In September, southern France-based art historian Eric Forcada was serving as a guest curator to a small, state-owned museum in the region. As he was hanging one of the museum’s paintings on a wall after a $365,000 renovation project, he noticed something strange. The signature on the work, which was attributed to a local modern artist named Étienne Terrus, wasn’t quite right. Later, when he gently brushed his white glove over the signature, it wiped off to reveal a different signature underneath.
Forcada told the museum staff that he suspected the artwork was a fake. After convening with other art historians, the experts confirmed the work was not, in fact, a Terrus original. Upon closer inspection, they found that not only was this one painting faked, but more than half of the museum’s collection wasn’t made by Terrus.
Most of the works at the Museé Terrus, which opened in Elne in 1994 dedicated to Terrus, were acquired after 2013. For several years, at least 10 to 15 inauthentic pieces hung on the museum’s walls at a time, with the rest of the fakes and forgeries in storage. (Related: “Biggest Fake Native American Art Conspiracy Revealed”)
This forged Mark Rothko painting was part of an art dealer's 15-year scam that fooled collectors into buying more than $60 million of counterfeit paintings attributed to Rothko and others.
On Friday, the museum reopened after its renovation, showcasing 60 authenticated works on its walls. But authorities say it could take years to link the case to the person behind it—art criminals notoriously prey on the works of lesser known artists.
Spotting Fakes and Forgeries
“A fake is a pre-existing work of art that has been altered in some way to fraudulently increase its value,” says Charney. “A forgery is a new work created wholesale from scratch in fraudulent imitation of something else or the style of another artist.”
Police found that of the 142 works at the Museé Terrus 82 were not real Terruses. Over the course of two decades, the museum had spent more than $190,000 on paintings, drawings, and watercolors falsely credited to Terrus, obtained through fundraising campaigns and private collectors.
The museum, which doesn’t have a trained curator or a team solely dedicated to acquisitions, relied on its founder to acquire works by the artist. To draw more tourists to the area, the town of Elne began investing more in the museum to restore the paintings, install better lighting, and regulate the building’s temperature to better preserve the works.
When Forcada was looking at other works in the collection he suspected were faked or forged, he noticed more than poorly covered signatures. Some of the works featured landmarks, like castles, that were built in the 1950s—by that time, Terrus had been dead for decades. (Related: “Artful Software Spots Faked Masterpieces”)
Other canvases were from the correct era but painted by other artists. Police believe the works, which might be part of a larger art scam, were created by Terrus’ contemporaries like Pierre Brune, Balbino Giner, and Augustin Hanicotte.
Much of Étienne Terrus’ life is lost to history. The artist was born in Roussillon, France, in 1857 and died in 1922. A contemporary of Henri Matisse and André Derain, Terrus moved to Paris to pursue his art when he was a teenager but later moved back to Elne and produced much of his work there. Terrus is best known for his landscapes featuring southern France, and he is credited as being one of the precursors of Fauvism, a colorful style of modern art. (Related: these photographs look like paintings)
To the untrained eye, faked or forged art can be difficult to spot. But correctly attributed works should have provenance documentation, and that documentation should be certified. If that fails, other details like a misspelled, shaky signature or materials from a different period can be telltale signs of a fake or forgery. (Related: “Why We Lie: The Science Behind Our Deceptive Ways”)
“The bigger problem with museums is not purchases that tend to come under scrutiny, but the acceptance of works on loan that may be problematic,” Charney says. “Most museums around the world rely on loan objects and … museums might not question works offered on loan if they look good because they rely on such loans to fill their walls.”
All things considered, art forgery is widespread in the mainstream art world. The FBI Art Crime Team has recovered more than 14,850 works totaling more than $165 million since its inception in 2004. Some statistics have said that up to 20 percent of the paintings in major museums are fake, but Charney says this number is false.
“I would imagine that at least 95 percent of everything that is displayed in museums is exactly what the museums think it is, meaning it is not misattributed, and it is neither a fake nor forgery,” Charney says. “It may be safe to say that some 20 percent of a museum’s entire holdings are problematic in terms of authenticity, which means they were actually inadvertently misattributed, or perhaps, in very rare cases, a proactive fake or forgery.”