Some fakes and a
"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.
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.