Bring Me the Head of King David: Questions of Attribution and the Responsibility of Museums

By Center for Art Law Team*

Art forgery has long been a siren of the art world. Dark yet beguiling, it ranges from misidentification of orphaned works to forgers deliberately passing off fakes on the market. Some forgeries gain notoriety because they contain all the elements of  catch-me-if-you-can intrigue: outsmarting experts, creating intricate webs of deception, evading discovery, collecting a hefty prize. Other forgeries endure in perpetual obscurity, only caught years or decades after the fact (if at all). This spring the Center for Art Law hosted an evening on the topic, screening Orson Welles’ F for Fake and featuring Aaron Crowell’s remarks about root causes for transactions involving fakes. Though forgery implicates all spheres of the art economy, its effect on reputations and credibility is particularly noteworthy in the context of museums’ roles in the public and educational sectors.

As part of a series of seminars given at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1967, director Thomas P. F. Hoving stated that taking fakes and their detection seriously is a key part of the Museum’s educational obligations. But he also quoted art historian Max Friedländer’s qualifying statement that, while it is an error to collect a fake, it is as much “a sin to stamp a genuine piece with the seal of falsehood”. In his 1996 book on art forgery, False Impressions, Hoving also suggested that the entire art market was 40 percent forgeries. More recently, the art critic Michael Glover estimates that at least 20 percent of paintings held by major museums will be attributed to a different painter by the end of the 21st century. It is unsurprising, then, that at times misattribution in museums would be inevitable. The key questions are: how should museums treat the subject of attribution and respond to allegations of forgery? What responsibilities do curators have to the members of the public? And what actions can museums take to prevent or uncover forgeries in their collections?

What are Museums’ Legal and Ethical Responsibilities?

There are no explicit regulations regarding museums’ obligations to investigate and disclose purported fakes. Ultimately, the art market polices itself and curators and museum administrators have their boards of directors to report to and codes of ethics to uphold. However, these codes sparsely mention fakes and forgeries.

The American Alliance of Museum’s (“AAM”) Code of Ethics expresses the common tenet that museums are stewards of the world’s natural and cultural common property, holding their collections for the benefit of the public. It does not mention fakes or forgeries, but exhibiting and acquiring such items unawares conceivably threatens the core mission by taking resources away from genuine artifacts. Interestingly, the American Association of Art Museum Curators’ ethical guide, the Professional Practices for Art Museum Curators, and the American Association of Art Museum Directors’ Code of Ethics, also overlook issues of fakes and forgeries. The exception to this is the American Association of Art Museum Directors’ Professional Practices in Art Museums, but forgery is mentioned just once, merely as a potential reason to deaccession an art object. Given the recent interest in fakes and forgeries as a cultural phenomenon, museums have been collecting and exhibiting fakes for their unique albeit detrimental effect on the art history canon.

Regarding faked antiquities, the American Association of Museums announced in 2008 “New Standards on Collecting of Archaeological Material and Ancient Art”, which advocated reference to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The section on existing collections stipulated that, in the interests of public trust, research and accountability, museums should “make available the known ownership history of archeological material and ancient art in their collections, and make serious efforts to allocate time and funding to conduct research on objects where provenance is incomplete or uncertain.”

The antiquities trade is susceptible to forgeries, as writes Leila A. Amineddoleh, an art lawyer specializing in art and cultural heritage law, and an adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Law. This susceptibility comes down to trade in unprovenanced antiquities being driven by demand, including from within the black market. For example, a large number of purported Coptic sculptures from the late fourth century in Egypt entered the international art market in the 1960s, at a time when Coptic art was not widely understood by scholars, yet was popular with collectors. Recently, historians have concluded that most of them – including a considerable collection within the Brooklyn Museum – are fake, thereby distorting our understanding of Christian iconography in ancient Egyptian art. Accountability for museums, most of which are privately owned in the US, seems to come more from public pressure and bad press. In 2009, The Brooklyn Museum responded to these unflattering allegations by planning an entire exhibition dedicated to the forgeries. Some scholars, such as the art crime professor Noah Charney, have noted that museums may only assume moderate shame in acquiring forgeries.  

Another explanation for the lack of rigid rules in this area is Hoving’s idea that it is anathema for an expert to dub an authentic work as fake. This opinion appears to be shared throughout his field. In a 2011 publication, Professor Andrew Stewart of the University of California posits that the “sin” of accusing a genuine antiquity as fake is “much more heinous” than authenticating a forgery). According to Stewart, such can be associated with a rush to judgment and the imposition of one’s own ego on the object. According to Sharon Flescher, the Director of the International Foundation of Art Research (IFAR), art attributions can and do shift over time. In her essay on IFAR in Ronald D. Spencer’s 2004 book, The Expert versus the Object: Judging Fakes and False Attributions in the Visual Arts, Flescher argues that scholars should not be encumbered by threats of litigation or pressure from the art market to make such determinations.

A Tale of Two Heads

Screen Shot 2017-06-21 at 12.02.37 PMImage: the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Head of King David, #38.180, whose authentication is questioned by Robert Walsh. The Met’s website gives the following data: c. 1145, made in Paris, fine-grained limestone, 33lb.

In 2012, Robert Walsh, a New York antiques dealer, purchased a limestone head at a Greenwich Village antiques store, believing it to be a sleeper. (A sleeper is an orphaned artifact which may become attributed to a known and famous creator.) Walsh learned that that the Metropolitan Museum of Art was exhibiting a similar head, apparently originating from the Cathedral de Notre-Dame, and began investigating. Where did Met acquire its sculpture, and what did the two pieces have in common? These questions led Walsh down a twisting, years-long road of research.

The Met describes its sculpture as a head of King David, originating from the St. Anne portal of the west facade of the Cathedral de Notre-Dame in Paris. The portals contained monumental sculptures of each of the Kings of Judah, which were decapitated and presumably destroyed in the political fervor of the French Revolution.

Walsh researched both pieces using scientific analysis, provenance and stylistic research, and theorized that the Met was exhibiting a 1920s copy of his own authentic sculpture. He concluded that neither sculpture originated from the Cathedral de Notre-Dame, but that his was a French antique, and that there were some inconsistencies in the Met sculpture’s provenance. The Met sculpture was sold by a French art dealer, Georges Demotte, who was active in the 1920s and 1930s and who is believed to have sold forgeries to museums. Demotte’s original catalogue listing of the piece for his New York gallery in 1930 contained no mention of either Notre-Dame or King David. Instead, the sculpture was said to have been discovered in St. Germain de Pres, which is located further down the River Seine. Walsh believes that the author of the Met’s work is Emile Boutron, an accomplished conservator and forger employed by Georges Demotte.

Allegedly, these findings were shared with Met’s Medieval Department in 2012, but the curators were unconvinced that their King David was inauthentic. Walsh later contacted the Louvre, which had purchased a very similar sculptural head, also from the controversial Demotte New York Gallery, in 1934. According to Walsh, the Louvre removed the sculpture from public display. 

In 2014, Walsh, through his company Latipac, Inc. (now dissolved), served a Summons with Notice on the Met, apparently seeking to preclude the Met from challenging the authenticity of Walsh’s sculpture. Other threatened causes of action, which did not manifest in court action, were breach of the museum’s Collection Management Policy (on a theory that Latipac is its intended third-party beneficiary), as well as a series of tortious actions, including defamation, interference with prospective economic relations, injurious falsehood and product disparagement.

In October 2014, both sculptures were reportedly drilled and tested at the Met by an expert in French limestone from the the Limestone Sculpture Provenance Project at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. The test results revealed that Walsh’s sculpture consists of Burgundian limestone, whereas the Met sculpture was sculpted from Paris Lutetian limestone.

The Subtle Art of Authentication

In an effort to curb fakes and forgeries in the art market and in museum collections, three general methods of authentication have emerged.

1. Provenance Research:

Provenance is the record of the ownership or chain of title of a work of art or antique. Works with clear, substantiated and complete provenances are naturally of a higher financial value, based on risk and return. (For more on this, see Gail Feigenbaum and Inge Jackson Reist’s 2012 book “Provenance: An Alternate History of Art” and Art Watch UK’s upcoming publication detailing the proceedings of its 2015 London conference “Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship”). Works with questionable or incomplete provenances, such as the Met’s sculpture, will often lead an authenticator to research further the object’s history and affiliation with suspicious characters appearing within the chain of title.

The circumstances of the Met’s acquisition of its sculpture are noteworthy. According to Walsh, James Rorimer, one of the Monuments Men and 1930s curator for medieval art at the Met, oversaw the 1937 acquisition of the Met sculpture from the renowned dealer Arnold Seligmann for $2,500. Apparently, Seligmann had purchased it from Demotte’s New York Gallery in 1934. The 1930 Demotte Gallery Sculpted Portraits exhibition catalogue listed it as “Head #9, Crowned King’s Head”, and claimed it was excavated from St. Germain de Pres. Also in the Sculpted Portraits catalogue was an entry for “Head #10”, which the Louvre acquired from Demotte in 1934. Whether Rorimer believed Head #9 to be real or not, he clearly believed it to be worth acquiring for the museum. The Met’s sculpture was not included in the 1970 medieval sculpture catalogue, The Year 1200: A Centennial Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where over 50 stone sculptures – including a series of heads – were showcased together with medieval mosaics, coins, stained glass, frescoes and other artefacts.

2. Scientific data

Business of authenticating is a risky proposition. Increasingly, scientific expertise and methods are used for testing of different artifacts depending on the age and materials of the piece. Testing methods may include elemental analysis, microspectroscopy, molecular analysis, carbon-dating, pigment analysis, x-ray fluorescence, and even fingerprint testing. The most common indicator that a work of art is forged is the detection of materials  on the work which were not manufactured or used until after the work’s purported era. Orion Analytical, a private lab which was purchased by Sotheby’s in 2016, was one of the most highly regarded art analysis companies in the United States, as it combined scientific testing with connoisseurship. Sotheby’s cited the use of modern materials in an alleged old master work as grounds for revoking a private sale and seeking reimbursement from the broker in a recently filed lawsuit regarding an £8.4 million Frans Hals painting which turned out to be a forgery.  

Similarly, the famous forger Wolfgang Beltracchi, who was convicted in 2011 and released from prison in 2015 after he and his wife sold hundreds of fake works attributed to Pablo Picasso, Fernard Léger, Max Ernst and others, was ultimately exposed through forensic analysis. Dr. Nicholas Eastaugh tested the pigments of a painting the Beltracchis claimed to be by the Dutch artist Heinrich Campendonk, and uncovered titanium white, which did not exist in 1915 when the work was supposedly painted.

The forensic testing of Walsh and the Met’s sculptures, done by the University of Missouri’s limestone experts as part of the settlement agreement, assisted with identifying the source of the material used, but fell short of providing the date of creation to the objects. Although  scientific analysis may be helpful in determining whether an object is fake, it is unable to confirm an object’s authenticity without the stylistic knowledge of a connoisseur.

3. Connoisseurship 

The least precise and most subjective form of authentication is connoisseurship, or expert aesthetic judgment. It relies upon an expert’s training, expertise, and – more often than not – gut instincts. Expert opinions are heavily relied upon by dealers, auction houses and museums. Connoisseurship is at once heavily subject to corruption, and powerful enough to hold sway in court.

Connoisseurs have been known to be fooled by highly skilled forgers. Last year’s Knoedler trial revealed how a single artist could paint, from his garage in Queens, a raft of fake de Koonings, Rothkos, Pollocks and other masterpieces, which would pass muster with some of the most prominent experts and gallerists. Similarly, Wolfgang Beltracchi duped scholars, museums, auction houses, gallerists, and even Max Ernst’s widow, with his numerous forgeries. In a recent documentary on Beltracchi, he brags that his forged Vermeers, Rembrandts and Leonardos are currently in circulation, and that Leonardo da Vinci’s work is “not difficult” to copy.

Walsh relied on his own connoisseurship and his belief that he uncovered in the Greenwich village antiques store a valuable and probably medieval find. According to him, experts in Paris with deep knowledge of the facades of the Cathedral de Notre-Dame were adamant that such a sculpture did not match the Cathedral’s sculptural program.

The Object v. the World: Curatorial Sins

Museum directors, experienced or non, may be faced with claims and possibilities of having fakes in their collections. For the Expert versus the Object: Judging Fakes and False Attributions in the Visual Arts, attorney Ronald D. Spencer conducted an interview with the former director of the Frick Museum, Samuel Sachs II. According to Sachs, museums should be ready to purchase high-quality and interesting work even if there are ongoing authentication disputes: “Ultimately, aesthetic quality holds sway even over matters of attribution or authenticity. Museums can hang a picture that is absolutely, certifiably by artist X, but if it is a weak picture, why do it?”.

It appears that encyclopedic art museums, including the Met, abide by this rule of thumb. Another rule of thumb: shock or disbelief should come not from having acquired a forgery but from inaction when flags are raised about authenticity. And such flags are raised regularly for most museums. One of the most notorious art hoaxes of the 20th century involves the Met’s acquisition of three “Etruscan” terracotta warriors from 1915 – 1921. Following their exhibition in 1933, scholars began to suspect, on grounds of connoisseurship, that the statues were anachronistic to the Etruscan style. The statues were finally scientifically tested in 1960, and their glazes revealed the presence of manganese, a mineral uncharacteristic to Etruscan sculpture. Months later, the sculptor Alfredo Fioravanti signed an affidavit confessing that the statues were forged. Brothers Pio and Alfonso Ricardi had fabricated them for the dealer Domenico Fuschini. In 1961, the Met accepted that the works were inauthentic.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced yesterday that, as a result of recently completed studies, its three “Etruscan” terracotta statues must be considered of doubtful authenticity. For some years there have been conflicting claims about these statues on stylistic grounds. Recently the staff of the Museum began a series of modern scientific and technical analyses. These developed convincing proof that these famous statues were not made in ancient times.

~ Feb. 14, 1961 Press Release

Critics of the Etruscan misattribution point out the Met’s lackluster investigations and ignorance of many “red flags” during the 30 years of their exhibition. Hoving would later go on to suggest that Gisela Richter, the Greek and Roman curator who acquired the pieces for the Met, was likely taken in by “pride” and “curatorial greed”.

Pride, greed, sloth, wrath… these art market sins allow forgeries to penetrate and pollute collections. However, hiding the existence of embarrassing yet known forgeries directly undermines museums’ obligations to expose and educate the general public about its cultural history – a responsibility espoused by the AAM in its various policy documents. It is safe to say that museums should, as organizations of public trust, act impartially and employ third party experts to investigate such claims, working collegially with individuals who present sound theories that a work’s authenticity is questionable. After all, forgers can be incredibly skillful, and even the most renowned connoisseurs can be duped.

A biblical character, King David was known to have been righteous and effective in administering justice. The dispute over his representation and the motives behind the actions of various private and public players, if nothing else, may help provide a measure of justice to the subject of due diligence in authentication. And that’s something worth losing your head over.

List of Sources

Disclaimer: This article is intended for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide legal or business advice.

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