French Museum filled with fakes still questioning how it happened a year on

In April 2018, a French museum dedicated to the painter Étienne Terrus (1857-1922) announced that over half of its collection were, in fact, fakes. Exactly how this catastrophic mistake was made remains a mystery over a year since the discovery.

It’s hard. It’s a shock,” explained Yves Barniol, the local mayor who publicly announced the scandal last year, in a recent interview. “But 60,000 people have seen these fakes over the last 15 years – that’s unforgivable.”

Odette Traby – a local art enthusiast – established the Musée Terrus with her husband in 1994 in the artist’s home town of Elne. Before Traby passed away in 2017, she raised $365,000 for an extensive restoration of the gallery spaces.

During the renovation, however, contracted art historian Eric Forcada began to suspect that Traby’s collection was not entirely genuine. A committee was swiftly gathered and discovered that 82 works out of a total of 140, worth approximately €160,000 (£140,000), were fakes.

I said to myself, it’s not possible,” exclaimed Forcada, recalling the moment he saw the paintings.

The committee determined at least 60% of the collection was stylistically inconsistent and many were simply crude copies. A signature on one painting even rubbed off to reveal the name of another artist.

The mayor promptly opened an investigation into the forgeries, but police have not yet charged anyone. While some question the museum’s deceased founder, a self-professed Terrus expert, others have pointed the finger at the dealer who supplied the gallery.

Gérard Rouquié, the authenticating expert for the museum, stated “they’ve made a mountain out of a molehill.” When questioned about the sheer number of fakes, he believed “there are maybe some doubts about 10% of the collection, but I don’t know where they’re getting 60% from.” As a dealer Rouquié sourced most of the paintings himself, leading many to question his impartiality.

It is possible the paintings are genuine 19th century artworks, simply painted by other artists and at a later date wrongly attributed to Terrus. Some argue they were actually painted by Terrus. but on an artistic off day.

Yet Forcada reckons the Terrus fiasco is the result of a new kind of art crime, which creates low-cost fakes that do not attract the same scrutiny as high value paintings. To produce the volume of fakes seen in Elme, Forcada believes there must be several forgers working under an “elusive, remote and mysterious” leader.

Regardless of who’s to blame, the discovery was devastating blow for the small museum; visitor numbers have dwindled and over half of the collection remains in police hands. Will we ever find who filled the Musée Terrus with fakes?

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