The art of faking it


The Gulf Today - Panorama - - Contents -

Over decades, the small mu­seum of Elne in south­ern France built up a col­lec­tion of works by lo­cal painter Eti­enne Ter­rus, mostly oil and wa­ter­colours of the re­gion’s dis­tinc­tive land­scapes and build­ings.

But what was once a source of pride has turned to em­bar­rass­ment af­ter 60 per cent were found to be fakes, pro­vid­ing a les­son about the dan­gers of buy­ing art with­out ex­pert skills and the ubiq­uity of coun­ter­feit can­vases.

“Eti­enne Ter­rus was Elne’s great painter. He was part of the com­mu­nity, he was our painter,” lamented mayor Yves Barniol last week as he reopened the mu­seum and its ex­hi­bi­tion of Ter­rus paint­ings — mi­nus the forg­eries.

“Know­ing that peo­ple have vis­ited the mu­seum and seen a col­lec­tion most of which is fake, that’s bad. It’s a catas­tro­phe for the mu­nic­i­pal­ity,” he added.

Ter­rus (1857-1922) was born and died in Elne near the city of Per­pig­nan where he painted the sun-baked Mediter­ranean coast­line as well as the misty foothills of the Pyre­nees moun­tains and lo­cal red-tiled homes.

While once a friend of Henri Matisse, Ter­rus never reached the heights of fame achieved by his con­tem­po­rary, but he earned a fol­low­ing in art cir­cles and re­gion­ally with his Im­pres­sion­ist-and Fau­vist-in­flu­enced pro­duc­tion.

The Ter­rus Mu­seum in Elne be­gan col­lect­ing his work in the 1990s and went on a spend­ing splurge over the last ive years, ac­quir­ing 80 new can­vases of­ten thanks to lo­cal fund-raising drives.

Dev­as­tated lo­cals

who helped with the ef­fort now re­gret be­ing so naive, hav­ing handed over tens of thou­sands of eu­ros to lo­cal art deal­ers and pri­vate col­lec­tors.

Out of 140 works owned by the mu­seum, 82 were judged to be fakes by a panel of ex­perts. But art-test­ing ex­pert Yan Walther says fake art be­ing ex­hib­ited pub­licly is a prob­lem world­wide and the case of Elbe, though ex­treme, is not unique.

“The fact that there are fakes and mis­at­tributed works in mu­seum col­lec­tions is some­thing ab­so­lutely clear and no­body with an un­der­stand­ing of the ield has any il­lu­sions about this,” Walther said.

“There are mis­at­tributed works in the Lou­vre (in Paris) in the Na­tional Gallery (in Lon­don), all mu­se­ums in the world, but it is not in a pro­por­tion like 60 per cent,” he added.

A state mu­seum in the Bel­gian city of Ghent was ac­cused of ex­hibit­ing fakes in Jan­uary af­ter it put 26 works sup­pos­edly by Rus­sian avant-garde artists such as Kaz­imir Male­vich and Wass­ily Kandin­sky on dis­play.

Many ex­perts ques­tioned how the paint­ings — the pri­vate col­lec­tion of Rus­sian busi­ness­man Igor To­porovski — could have been amassed in se­cret and the mu­seum had to can­cel the show amid a po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Walther’s com­pany, Swiss-based SGS Art Ser­vices, is a world leader in us­ing sci­en­tific meth­ods such as X-rays and car­bon-dat­ing to help au­then­ti­cate art works.

SGS mostly tests high-end paint­ings and Walther says on av­er­age a stag­ger­ing 70-90 per cent are found to be fake or mis­at­tributed.

Misat­tri­bu­tion can mean, for ex­am­ple, that a paint­ing was pro­duced by the work­shop or as­sis­tant to an artist.

“When you ac­quire real es­tate or a car, there are a cer­tain num­ber of steps ev­ery­one would take: a tech­ni­cal as­sess­ment, back­ground checks on the seller,” he said.

“For art work, very strangely it is still not in peo­ple’s minds.” The fraud in Elbe was dis­cov­ered by lo­cal art his­to­rian Eric For­cada who said he had seen the prob­lems im­me­di­ately, with some of the paint­ings crude coun­ter­feits.

“On one paint­ing, the ink sig­na­ture was wiped away when I passed my white glove over it,” he said.

In another paint­ing, there was a build­ing that was com­pleted in the 1950s — 30 years af­ter Ter­rus’s death — while some of the can­vases did not match those used by the orig­i­nal painter.

For­cada alerted the re­gion’s top cul­tural ex­pert and re­quested a meet­ing of a panel of ex­perts to con­firm his in­d­ings.

A po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion is now set to fo­cus on lo­cal art deal­ers who were the source of many of the paint­ings.

“The whole of the lo­cal art mar­ket is rot­ten, from the un­of­fi­cial street ven­dors who pitch to lo­cal pri­vate col­lec­tors up to the art deal­ers and the auc­tion houses,” For­cada said.

Prior to the scan­dal, paint­ings by Ter­rus could fetch up to €15,000 (Dhs65,723) and draw­ings and wa­ter­colours would sell for up to €2,000 (Dhs8,763), he said.

Visi­tors look at the paint­ing “Le clocher de Ria” (The bell tower of Ria) at the musuem ded­i­cated to French painter Eti­enne Ter­rus, in France.

More than 80 works at the Eti­enne Ter­rus Mu­seum in the South of France were fakes.

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