by one of Asawa’s daughters. Shout-out to gumshoes Greg Allen and Alexandra Lange for intrepid sleuthing. But can we also talk about the extremely lit, extremely real Ed Ruscha, If, If (1996), directly behind the not-Asawa? The Goop high priestess appears to have purchased it at auction, as it last sold at Christie’s in 2016 for $1.5 million. Before then, it was in the collection of Hollywood screenwriter Dale Launer, who bought it directly from Ruscha’s studio. Launer is credited with writing just seven movies in four decades, but two of those movies are Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and My Cousin Vinny. Legend status.

…The new Givenchy SS22 global campaign is a real pileup of art-world personalities. It was shot by artist Heji Shin, features artwork by Josh Smith, and stars collector—and yes, she is a legit collector—Kendall Jenner.

…Artist Wade Guyton is now represented by Matthew Marks, after years of showing with Chelsea rival Petzel. Guyton had a show at Marks’s Los Angeles gallery in summer 2021.

…The Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College announced that VMFA curator Valerie Cassel Oliver is the 2022 recipient of the Audrey Irmas Award for Curatorial Excellence, and will be handed the award at CCS Bard’s annual Manhattan-based gala in April. Which means…art galas are back, baby! See you all at Cipriani 10 times before summertime.

…Bode, the beloved bespoke menswear enterprise run by Emily Adams Bode Aujla, opened a Dimes Square–adjacent storefront a few years back, a delightful place with a little bar in the back that’s usually stocked with decent bottled beer if you ask nicely. Now Bode’s opening its second store, this time in Los Angeles, on Melrose, spitting distance from the great French bistro Petit Trois. Plus, Bode Aujla’s husband, Aaron Aujla, just opened Aujla’s Indian Coffee House next door to Bode’s NYC boutique on Hester Street, offering samosas, gulab jamun, and tea sandwiches during lunchtime hours.Scene Report: Back in the New York Groove

Last time anyone in Manhattan was officially allowed to fraternize amongst one another seems like…months ago? Perhaps it was as far back as auction week in mid-November. By the time everyone was back from Miami, it was high time for omicron in the Big Apple. But as January flipped to February and the case numbers kept dropping, some galleries opted to stop postponing the dinners and parties that help cut through the months of unending winter freeze. The unveiling of new works by Ashley Bickerton at Jamian Juliano-Villani’s Avenue C gallery, O’Flaherty’s—along with a concurrent Bickerton show at Lehmann Maupin—was the occasion for a raucous meal at classic Gotham red-sauce joint John’s, smack in the middle of Greenwich Village on 12th Street. Days later, Lomex, a white-hot Tribeca gallery started by the dealer Alexander Shulan in 2015, opened one of the most consequential shows of work by H.R. Giger staged in Manhattan for decades. Giger—perhaps best known for his visual design of Ridley Scott’s Alien, which rejiggered the look of all space-creature movies to come—has an obsessive fan base, and at the opening bash at Mulberry Street restaurant Bella Ciao, the die-hards mixed with the Lomex clients and fans just becoming exposed to Giger’s unforgettable, nightmarish, now throwback but ever-fresh visions of the future.

There was also an occasion to break bread at Lucien, the site of thousands of gallery soirées over the decades. The dinner wasn’t a fête for a gallery show, at least not in the stricter sense of the term: Kanye West was hosting a table for his girlfriend, Julia Fox, as it was her 32nd birthday. The actor, artist, and New York native is a longtime Lucien habitué, and chatter in an extremely specific circle of Manhattan was full of informal bets about when the most photographed new couple in America would alight upon 1st and 1st to nestle in a plush booth beneath the yellowing, framed lit-art portrait gallery that includes Christopher Hitchens, Urs Fischer, Fran Lebowitz, Jonas Mekas, and Chloë Sevigny, among others. The West-Fox crew took over the back booth, where Ye gifted Fox and her friends Birkin bags while sitting in front of snapshots of Taylor Mead, Tilda Swinton, and Andy Warhol. At a certain point, everyone moved to a large storage space next to the restaurant, where the Yeezy designer spun tracks off Donda 2, the album he’s supposedly releasing this month, for guests such as artists Lucien Smith and Marcus Jahmal, budding Hollywood royalty Evan Mock and Jeremy O. Harris, and a grab bag of downtown restaurateurs, skaters, and streetwear designers. Later, guests were spilling out of the impromptu listening party and onto the street. Inside at Lucien’s long wood bar, with liquor bottles backlit in gold, art dealers such as Ramiken founder Mike Egan angled for cocktails next to Cookies Hoops cohost Ben Detrick and rapper Despot, as writer Cat Marnell kept finding paper bags with bottles of Dom Pérignon left under the tables. She handed one to the birthday girl’s very close friend Richie Shazam. “You take this, Richie,” Marnell said. “I think it belongs to Julia.”

And that’s a wrap on this week’s True Colors! Like what you’re seeing? Hate what you’re reading? Have a tip? Drop me a line at nate_freeman@condenast.com.More Great Stories FromVanity Fair

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