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Forgeries at Musée Terrus

Through Art Market & You, Art From Us provides you Analysis, Opinion and Factual Reports regarding the current on-goings of the Global Art Market. In this article, we discuss the discovery of forgeries at the Musée Terrus.

Discovery of the Forgeries

The Musée Terrus in Elne is dedicated to local artist Étienne Terrus (1857 – 1922). The museum 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.

A panel of experts was hired for the investigation. And they found that about 82 of the 140 paintings in the collection, valued at around 160,000 euros, are fake. The investigation was triggered after art historian Eric Forcada had suspected foul play during his visit to the museum. And he had subsequently notified local authorities.

The news broke in late April, 2018. Museum authorities said 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. The collection 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 sheer volume of works in this case, and the fact that they went undiscovered for so long, is alarming. Experts claim the architectural structions 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 valuation and evaluation?

A History of Botch-ups : Not Just Musée Terrus

In July 2013, in China discovered that a whopping 40,000 artefacts in their collection were counterfeits. In a weak attempt to save face, museum consultant Wei Yingjun said he believed 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, was believed to have the most impressive collection of Coptic art in the world. That was until they 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. For 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 judgementn. And use their expertise and discretion while making additions to their collections.

Considering the Concept of Authenticity

The concept of authenticity is not only convoluted, it also has far reaching consequences. 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. Further, 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

Moreover, 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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