An art museum in a small town in South France reopened this week after a renovation — and an overhaul of its collection after the discovery that more than half of its works were fake, a blow that the local mayor called a “catastrophe.”
The Etienne Terrus museum in Elne, dedicated to works by the artist, who was born in 1857 and died in 1922, reopened on Friday with about 60 of Terrus’s works, all authentic. But in September, an art historian discovered 82 of 140 works in the museum’s collection were counterfeits.
“Etienne Terrus was Elne’s great painter. He was part of the community, he was our painter,” Mayor Yves Barniol said, according to the Guardian. “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.”
The art historian, Eric Forcada, who had been working as a guest curator, said in interviews that suspicions had first been raised in his mind after glancing at the images in emails. An examination revealed that some of the buildings depicted in the paintings had not even been constructed by the time period in which Terrus lived, or other anachronistic or shoddy details. Some paintings had ink signatures that were easily wiped off by hand.
The discovery is a blow to the small town and its museum, which had reportedly invested some $190,000 buying art for the museum.
“It has become increasingly unsustainable for small towns to run museums, and it has become increasingly simple for fraudsters to trick municipalities with fakes,” Forcada told the New York Times. “It is easy to buy a 5 euro [$6] canvas at a flea market and to sell it to a small museum for 3,000 euros, while faking a Picasso or a Matisse and selling it to a great Parisian museum is impossible.”
Terrus, known for his landscapes, is seen as an early stylist to Fauvism, a movement popularized by his friend, Henri Matisse.
The forgeries, most of which were acquired in the past couple of years, according to the Times, are housed at the town’s police station as a police investigation seeks to find their origin.
Lynda Albertson, the chief executive of the Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art, told the New York Times that the museum had admitted that some of the forgeries “appear to have been rather obvious.”