Fakes are a fact of life in the art world. They slip into even the finest museum collections and auction or gallery offerings, usually one at a time.
But on Sunday, some prominent art dealers charge, a Florida auctioneer plans to put not one, not two, but dozens on the block attributed to artists like Piet Mondrian, Georgia O'Keeffe, Jasper Johns and Helen Frankenthaler.
"It looks like virtually nothing in the catalogue is authentic," said Robert C. Graham Jr., president of James Graham & Sons, a gallery on upper Madison Avenue. Richard York, who owns a gallery on East 65th Street, said, "It's the most outrageous catalogue of questionable paintings any of us has ever seen." And James N. Goodman, a 57th Street dealer and president of the Art Dealers Association of America, said, "We're trying to get the authorities down there to do something."
Law enforcement officials confirm that they are on the case. "We are looking into allegations to determine if there are any that are criminal in nature," said Scott Dressler, a Florida assistant state attorney who is head of Broward County's Economic Crimes Division. "We are coordinating our efforts with the F.B.I."
Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is also investigating, he said.
But C. B. Charles, the 70-year-old with at least one blemish on his auction record who is planning to wield the gavel, said the sale would go on. He said the 294 works of art being offered, all from his gallery in Pompano Beach, Fla., were authentic.
In a telephone interview, the dealer said he had heard nothing from the authorities. But Mr. Charles -- known previously for selling the furniture, clothing, costume jewelry and other belongings of celebrities like Mary Pickford, Orson Welles, Mae West and Audrey Meadows -- did acknowledge that he had received complaints from art dealers and others about some paintings in the sale.
"We're shocking the art world, there's no question about it," he said.
But he said that the dealers were upset because his offerings are estimated to sell at much lower prices than paintings in their inventories. "It's like putting my hand in their pocket," he said. There are to be no minimum bids, which is unusual in major art sales.
The auction at C. B. Charles Galleries came to the art world's attention after the January issues of three glossy art magazines appeared with full-page color ads announcing "A Highly Important Art Auction" of 19th- and 20th-century Impressionist, Modern and contemporary works of art from an unidentified owner. In artspeak, the phrase "highly important" connotes paintings of some significance, not merely run-of-the-mill works.
Illustrating the ads were "Poppy," attributed to O'Keeffe, in Art and Auction; "Abstract Composition," attributed to Arshile Gorky, in Art News, and "Colored Composition," attributed to Mondrian, in Art and Antiques.
All three looked more than suspicious to some dealers. The catalogue, which several ordered by mail, reinforced their view that the works on sale are bogus.
Lot No. 114, "The Bird," described as a wood sculpture attributed to Brancusi, was one giveaway. Althea Spear's "Brancusi's Birds," a monograph that lists all such works by the artist, states specifically that "there is not a single bird in wood." Wood, Ms. Spear writes, is "too thick-grained and unreliable to allow for a form as subtle and precise as the Bird."
A 1918 charcoal drawing attributed to Egon Schiele also has the telltale signs of a forgery, according to Jane Kallir, the author of Schiele's catalogue raisonne. "I can't condemn this with 100 percent certainty without seeing the original, but this looks to me like a pastiche of genuine works," she said. "The thing that is most damning is the very ornate signature S initial. It is typical of the way he signed things in 1909, but not the way he signed things in 1918."
Ms. Kallir, an expert in Austrian and German art and a director of Gallerie St. Etienne on West 57th Street, also questioned a painting attributed to Gustav Klimt. "It is a very famous painting, and it's large," unlike the work being offered, she said. "Klimt did not do another and he did not do a study for it, to the best of my knowledge."
Several living artists also disavowed the paintings attributed to them. After looking at photographs in the catalogue, Ms. Frankenthaler, Mr. Johns, Jim Dine and Jack Levine denied through their dealers the authenticity of the works.
Art experts also point out that the catalogue is riddled with misrenderings of artists' names that verge on the comical: Windslow, instead of Winslow, Homer; Oscar, instead of Oskar, Kokoschka; and Camile Pissaro, instead of Camille Pissarro. "That's an old tactic in country auctions," said Mr. Graham, the Madison Avenue dealer. "To slightly misspell a name so they can't be held responsible for the authenticity."
In appearance, the Charles catalogue comes close to those published by Christie's and Sotheby's, even offering telephone bidding. But dealers pointed out that not a single entry lists the provenance, relevant exhibitions or publication of the works.
Mr. Charles counters that the anonymous owner bought the paintings from private owners, not dealers or auctioneers. "The problem here is that these paintings have never been exposed," he said. "Why would they appear in any of the archives?"
More troubling are the sales terms. Buyers commonly purchase works "as is." But while Sotheby's and Christie's voluntarily guarantee for five years works made after 1870, Mr. Charles offered what amounts to a 30-day guarantee. Any claims must be accompanied by written documentation from a scholar or recognized expert that the work is not as described in the catalogue. Getting such documentation in 30 days is next to impossible, art experts said.
"We're comfortable with what we're selling," Mr. Charles said. "If we sell something and it's not right, we're prepared to make a full refund on the major pieces. We'll extend to 90 days. But how long can we do it? I'm not Christie's and Sotheby's."
While he has been an auctioneer for 40 years, Mr. Charles said, "this is my first serious venture into the mega-bucks field." He also said he had "no art training whatsoever; this is not my field." His staff consists of six people, none art experts. The consignor put estimates on the paintings for the sale, he said.
Mr. Charles has been in the news before. In December 1995, the Florida Board of Auctioneers put him on probation for a year after an action against him in North Carolina. There, Mr. Charles settled charges in January 1994 that he had used false bidders, allowed an unlicensed man to call bids at an auction in Asheville, N.C., failed to maintain sales records required by law and failed to meet financial requirements, among other violations of state regulations. Mr. Charles permanently surrendered the state auctioneers' license he had been granted in August 1993 and pledged never to reapply in North Carolina.
Although Mr. Charles neither admitted nor denied the accusations, Wayne Woodard, the executive director of the North Carolina Auctioneer Licensing Board, said: "He was disciplined. It's like a plea bargaining."
Daryl Dempsey, a regulations specialist at the Florida board, said there had been no public complaints against Mr. Charles there.
Mr. Charles said yesterday that he was considering withdrawing "one or two pieces" from the sale. After receiving a fax from Barbara Lynes, who is compiling the catalogue raisonne for O'Keeffe, he said he was "concerned." Ms. Lynes, he said, is coming to view the painting this week.
A few dealers from New York may also be on hand to examine the works in person after they go on exhibition tomorrow.
Though the owner of the artworks is not identified, in the catalogue Mr. Charles refers to "a very prominent Southern family, whose ancestor was an important statesman who donated the land where West Point stands today."
That suggests that the paintings belong to descendants of Stephen Moore, who donated land to the United States Military Academy during the Revolution, according to Stephen Grove, the academy's historian. Later, in 1790, Mr. Moore was paid $11,000 for the land. Mr. Charles confirmed the Moore connection.
Speaking of the sale, Irving Luntz, who has been an art dealer in southern Florida for 37 years, said: "I can't believe that this will go forward. I've seen things being sold that are fake, but this is burlesque. The F.B.I. or the Department of Consumer Affairs or someone will stop it. If not, God bless America."