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Over 150 prints believed to be originals by M.C. Escher, on permanent display at the Hague’s Escher in het Paleis (Escher in the Palace), are actually replicas, the museum’s founder has revealed. Wim van Krimpen, who also formerly headed the building’s parent institution, the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, told the M.C. Escher Foundation last month that Escher in het Paleis has been displaying copies of the Dutch graphic artist’s works ever since it opened in November 2002. The museum has never publicly mentioned that the works are facsimiles, and visitors as well as the Foundation have believed taken them to be authentic — for 13 years.
“What they did was they put an original Escher print under a scanner and reprinted it,” Mark Veldhuijsen, the M.C. Escher Foundation‘s managing director for 30 years, told Hyperallergic over the phone. “That has nothing to do with the work of Escher. I know replicas are customary in some museums. But then you put a notice next to it saying you’re a replica. But they never did that.”
The Gemeentemuseum Den Haag does own original Eschers, but according to Veldhuijsen, it loans them to museums around the world while keeping replicas on view at Escher in het Paleis to draw in visitors — at €9 (~$10 USD) a ticket. Staff members themselves cannot tell if they are reproductions, according to Dutch daily de Volkskrant, who first reported the story; it is unclear whether Chief Curator Micky Piller was aware of the objects’ true status. Hyperallergic has reached out to the museum and van Krimpen but has not received a response.
Legitimate prints from the museum’s collection are currently in The Amazing World of M.C. Escher, a traveling exhibition that is finishing its run this weekend at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and will open at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery on October 12. They include “Day and Night” — a large image of which the museum champions on its facade — the artist’s famous “Drawing Hands,” and “Ascending and Descending,” which depicts an infinite staircase. Veldhuijsen, who praised the exhibition, mentioned that a museum in Germany has also expressed interest in it, which means the collection may travel for an additional six months.
The news emerged when van Krimpen, who stepped down from his directorship in January 2009, announced an exhibition of Escher prints in Amsterdam’s Kunsthal Citroën at the end of August as part of the Amsterdam Art Fair he organized. The Foundation intervened to ensure the works followed its strict copyright laws.
“Because we own the copyright, you have to pay the fee, so I asked him, ‘Where did you get the collection?’ figuring it was either the Hague or the Rijksmuseum,” Veldhuijsen told Hyperallergic. “And he had to inform us it was not originals but replicas. And we as a foundation got really pissed off because [he was] planning to organize an exhibition — but they’re not originals.” The Foundation successfully stopped the show two days before it opened, but while attempting to defend himself van Krimpen mentioned that the Escher in het Paleis has always displayed replicas — news to Veldhuijsen, who now refuses to let them remain on view as is.
“I will not allow the public to be cheated,” Veldhuijsen said. “You go to a museum, and you expect that what you see there is the actual thing. You don’t expect to see a replica. They make money doing that. To me, that’s cheating unless you publicly announce that what you are showing is not the real thing.”
The Gemeentemuseum Den Haag’s current director, Benno Tempel, was surprised to hear the Foundation’s frustrations and has defended the display of prints.
“I do not know what Veldhuijsen is talking about,” Tempel told de Volkskrant. “The Foundation has approved the license agreements stating that we might make these reproductions. There is a sign at the entrance stating that reproductions are used.” de Volkskrant‘s reporter, however, noticed no such sign during a recent visit; the museum does have a license agreement with the Foundation that permits reproductions, but, as Veldhuijsen emphasized, “if and when a piece of art is in poor condition and needs to be restored.
“The agreement does not say you can have a museum filled with replicas and then rent out the originals to the rest of the world,” he said.
Escher produced many copies of his works — over 650 prints of “Day and Night,” for example, exist — which is why the Escher in het Paleis collection didn’t previously raise any red flags. Those responsible for the copies printed the works on the same paper Escher worked with and ensured that they had the same dimensions, making it essentially impossible for an average museumgoer (and an unsuspecting one at that) to notice any inconsistencies. The Foundation itself prints posters, but it makes sure the results are always a few centimeters shorter or longer than the originals, Veldhuijsen explained.
“I don’t mind if you have an exhibition of replicas, but then you really have to announce it to the public,” he said. “It’s like going to the Rijksmuseum and seeing Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch,’ but it’s just painted in China.”
The copies are still on view, although Veldhuijsen is adamant about making sure the museum either removes them or displays notices clearly stating that they are facsimiles. He plans to continue discussions with Tempel before more visitors spend money on what he describes as “posters.”
The museum’s attendance could drop if Veldhuijsen succeeds, although it does have other offerings, such as Escher’s personal letters and photographs, a virtual reality display, and even a parquet floor designed by Donald Judd in the early 1990s. Most recently, it acquired an authentic, previously unseen Escher sketch of Montecelio. The contentious prints, however, are probably the main draw for the public; exhibitions of Escher prints are generally incredibly popular, especially when mixed with technology — the interactive exhibition The Magical World of Escher at Rio de Janeiro’s Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil was the most highly attended art show in the world in 2011.
Escher in het Paleis is currently one of the Hague’s top tourist attractions. Last year, the small museum celebrated a record number of 130,938 annual visitors (slightly more than the Studio Museum in Harlem’s attendance) and earned a Certificate of Excellence from Tripadvisor. For it to retain legitimacy, however, its methods of display ought to openly and clearly reflect the true nature of its collection.
“We are the heirs of M.C. Escher, and it’s my job to look after this legacy,” Veldhuijsen said. “And I will do that until the day I die.”
h/t de Volkskrant