As It Happens

Forgery expert not surprised half of French museum's paintings are fakes

A museum in southern France dedicated to the French artist Étienne Terrus has discovered that 82 of its 140 paintings are fakes.

Art fakers likely to have known the Terrus Museum had a budget for the local painter's works, says Yan Walther

Visitors look at the painting Le clocher de Ria (The bell tower of Ria) at the museum dedicated to French painter Etienne Terrus, in Elne, on Friday. (Raymond Roig/AFP/Getty Images)
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It's not totally shocking that a small museum with money to spend on Étienne Terrus paintings ended up with a bunch of fakes, says an art-testing expert. 

The Terrus Museum in Elne, France, where the painter was born, announced on Friday that 82 of 140 paintings are counterfeit, the BBC reports.

The fakes came to light when Eric Forcada, an art historian who worked there briefly as a visiting curator, discovered several discrepancies in the collection, including a signature written in ink and a painting of a building that didn't yet exist when Terrus was alive.

Yan Walther, art-testing expert at SGS Art Services in Geneva, told As It Happens that forgeries like this are all too common when an artist's work is in high demand.

Here is part of that conversation.

It's not just that there were forgeries [at the Terrus Museum] — it sounded like there were bad forgeries?

Yeah, but I can testify that in our laboratory we see every day a lot of strange things.

We have seen artworks where the signature has been added much later.

We can see artworks where you have fake cracks on the painting — cracks that are added artificially either by putting an artwork in an oven or by drawing fake cracks with a thin brush on the painting.

Some people may add brown colours to make the painting look older.

The quality of the fake can usually vary. It also depends on the market value of the work.

A portrait of the French painter Etienne Terrus is displayed at the museum dedicated to the artist, where 82 forgeries have been discovered. (Raymond Roig/AFP/Getty Images)

This local art historian who was the first to discover the paintings were fakes, he had this white glove and he wiped the signature of the painting that was supposed to be done by Terrus, and found it just came off. It was ink. What do you make of that?

It is pretty common among forgers to try to reuse old canvases or old artworks because the painting or the artwork will look old enough, and they would add a signature on it. 

Have you seen that? 

Yes, yes, absolutely. It is one of the first things we would check on an artwork.

Usually it's not as evident as that. You would use a microscope to check the signature. 

If the signature has been added afterwards, the paint used for the signature will go into the cracks.

The cracks usually appear on an old painting about 60 years after its creation, and if you see that the paint of the signature goes into cracks, then you will know that the signature has been added afterwards.

The news was announced on Friday as the museum opened after a renovation. (Raymond Roig/AFP/Getty Images)

This museum, the Terrus Museum in Elne, were they just very gullable? I mean, how did they get taken in to such a degree to acquire more than half of their collection as fakes?

I can only guess, but you can imagine a lot of things.

Maybe the museum has some budget to acquire works, and it's a small local museum dedicated to one artist, so they were ready and willing to buy a lot of works. 

Maybe it became known in the art market in the region among forgers — maybe among some dishonest galleries or antique shops — and people started to produce fake works basically to answer the demand for this artist by this museum. 

The museum, located in the artist's home town, discovered that more than half its collection was fake. (Raymond Roig/AFP/Getty Images)

There was a big fundraising drive to get a fund for purchasing the works of Étienne Terrus and they ended up buying 80 new works. So that would have been known to forgers, anybody, that there was a big pot of money to be spent on buying these paintings.

Sure, absolutely. And then maybe the museum also did not have all the required expertise to proceed with these acquisitions. 

The fact that there is a budget and that people are willing to buy works from a certain artist is basically the trigger for all forgers.

Forgers are willing to do fakes for these works because they know there is a big appetite on the market for these artists.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kate Swoger.

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