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Forgeries at Musée Terrus

Through Art Market & You, Art From Us provides you with Analysis, Opinion and Factual Reports regarding the current on-goings of the Global Art Market. In this artcile, we look at the recent discovery of Forgeries at Musée Terrus, France.

Discovery of the Forgeries

The Musée Terrus in Elne, dedicated to local artist Étienne Terrus (1857 – 1922), had recently re-opened after carrying out lengthy renovations and re-hanging of their collection, only to make an unfortunate announcement – over half the works in their collection are forgeries.

According to a panel of experts that were hired for the investigation, about 82 of the 140 paintings in the collection of the French Museum, valued at around 160,000 euros are not authentic. The investigation was triggered after art historian Eric Forcada had suspected foul play during his visit to the museum, and had subsequently notified local authorities.

The news broke on in late April, 2018, with museum authorities saying that they were not aware of the inauthenticity of the works. The Mayor of the town, Yves Barnoil, apologised to museum goers and branded the situation a ‘catastrophe’. An investigation has been launched in order to identify the exact origin of the works, which had been amassed over a period of 20 years.

A Classic Case of Negligence

While this is not the first time a museum has discovered counterfeit works in their collection, the blatant inaccuracy of these particular paintings, and the fact that it went undiscovered for so long, is alarming. According to experts, the buildings and structures depicted in some of the works were not developed until after Terrus’ death in 1922. Further, Forcada went on record to tell the Guardian that the “artist’s signature” on one of the works was simply wiped away when he passed his white glove over it.

The extent of negligence highlighted through the Musee Terrus case forces us to ask a far greater question – can museums still be blindly lauded as platforms for market evaluation?

A History of Botch-ups

In July 2013,   in China discovered that a whopping 40,000 artefacts in their collection were counterfeits. In a weak attempt to mitigate the situation, museum consultant Wei Yingjun said he believed that at least 80 pieces were authentic. The museum’s collection spanned over 10 halls and contained several thousands of artefacts.

A few years before that, in 2008 the Brooklyn Museum, which was believed to have the most impressive collection of Coptic art in the world, announced that one third of their collection of Coptic sculptures was fake.

In another scandal, several paintings supplied by French dealer Giulano Ruffini, were widely accepted in the art world as authentic. These were exhibited at London’s National Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while the Louvre even raised funds to purchase a few pieces. The paintings were later found to have originated from a large forgery ring.

Recently, museums have been so often rocked by controversies over authenticity that they’ve almost started to embrace the media attention. In one instance, the MET Museum in New York held a show “Rembrandt/ Not Rembrandt”. The show displayed works from their own collection that were formerly attributed to the Dutch Master, but had eventually been declared counterfeits. We may consider this a charming way to draw out the silver lining in a sticky situation. However, as patrons, lovers of the visual arts or simply as taxpayers, we rightly expect our public institutions to uphold high standards of judgement and use their expertise and discretion while making additions to their collections.

Considering the Concept of Authenticity

The concept of authenticity is convoluted and not always simple to understand. In the case of certain art, such as Old Masters paintings, art that was looted by the Nazis or even Modern Art, the question of authenticity cannot simply be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

In most cases, there are several key players who independently determine whether or not they believe an artwork is authentic, and where their findings differ, the opinion of the most significant of these ‘players’ becomes ‘market consensus’, and the value of the work is determined accordingly.

Further, there have in the past been cases where a painting has even be attributed, de-attributed and then re-attributed to an artist. To illustrate, the painting that was believed to be Rembrandt’s “Old Man in Armchair” (1652) was given by the Duke of Devonshire to the National Gallery of London as part payment of the tax he owed the state in 1957. A few years after this, art historian Horst Gerson declared that the work was not a Rembrandt, and was in fact by one of his followers. This opinion became consensus, until recently in 2014, when the world’s premier expert on Rembrandt, Dr. Ernst van de Wetering of the Rembrandt Research Project, re-ascribed the painting it’s former status of being an original. The National Gallery of London however, remained unconvinced.

Old Man in Armchair is just one among a plethora of disputed works attributed to Rembrandt, and Rembrandt is just one of the many artists in the art world who’s works are under constant scrutiny, swinging between authenticity and plagiarism.

Impact of the ‘Authenticity Debates’ on the Market

Authenticity is a significant determinant of price. Amidst disputes, while collectors lose the most monetarily, it is the experts and scholars who are arguable most affected. The authority of an expert to determine authenticity does not come without burden. Recently, there has been a significant increase in the number of frivolous legal cases against experts for giving either positive or negative opinions on authenticity. In fact, the situation had reached a point where experts world over would shy away from expressing their views – the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts even dissolved their authentication board in 2012 following a law suit brought by art collector Joe Simon-Whelan who accused them of “engaging in a conspiracy to restrain and monopolize trade in the market for Warhol works.”

The question thus remains, to what extent can public institutions be held accountable for issues regarding authenticity.

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