Photo: David Powell

Fake Views | The Strange Case of the French Museum Full of Forged Landscapes

The sleepy town of Elne thought it was collecting watercolours by a local hero. The truth was more complicated...

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Apr 8 2019, 3:03pm

Photo: David Powell

The light in the south of France boasts a unique quality that has attracted artists for centuries. Masters such as Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch and of course Vincent Van Gogh all passed through this region to bask in the marigold sunshine that rains down on fields of lavender, bathes villages of terracotta-roofed houses and reflects in a million colours off the nearby water of the Mediterranean Sea - each then immortalising it in his own unique style on canvas.

"The artist has been making international headlines for all the wrong reasons"

Household names aren’t the only ones to have roamed this magical landscape. Many talented local painters also spent their lives pushing around pigment trying to recreate their unique perspective without ever getting the same international acclaim. Etienne Terrus was one of these figures and before recently, this watercolourist who lived from 1857 to 1922 was barely known outside of his native town of Elne, near Perpignan.

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The town of Elne today. Photo: David Powell

Since April 2018 however, the artist has been making international headlines for all the wrong reasons, as it was discovered that the local museum dedicated to his life and work was, in fact, filled with fakes. French police have now launched a large investigation and are busy tracking down what they believe is not just an isolated case, but that could be spread wide across the whole of the South of the country.

The story started out quite innocently when the Etienne Terrus museum closed its doors to the public for a few months to undertake extensive refurbishment work. It was being prepared for a big exhibition to showcase recent acquisitions adding to the Terrus collection - all part of a wider plan by the municipal government to draw more tourists to the area. Indeed since 2014, the museum had been on an expansion drive fuelled by its fervent volunteers and supporters, who amassed a large budget for buying art.

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Locals enjoying the sun in Elne. The quality light was what attracted painters to this part of France in the first place. Photo: David Powell

To curate this show, art historian Eric Forcada was invited along to share his expertise and assist the museum’s team - but within minutes of looking at the first few pictures he could tell that something was wrong. Upon closer inspection, it became painfully obvious that he was looking at a significant number of forgeries. Incredibly each new painting he scrutinised was failing even basic tests of veracity. The more he looked at, the more fakes he found.

“On one painting, the ink signature was wiped away when I passed my glove over it,” says Forcada, who was taken aback by the extent of the forgery. “At a stylistic level it’s crude. The cotton supports do not match the canvas used by Terrus and there are even some anachronisms.”

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Le Racou, by Etienne Terrus. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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And a similar scene nearly 100 years later. Photo: David Powell

Indeed, one picture of the harbour in the nearby fishing village of Collioure - also painted by Charles Rennie Macintosh, Salvadore Dali and others - features a building that wasn’t built until 1955. That might not seem like much, but when you consider that Terrus died 33 years before...

Either the painter could see into the future (and in which case was considerably more talented than he’s usually given credit for) or it’s a forgery. Some paintings are modern copies of old postcard photography, while other canvases are from the correct era but painted by other regional artists, and have then been tampered with to make them look like a Terrus.

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Parts of Elne look very much as they would have done in Terrus' day. Photo: David Powell

In total, an unbelievable 82 of the 140 paintings that made up the collection were found to be fakes. In other words, more than 60 per cent of the museum’s art was bogus, leaving it in a financial black hole of more than 160,000 euros. And that’s not counting the damage done to the good name of the artist, as well as the reputation of the town and its museum.

“Etienne Terrus was Elne’s great painter. He was part of the community, he was our painter,” said the distraught Mayor of Elne Yves Barniol, speaking to France Bleu radio. “A great number of different exhibitions have been organised since the museum was first opened and no-one had ever thought to question the authenticity of the paintings before.”

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The Musée Terrus, which bought up to €160,000 worth of forgeries. Photo: David Powell

“Knowing that people have visited the museum and seen a collection, most of which is fake, is bad. It’s a catastrophe for the municipality. I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of all the people who have come to see the museum in the past and saw fake art, who bought a ticket, whatever the price. It’s unacceptable - I hope that we will be able to find the culprits.”

In a press statement, the lawyer representing the museum, Mathieu Pons-Serradeil, said that the rip-off had been incredibly well prepared.

“There’s not one man acting alone who would have made vulgar copies and would have then sold them under his jacket,” he said.

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Le Port du Coll, by Etienne Terrus. Image: Wikimedia Commons
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The port today. Photo: David Powell

“This is a whole system that includes those who find the paintings, those whose add a fake signature, the person who gives it to the antique dealer, a gallery owner or car boot salesman, who then sell it themselves and thereon until it arrives at the museum.”

In the last ten years, the French service responsible for investigating forgery of fine art has seen the number of cases increase rapidly. For the forgers, the rewards are very attractive - paintings, even if they are passed off as the work of relatively unknown local artists such as Terrus can deal can be sold for between 10,000 and 100,000 euros.

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The beach near Elne. Photo: David Powell

For many specialists, this is just the tip of the iceberg of fake regional art. Today it is nearly impossible to falsely reproduce the work of Great Masters such as Picasso or Matisse, so fraudsters are attacking easier targets: satellite artists such as Terrus. Many of these fakes are bought by non-experts and unknowingly scattered around private collections. It’s only when their owners try to resell them that the damage becomes visible.

“The problem becomes apparent during public exhibitions,” laments Eric Forcada. “When we ask individuals to loan pieces to be exhibited, they can turn out to be fake. Some of this work will only resurface after 70 or 80 years, after being passed down a number of times. We won’t really measure the full extent of the problem of this fake art crisis until then.”

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The cathedral at Elne, which Terrus painted several times. Photo: David Powell

Meanwhile in Elne, the locals have discovered that the cloud of forgery has a surprising silver lining. The flurry of media attention has turned the museum into a tourist attraction, and in fact the town has never been busier as excited tourists coming to visit this unusual exhibition with its quirky true-crime link.

In an even more unusual twist, auctioneers are now speculating that a ‘genuine’ Terrus fake could soon be more desirable to collectors than the real thing. Talk about life imitating art…

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You can find out more about the Musée Terrus including opening hours, on the town's official website.

John Silcox is a freelance journalist, based in London. Keep up with him on Twitter. David Powell is a photographer who splits his time between Girona and London. You can see more of his work on Instagram.