What if Those Paintings... Are Fakes?

It's every art gallery's worst nightmare: given the ability of forgers down the centuries, what if some of those priceless works of art hanging on the walls are... not real?

A state-owned French art museum has discovered that more than half of its collection consists of worthless fakes and experts fear that other public galleries may also be stuffed with forgeries. An art historian raised the alarm after noticing that paintings attributed to Etienne Terrus showed buildings that were only constructed after the artist’s death in 1922.

Experts confirmed that 82 of the 140 works displayed at the Terrus museum in Elne, the artist’s birthplace in southern France, were fakes. Many of the forged oil paintings, watercolours and drawings were bought with £140,000 of municipal funds over the past few decades. Others were given to the museum by two local groups that raised money to buy them by appealing for donations. Some were bequeathed by a private collector.

Yves Barniol, the mayor of Elne, near the Spanish border, said: “It’s a catastrophe. I put myself in the place of all the people who came to visit the museum, who saw fake works of art, who paid an entrance fee. It’s intolerable and I hope we find those responsible.” The municipality has filed legal complaints for forgery and fraud. Police have seized the fakes and are trying to trace the forgers and dealers who sold them.

Among my prize possession are two Brueghels, Jan pere et fils, (the son and grandson of Pieter Brueghel) both fake, but beautifully painted by a Viennese-born artist, a dear friend long since dead, who worked "in the style of" as a hobby. I love them, and have owned them for 40 years, but aside from their sentimental value, they're worth about as much as the canvas and paint.

Detectives suspect that other museums may also contain large numbers of forged works attributed to southern French artists. A source close to the investigation said: “We know there have been a lot of forgeries circulating and we believe a well-organised network was behind this."

Art experts estimate that at least 20 per cent of paintings owned by major museums across the world may not be the work of the purported artists.

Frankly -- and despite the provenance expertise of the major museums -- I'd wouldn't be surprised if the number were even higher.