How Salvador Dalí Accidentally Sabotaged His Own Market for Prints

Ian Shank
Apr 18, 2017 10:42PM

Portrait of Salvador Dalí by Carl Van Vechten. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

It began as a routine customs stop. But after waving down a truck making its way into Andorra, several unsuspecting French police officers suddenly found themselves face-to-face with a most unusual international shipment: 40,000 sheets of paper, all bearing nothing more than the simple, iconic signature of Salvador Dalí.

The year was 1974. Members of the international press immediately decried the episode as yet another example of Dalí having “killed his own market.” Yet doubt still lingered in the air. Could the signed sheets really be authentic? And if so, could the maestro really have been so careless in exposing himself to would-be forgers and swindlers?

Following Dalí’s expulsion from the Surrealist movement in 1939, and accelerating throughout the next four decades of his career, Dalí and his inner circle would certainly display a voracious appetite for cashing in on the artist’s global notoriety. Their money-hungry ways eventually inspired and cemented the artist’s sardonic anagram nickname: “Avida Dollars.”

“I am mad, completely mad...over Lanvin chocolates!” declared a wild-eyed Dalí in one particularly surreal television advertisement. The artist would later extend his stamp of approval to Ford automobiles, Wrigley’s chewing gum, and even Braniff Airways—although the artist later proclaimed that he had never once traveled by plane.

Outside advertising, Dalí’s preferred money-making strategies revolved around printmaking. Rather than laboring for days or weeks to produce a single canvas, the artist realized that he stood to earn far more by scratching an idea into a metal plate and then authorizing the reproduction of hundreds of “original prints.” As Dalí jovially mused on the profitability of prints, “Each morning after breakfast I like to start the day by earning twenty thousand dollars.”

Dalí was hardly alone among his contemporaries in weaning profits from printmaking. Yet over time the artist’s weakness for easy money and the avarice of his inner circle would push him even further.

The turning point would come in the 1960s. Having by now occasionally pre-signed his signature on blank sheets as a way of expediting the printing process, Dalí came to understand that a print-ready sheet bearing his signature was, on its own, already worth $40. The implications were not lost on the artist. Nor on his then-secretary, John Peter Moore, who pulled down a 10 percent commission on every Dalí contract he arranged. Moore would later be singled out as the first to encourage the artist’s excesses.

“With aides at each elbow, one shoving the paper in front of Dalí and the other pulling the signed sheet onto another stack,” writes author Lee Catterall, “it was claimed that Dalí could sign as many as 1,800 sheets an hour for $72,000. The practice provided a quick way to generate payment for a hotel or restaurant bill.” Indeed, having reneged on an agreement to produce 78 tarot card illustrations for the James Bond movie “Live and Let Die,” Dalí would resort to precisely this tactic to settle his debts. Between 1976 and 1977, the artist signed 17,500 blank sheets of paper for the tarot prints that had yet to be produced.

As word spread of Dalí’s flippant hand, rumors of the sheets’ proliferation skyrocketed. It was said there were thousands in the marketplace; then tens of thousands; until, in 1985, Moore himself would claim that the artist had signed 350,000 blank sheets of art paper in his career.

“Adding to the confusion was the fact that between 1980 and 1989, Dalí was seen in public only once,” notes art appraiser Bernard Ewell, who specializes in works by Dalí. “So in the 1980s you have the artist alive, but not around to cause trouble with what the publishers and forgers were doing. It was basically a perfect storm: There was a market, there were lots of yuppies with disposable income, and nobody knew anything. Rumor really just drove everything.”

Buoyed by the absence of the bedridden artist, the forgery of Dalí materials now ballooned into a full-blown epidemic. Dozens of unscrupulous printers lined up to claim that their prints—like the thousands of others that saturated the market—had been produced on authorized, pre-signed sheets.

“All through the ’80s, whenever someone would say to the publishers, ‘Hey, Dalí has been sick for five years now, how could you possibly have a new print?” they’d say, ‘Oh, he signed the paper for us before he got sick.’” But more often than not, Ewell explains, these were actually complete forgeries, lacking even an authentic signature. “Over and over in court, I proved they were not pre-signed,” he says.

Ewell’s partner, Enrique Esteban Zepeda, also regards the pre-signed prints as an easy alibi for would-be counterfeiters, rather than a primary source of Dalí forgeries. “They played a big role,” says Zepeda. “Not the blank sheets per se, but the rumors, misinformation, and all the gossip that he signed 300,000 blank sheets. All that helped increase the forgeries. It allowed publishers to very easily say that this printing was done on pre-signed paper.”

All told, Zepeda estimates that something in the ballpark of 40,000 to 60,000 signed sheets probably made it into the market. In turn, they opened the floodgates for tens of thousands of separately forged prints to satisfy the public’s demand for authentic works by Dalí. The problem, more than anything, was distinguishing between the two.

Within the art community, it is precisely this aura of uncertainty that has made the Dalí print market among the most treacherous in the world. But perhaps that’s precisely how he intended it—as the larger-than-life artist once said, “What is important is to spread confusion, not eliminate it.”

Ian Shank