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'It's a catastrophe.' French museum learns half its paintings are fake

A forged painting purported to be the work of artist Mark Rothko is displayed during a press preview of "Treasures on Trial: The Art and Science of Detecting Fakes" at the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Del. A museum in Elne, France, has discovered that 82 of its 140 paintings are fakes.
A forged painting purported to be the work of artist Mark Rothko is displayed during a press preview of "Treasures on Trial: The Art and Science of Detecting Fakes" at the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Del. A museum in Elne, France, has discovered that 82 of its 140 paintings are fakes. The Associated Press file

An art historian helping prepare an exhibit on French painter Etienne Terrus at a small, state-owned museum devoted to the artist in southern France noticed something odd.

Some of the paintings attributed to Terrus, a contemporary of Henri Matisse, depicted buildings constructed after his death in 1922, reported The Telegraph. A subsequent review of the museum’s collection found 82 of its 142 paintings are forgeries.

“It’s a catastrophe,” Yves Barniol, the mayor of Elne, France, told the publication. “I put myself in the place of all the people who came to visit the museum, who saw fake works of art, who paid an entrance fee. It’s intolerable, and I hope we find those responsible.”

About $170,000 had been spent on the fake oil paintings, watercolors and drawings, collected over the past 20 years by two local groups and the Elne town government, reported The New York Post.

News of the forgeries was announced Friday as the museum reopened following a $365,000 renovation, according to the publication.

Art historian Eric Forcada, who oversaw the Terrus collection during the renovation, first alerted museum officials to the possible forgeries, reported France 24. The museum then assembled a team of experts to examine the collection.

Barniol told The Telegraph that museum officials are still considering how to deal with the problem. “We will continue to promote local art,” he said.

Terrus was born in 1857 and died in 1922 in Elne, near the Spanish border, but spent most of his life in Roussillon, also in the Pyrenees, reported BBC News. Along with Matisse, he also was a friend of painter Aristide Maillol.

Police are investigating the counterfeit paintings found in the Elne museum, the network reported.

“We know there have been a lot of forgeries circulating, and we believe a well-organized network was behind this,” a police source told The Telegraph. Art experts say up to 20 percent of the paintings in major museums across the world may be forgeries.

Folk artist Butch Anthony says the constant stream of visitors to his Museum of Wonder in Seale, Alabama was cutting into his painting time. So, he used shipping containers to create the Drive-Thru Museum at the corner of US 431 and State Road 169.

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