Viewpoint: The Case of the Upside-Down Miró

By Erin Hollenbank | January 22, 2021

Joan Miró (Spanish, 1893-1983) was an influential 20th Century, avant-garde Catalan painter who combined abstract art with Surrealist fantasy. His innovative use of lines, organic shapes, and color formed a major contribution to Modern Art. Though he was famous for his paintings, he was also a prolific printmaker, creating over 1,000 lithographs in his lifetime. From 1954 to 1958, Miró nearly gave up painting altogether to focus on printmaking. Some of his prints recreated his paintings on paper, while others were entirely new designs, which explored the possibilities of the lithograph technique.

Miró’s paintings are not commonly traded among the public and general pool of collectors, having already found prestigious homes in museums and private art collections around the world. His prints, however, are popular in the market and are, to this day, being traded continually at auction and sold by dealers. Because the prints are created as multiples in a set number of editions, and each original is signed and numbered by the artist, they have made it possible for collectors and art enthusiasts to own a Miró without spending millions. As is common with the works of other sought-after Modern artists of his time, such as Salvador Dali and Marc Chagall, forgeries abound and have been sold to unsuspecting buyers for decades.

The insured’s forged print, with signature in lower right, is shown.
The Situation

We recently received a claim assignment for a signed Miró lithograph which was accompanied by a certificate of authenticity (COA) from an unknown dealer. Typically, a valid COA is one signed by an established expert on the artist, a publisher, or even the artist themself. A COA contains verifiable and documented proof, references, and explanations as to why the art is genuine.

Cracking the Case

The first clue something was amiss was the COA for the signed Miró did not provide details regarding the year of the work, the signature, the edition size, the printer, the publisher, or the provenance, and was signed by an unknown source. It also lacked any detail relating to the print. Furthermore, it listed the work as Lonely Bird, which we found to be erroneous.

Through their research and knowledge of Joan Miró’s graphic works, we identified this print as Hommage a Masson, a lithograph in colors created by Miró in 1977 on Arches paper, signed in pencil on the lower right, from a numbered edition of 100. The insured’s version of the print was upside-down: the bird’s beak faced to the left and not to the top of the work as originally printed. Because Miró’s work is abstract in nature, the incorrect orientation was not displeasing, which helped it pass as an original. It was also signed in the incorrect location and was marked HC (hors commerce—a proof aside from the editioned prints). Because Miró hand-signed his originals and would never have signed a print in the improper orientation, the signature was deemed fraudulent.

To further their research into the matter, we consulted Joan Miró’s catalogue raisonné of lithographs, produced by Miró’s publisher Maeght, of Paris, in six volumes. A catalogue raisonné is a comprehensive, annotated listing of all the known artworks by an artist either in a particular medium or all media. The Hommage a Masson lithograph was located in Volume VI, listed as catalog raisonné number M.IIII. The illustration of the print showed the work in the proper orientation, with the bird’s beak facing upwards. The entry stated: “an unknown number of fake copies of this lithograph exist, with fake signatures and numbering.” In this instance, the claimed Miró was one of these fakes.

Unfortunately, it is very common for dealers to provide misleading COAs to accompany their fraudulent prints to entice buyers and close a sale. It is also possible dealers may not be aware they are selling a fraudulent work, though if they had referenced the catalog raisonné, they may have ascertained, as Enservio Art Specialists did, that this was a forgery. Buyers, too, can use an artist’s catalog raisonné to ensure they are buying a legitimate work of art; while the catalog raisonné volumes are costly, the majority can be found in the reference section of most art libraries.

The Result

While auction houses Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and other major print auctions have sold authenticated prints of Miró’s Hommage a Masson in the recent past for $5,000-$9,000, the subject reproduction print in the improper orientation with the fake signature would not be comparable to these sales. Because the print could not be attributed to Miró, the appraisers could not value the print as such. With the forged signature in the incorrect location, it was classified as black market art, which has a replacement value of $0, compared to the claimed $10,000 value.

To avoid this situation, the buyer should beware of any COA accompanying a modern art print which is incomplete and signed by an unreliable source. Furthermore, all parties should reference the artist’s catalogue raisonné for verification or employ a qualitied appraiser on their behalf.

About the photo: The insured’s forged print, with signature in lower right, is shown.

About Erin Hollenbank

Hollenback is a member of the fine art team for Enservio, a contents management and appraisal services provide based in Needham, Mass.

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