The Growing Issue of Fake "Bertoias"

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The Harry Bertoia Foundation has been aware of unauthorized replica Bertoia-style sculptures for quite some time. The sprays have been commonly copied for many years, even during Harry's lifetime.

See last month's article for details on the sprays. Click here.

Sonambient tonal sculpture copies have been more recent. In the last month we’ve even seen a fake dandelion. So far we have NOT seen copied bushes, and they are much more difficult to construct so hopefully we will never see them. This year there has been a bad batch of copied sounding sculptures, all coming out of Florida. I write this article as a caveat to dealers, auction houses, and collectors.

Jim Elkind, of Lost City Arts, an experienced and trusted Bertoia dealer of many years, was caught up in the deception, which tells me that these are pretty good fakes at first glance. Jim and I each looked at photos of a tonal sculpture and a dandelion and were favorably impressed. There were a few mysterious areas on both sculptures, and we both agreed that to fully determine the validity of the sculptures, they would have to be examined more intimately. Without seeing them in person, Jim took a risk and purchased the two sculptures, hoping for a bargain. The tonal was listed as “attributed to Bertoia.” His risk did not pay off and as soon as he saw them, he realized they were both fakes. He lost thousands of dollars.

A fake Florida tonal sculpture.

Fake Florida tonal sculpture

Fake Florida tonal sculpture

If you look carefully, you’ll note that there are no silver solder pools surrounding the attachments of the tonal rods. They are apparently screwed in. If you could hear the sound made by the rods, it is not as pleasing as an authentic Bertoia. Also, the patina is so shiny that creation in the 1970s seems doubtful. Of course, the owner may have had it cleaned so that in itself is not a deal breaker.

Next, on the questionable dandelion, there is a nut or collar of some sort around the stem which is not normal for Bertoia. The base itself is a bit suspicious, but bases can be replaced. Usually a Bertoia base has a snug fitting hole into which the stem fits perfectly. It’s not clear exactly how the insertion is made on this copy.

At first glance, not bad, eh? Look carefully. This unauthorized replica is much looser in its rod placement. Plus Harry would not commonly have had the dark metal stem with a gold colored sphere. Bill Shea, one of our board members who has repaired several dandelions and has a clear engineer’s mind, said this, “The [real] ones I’ve closely studied have divided clusters of wires that are reduced to a central stem at the hub end.  This one seems to have bundles of wires that run from the hub to the tips… much like a brush.  The overall effect is more like a bottle brush and lacks the transparent lightness of a dandelion.” Below are a natural and a Bertoia dandelion. Both of them have an entirely different feel; that of pure beauty and integrity.

The next piece of the puzzle occurred when a collector from Australia contacted the foundation about a potential Bertoia tonal sculpture he spotted at a US auction.

From the fuzzy photos, I told him it might be a Bertoia but I could not see the rod attachments clearly enough to be sure. He purchased the sounding sculpture and had it shipped from the auction house in Florida to our office in Montana for inspection and authentication. Upon arrival (in a very poorly packed cardboard box, I might add), it took about one minute to see that it was not a true Bertoia. Note on the photo, again, the lack of silver solder. Needless to say, the collector was severely disappointed.

Another fake sounding sculpture

Another fake sounding sculpture

The blued metal seen above is not something that Harry would have used.

I thought it was steel but it is non-magnetic, so not sure what it is (although admittedly some steels are non-magnetic). And, note in the next photo, the perfectly straight cut top – again, not what Harry usually did. Harry liked to slightly vary the heights to give an organic feel. The base is so narrow that the sculpture is very unstable and tends to fall over at the slightest movement. It simply does not have the integrity, biomorphism, or pleasing attitude that Harry’s work magically displays. Yet any of these fakes could easily fool an inexperienced collector. Close inspection exposes discrepancies. We have a very good lead on who is making the fakes. Jim Elkind of New York is certain he knows the name, and we are awaiting further confirmation before we divulge the information and pursue him. We plan to nip this in the bud by whatever means necessary.

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Fake tonal with unstable base and straight-cut top

Fake tonal with unstable base and straight-cut top

Since these two clear cases came our way, we have seen a few others in the same vein with the screwed rods, again all listed in Florida.

So, what can be learned from these examples? First of all, do not purchase until you see the item in person! This is true of any valuable art. That’s not to say that you still might be deceived upon seeing the actual property, but at least you’ll have a better chance of detecting issues. Would you buy a house sight unseen? Well, some investors do just that, but if I was going to live in it, I would certainly want to see all the little scratches and great views and minute details before pulling out the checkbook.

Secondly, beware of Bertoia in Florida! There are several reliable auctions and galleries in Florida, but there are a few who, while perhaps not intentionally, might not be as alert as they could be. If the description indicates “attributed to Bertoia” or “in the style of Bertoia” or similar terms, that means “buyer beware” and makes no assumption of validity. Some respectfully label them as “kinetic sculptures” which does not refer to Bertoia at all. While technically correct, it is still muddling to the layman.

It is this kind of fakery that confuses the market and damages the unblemished reputation of Harry Bertoia. While we see values of Bertoia at auction continually rising and his pieces becoming more desirable and collectable, the knock-offs throw uncertainty and suspicion on the Bertoia market. While the copies might be less expensive and reminiscent of Bertoia, they are 1) an affront to the original artist, 2) constructed with poor quality materials and techniques and 3) have a tinny unpleasant sound. They simply do not have the integrity or spirituality of the originals. We cannot support the purchase of this type of replica for any reason.

Art authenticity is a broad problem, as has been demonstrated by Jackson Pollock scams and copied Rothko paintings and so many others. Numerous foundations have simply stopped authenticating their artist’s works because it is such slippery territory. For now, we will continue to offer that service. Time will tell if we can afford to continue.

It is for this reason that the foundation has decided to eventually stop even our authorized “table tonals” as soon as the current edition is sold out. While our sculptures are clearly numbered and marked as reproductions, and both originals belong to the estate, we have decided to end any question of authorized or unauthorized.

Hint: buy your Table Tonal II now while they are still available!

This is one of the reasons we are pursuing the project of a Catalogue Raisonné which will define and properly categorize Bertoia sculptures. In the meantime, if you have any questions regarding authenticity, contact the foundation while you still can!

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