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Real Fake News

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A small French museum dedicated to the work of Matisse-contemporary (and penpal!) Étienne Terrus is full of fakes.

The forgeries are now in storage or held by police following the April discovery that over half the collection was inauthentic work displaying varying levels of blatant fraudulence. Some bore signatures that were easily wiped away, others were so bold as to include buildings that were constructed decades after the artist’s death in 1922. But all in all, 82 of the museum’s 140 pieces are believed to be fakes, a devastating blow to the local institution.

The Terrus Museum in Elne, where this precursor to Fauvism created most of his work, has been proud to claim the local legend’s name for its own. But when visiting art historian Eric Forcada was assisting in the preparation of an exhibit, he saw inconsistencies in images of the paintings sent via email.

After gathering a panel of experts, it was determined that the 82 pieces were indeed fakes, with the most recent item purchased in 2010. The museum had been in the process of expanding, including the construction of a second floor and better lighting and temperature regulation to better preserve the works. The museum’s founder had also been purchasing more canvases and restoring others.

A lawyer for the municipality said that nearly $200,000 had been spent on new pieces on behalf of the museum. Fundraisers were held to pay for the purchase of other works, and more were donated. Complaints of forgery and fraud have been filed, and police are working to trace both the forgers and the dealers who sold them… a process that could take years.

The mayor of Elne, Yves Barniol, called the forgeries “a catastrophe,” and the Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art notes that the museum is now under scrutiny because some of the fakes were so blatantly obvious.

“We wanted to showcase the museum and the work of Terrus, our village painter,” the mayor told the Telegraph. “We will continue to promote local art. We have invested €300,000 in refurbishing the museum.”

Following the extensive renovation, the museum reopened in late April with just 60 authentic paintings on display.

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