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Mark Seal
Mark Seal, The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, 2011, Viking

INSIDE THE ROCKEFELLER ART SCANDAL

June 9, 2011

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Students of tabloid scandals may remember the 2008 case of Clark Rockefeller, an imposter who pretended to be a member of the famous family, kidnapped his own daughter, was caught and sent to jail, and is now charged with an earlier murder.

His real name is Christian Gerhartsreiter, a master con-man whose story is told in Mark Seal’s new book, The Man in the Rockefeller Suit (Viking). What didn't make headlines was the fact that over the 12 years he pretended to be a Rockefeller, Gerhartsreiter assembled an impressive of Abstract-Expressionist art -- all of it fakes. The fraudulent collection included notable forgeries of works by Piet Mondrian, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly.

Gerhartsreiter claimed he had inherited the works from his great-aunt Blanchette Rockefeller, a real-life Museum of Modern Art benefactor and two-time president and wife of John D. Rockefeller. Apparently, according to Seal, none of the art-world heavyweights who visited his collection in the 1990s questioned it. Certainly no one attempted the “fingernail” test, Seal said, in which pressing a fingernail into the paint to see if it’s soft or hard can reveal a work’s age -- it takes 20 years for paint to fully dry.

“The art collection was really the only tangible proof that he really was a Rockefeller,” Gerhartsreiter’s duped millionaire wife (and mother of the kidnapped daughter), Sandra Boss, is quoted as saying in the book. He claimed to spend $10 million a year on art and, though he never really bought anything, once supposedly convinced Larry Gagosian to attempt to broker a sale for artist William Quigley, Gerhartsreiter’s friend, to the Whitney Museum (the sale never occurred).

Gerhartsreiter was ultimately arrested in 2008 for kidnapping. It has since come out that he also posed as a surgeon and a scientist, and just this year was been charged with the 25-year-old murder of a Los Angeles man. Experts still don’t know where the fake paintings came from.

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