After a costly renovation of its art museum dedicated to the late 19th-century landscape painter Étienne Terrus, the French village of Elne has discovered that 82 of the 140 paintings in its Terrus collection are actually fakes. “Maybe we were a little naive to not have looked closer at the origins of these paintings,” said Marthe-Marie Coderc, president of Friends of the Terrus Museum, about the discovery.
But Elne is far from alone. In fact, even the world’s largest museums have a staggering number of fake paintings in their collections. The Independent, for example, estimates that 20% of art in major U.K. museums might be fake.
This particular discovery was made by the museum’s guest curator Eric Forcada, who sounded the alarm when he discovered that some of the buildings portrayed in Terrus’s paintings weren’t constructed until well after the artist’s death in 1922. This prompted an investigation that ended in the spectacular fake painting tally. The modest museum had spent $200,000 to buy Terrus’s works over the last two decades, a value that has now evaporated. It gets worse: According to NPR, investigators believe that not only the Terrus paintings are forgeries. Other museum artworks attributed to regional artists could also be fakes. Police began an investigation into the fake paintings last March, and finally on Friday, the museum reopened with 60 authenticated paintings by the French artist.
It’s not an uncommon story. The biggest museums can get tricked in a major way once in a while, and the estimation of fake art in those museums is shockingly high. In 2010, the Independent exposed that “at least 20% of the paintings held by [Britain’s] major museums, some up on the walls, many others in the vaults, will no longer be attributed to the same painter 100 years from now.” The newspaper published that information apropos a National Gallery exhibition that showed how many times the museum has been duped with fake paintings over the years. Sometimes a restoration or a curator-led investigation reveals that a painting isn’t the work of the attributed artist, as was the case of Goya’s Colossus–-which was actually the work of one of his apprentices. Other times, museums get truly conned by falsified art–like a recent Modigliani exhibit at Genoa’s Ducal Palace in which all the 21 paintings were revealed as fake.
It’s also worth noting that the opposite does sometimes happen. Though it’s less common, sometimes “new” art from great painters is revealed in what was thought to be the work of other authors, like the two “fake Rembrandts” that were demonstrated to be the real thing in 2006.
The truth of the matter is that it’s really hard to tell the difference between fake and real without an extensive forensics study combined with the keen eyes of a panel of experts. This is especially true with the works of old masters, which are often hiding under centuries of retouching and layers and layers of varnishes. The fact is that every museum in the world is subject to con men and misattributed art. More than half the paintings being fake in a modest museum sounds shocking, but an estimated 20% being fake in major galleries is the truly staggering data point, especially when you remember that Étienne Terrus was not Goya.
Perhaps the real question is not about legal authenticity but about what we enjoy as humans. Do you go to see paintings in museums because you like them–or just because they are signed by Rembrandt or van Gogh? If the answer is the former, then who cares if Terrus created those paintings or not. If it’s the latter, skip the museum altogether and go enjoy yourself at a bistro.