Art is not always what it seems. In October, 2007, a man named Mark Landis—who claimed his father grew up in Lexington—contacted the former director of the Museum and offered to donate a small watercolor by post-Impressionist Paul Signac. Two months later, it was in our possession, along with documentation of its authenticity in the form of a photocopy of a sale catalogue from Christie’s auction house with an unmistakable image of the painting—even down to a small hole in the paper.
The photocopied page was doctored—Landis had substituted a small image of the painting he forged for a real Signac and copied the page. The unassuming man from Laurel, Mississippi, had placed more than a hundred paintings with an estimated fifty museums in twenty states. He never asked for money—he just wanted recognition.
While forgeries are deliberately made to deceive, in other cases there are gray areas of assessment. Over the years, the provenance—the history of the work from the hand of the artist to the current owner— can be lost as art is repeatedly sold or passed down through inheritance. Often experts disagree on who the artist was. A wonderful portrait that was once attributed to the renowned Spanish painter Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes was later reattributed to Vicente López y Portaña—the artist who succeeded him as the Royal Court Painter to King Ferdinand VII of Spain. The Museum also owns two drawings that were attributed to the sculptor Auguste Rodin. In the course of preparing this exhibition, the expert in the field determined that one of them was actually made by the best-known French Rodin forger, Odilon Roche. Photographs of the second drawing are still being examined for authenticity.
Mistaken Identity features these and a range of other works of art— including a second Mark Landis forgery—that are not what they initially seemed to be. Among them are African masks and figures that were made for the tourist trade, but sold as traditional works by specific peoples; a decorative nineteenth-century Chinese roof tile masquerading as a much earlier Ming Dynasty 1368 – 1644 piece; and a series of Rembrandt etchings and Albrecht Dürer woodblock prints that are copies or restrikes—made from the artists’ plates long after their deaths, and altered later.
Image: Attributed to VICENTE LÓPEZ Y PORTAÑA, Portrait of a Bullfighter (Pepe Illo), circa 1789, oil on canvas. Lent by Virginia Kraft Payson.
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