Attribution is one of the most interesting subjects in art, if you ask me. A lot of paintings are old and sketchily documented. Their provenance is up for debate. Many great artists didn’t sign their work or have handy magazine profiles written about them. So much has been forgotten and so much that has survived has been restored over time and lost much of its context. So you have a painting with few clues. What do you do? There’s another muddying factor, of course, and that’s forgery. With the arrival of an art museum in Animal Crossing this week – and a sudden outpouring of lavish canvases with little documentation – I’ve been thinking of one of the strangest stories of art forgery I’ve ever heard. It’s a story about a French painter called Etienne Terrus and a gallery devoted to his work. Or so everyone thought until 2018. The Etienne Terrus Museum is situated in Elne, a small French community in Southern France. According to a Guardian piece from the 30th April, 2018, an acquisition of new works brought with it an art historian to take a look at the collection, and lead to the discovery that “nearly 60% of the entire collection was fake.” Out of 140 works, 82 were fakes, apparently – many of them crude and some of them featuring anachronisms.
On the surface, this is one of those amusing news stories that does the rounds quickly and then vanishes, but it’s stuck with me, I think, because ultimately there’s something desperately sad about it. This is the work of an artist who really belonged to a community – an artist the community was intensely proud of. The fakes – and the quality of some of them – must have lead to real soul-searching, a sense that this communal pride had been weaponised and turned against people. There is something about art forgery that is perfect for video games, of course: it’s all about process, technique, details, the sort of things hundreds of great puzzle games have hinged on. But by exploring all of this in the context of a community that is perhaps the ultimate victim of the fraud, all of this is sharpened, personalised, and made more poignant. Then there’s the magic of painting itself. Painting can take a fleeting moment and make it solid. But really, how solid? “On one painting,” said Eric Forcada, the art historian who went to Elne and uncovered the strange truth, “the ink signature was wiped away when I passed my white glove over it.”