The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, May 6, 2001
'Art and Soul

Some fakes and a scandal
By B.N. Goswamy

"A curator can commit two sins. One is to accuse a genuine work of art as fake, and the other is to authenticate a forgery."

If, so soon after writing on the difficult business of authentication, I am coming back to the theme again in this column, it is not without reason. For, suddenly, in the western world from where I am writing this, there is talk of fakes and forgeries on everyone’s lips, and the art world is being convulsed by an unsavoury scandal. The matter involves one of the most prestigious institutions of its kind – the remarkably affluent J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles – where a former curator of its collection of European Drawings and Prints, Nicholas Turner, has called into question several of the works, including a Raphael, that were acquired prior to his joining the Museum. As a result, however, Turner, who came to the Getty from England some six years ago, with a high reputation for his expertise in this field, is now out on a limb, with the Getty establishment firmly discounting his charges, and the world of dealers and collectors and museum persons finding itself sharply split on the issues raised by him. The matter had been simmering for a while, but a long and unsparing, recent article on the subject by Peter Landesman, published in the highly-respected New York Times Magazine, seems to have hit everyone concerned – and countless others – like a blizzard. Uncomfortable questions are being asked all around; the air is thick with accusations and counter-accusations; well-established reputations are at stake. Suddenly, it feels as if the under-belly of the art world were being exposed.

A collector’s intimate world
April 22, 2001
Gutenberg and his ‘new art of writing’
March 25, 2001
Difficult business of authentication
February 25, 2001
Artist’s view of Kutch: A place apart
February 11, 2001
Arts and the common man
January 28, 2001
Voices from China
January 14, 2001
The persistence of memory
December 17, 2000
Nizami: Mystic; Epic Poet
December 3, 2000
Different snakes, different ladders
November 19, 2000
Celestial mappings
November 5, 2000
Discussing art — threadbare
October 29, 2000
Feeding the Imperial Image
October 8, 2000
Goya: Painter of the absurd
September 24, 2000

Yet another Mughal Ramayana
September 10, 2000

Children: Seen, but not heard
September 3, 2000

Drawing by Georges Lallemani c 1625, Getty Museum, Los Angeles This is not the first time that questions have been raised about objects acquired by museums or collectors. Forgers have always been active in the art world, and there are celebrated cases of fakes being bought by museums that every aficionado of art, certainly in the western world, knows well. But there appears to be something especially murky about "l’affaire Turner", for soon after he aired his misgivings about the six drawings that the Museum had paid one million dollars for, he was a marked man – seen as a whistle-blower of sorts – within the Getty establishment. Or so he claims. It is difficult to go into the details here – and I can provide only a bare summary – but, soon after he raised these questions, it seems, relations between him and the top brass at the Museum started deteriorating. There were conferences and confrontations; the former curator was called in to comment upon his purchases; a woman employee brought in a sexual harassment charge against Turner. Finally, after a lingering period of discord, he was eased out of his position: a settlement between him and the Getty was arrived at, involving his resignation, payments of sizeable amounts of money, public silence on his part, and the museum agreeing to publish a catalogue of his in which these very works were also discussed. Neither party, however, appears to have kept faith, and the whole matter has been blown open. There is fur flying all around.

There is uncommon obduracy on the Getty’s part in this case, and everyone cites cases of museums having invited and encouraged debate about the authenticity of major objects in their collection, when doubts were raised. One museum showed a 7-foot tall Greek kouros figure – after debate on its authenticity had ended inconclusively – with the caption: "ca. 530 BC, or modern forgery". At the Courtauld in London, Turner had cast doubt on 13 drawings, including works attributed to Michelangelo and Tiepolo, which led to an international conference and subsequent scientific examination of the objects, the results of which are awaited. The Getty itself had returned, several years ago, one Greek relief and a Roman marble head to the dealer/owner who had sold them to the Museum for astronomical sums of money. A modern Italian forger had publicly claimed that it was he who had made the marble head.

In the present case, however, it is the figure of another forger, Eric Hebborn, which looms darkly in the background. Hebborn was active for a long time in this business, having been angered and provoked into turning out forgeries by an incident early in his life. He had bought a number of drawings from a junk shop for twelve pounds, and then sold them a few days later to the London art dealer, Colnaghis, for 25 pounds, only to find some time later that Colnaghis had put those very drawings up for sale as Master’ works, pricing at thousands of pounds each. He decided to get even with the dealers, and went into the lucrative if murky business of forging himself, infiltrating over the years the world’s most prestigious art institutions, including major museums, and auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Apart, of course, from Colnaghis. His forgeries kept creating much confusion and debate in the art world for years – he was often referred to as a ‘killer of art’ – till his own death in 1996 when he was found killed, his skull crushed, in Rome, a few weeks after he published "The Art Forger’s Handbook" in which he had revealed much. Whether the Getty drawings challenged by Turner come from the Hebborn studio is an issue that remains undecided yet. But strong rumours float about. And one has certainly not heard the end of the affair yet.

A matter of faith

The specifics of this case apart, what is at issue is the larger matter of the faith that the museum-going public places in them. As Landesman says: "Each year, tens of millions of museum-goers walk through the entrance of the Getty, or the Metropolitan or the Prado or the Hermitage, and never consider the possibility of having to arbitrate for themselves the authenticity of what they have come to see. A museum’s meticulous presentation – exhaustive captions, hushed lighting, state-of-the-art armature – creates an institutional authority that is constructed to seem impregnable." It is that authority which is challenged by cases such as the present one. And therein lie doubt, instability, mistrust: things that museums can hardly afford to leave gnawing at the public’s mind.