Étienne Terrus, “Vue d’Elne” (1900) (public domain image)

A French museum dedicated to the painter Étienne Terrus has reopened with some shocking news: over half its collection consists of fakes.

The Musée Terrus represents one of the main attractions in the small town of Elne, where Terrus was born and spent most of his life. Earlier this year, it closed for extensive restoration and reorganization, during which art historian Eric Forcada was brought in as a consultant. Upon examining some works, Forcada immediately realized they were fakes.

Bust of Étienne Terrus by Aristide Maillol in Elne (photo via Wikipedia)

“On one painting, the ink signature was wiped away when I passed my white glove over it,” he told the Guardian. He also described the artworks as “crude. The cotton supports do not match the canvas used by Terrus. And there are some anachronisms.” According to local reports, some paintings feature architecture built after the painter’s death in 1922.

Forcada met with a group of experts to confirm his discovery. Out of the 140 artworks in the collection, 82 were found to be fakes, including paintings, watercolors, and drawings. Many were purchased by the council in Elne over a 20-year period, from dealers in the region, while others were donations or loans. The museum estimates that total damages amount to nearly €160,000 (~$193,000 US).

The museum reopened on Friday, April 27, when Elne mayor Yves Barniol announced the news, lamenting the discovery as a “disaster for the municipality.

“Etienne Terrus is the great painter of Elne, he is part of the commune, he is the painter of our home,” Barnoil said. “To know that people have come to this museum and have mostly seen fakes … that causes me great pain.” He also admitted that only one purchase made in 2014 came with a certificate of authenticity.

Born in 1857, Étienne Terrus realized the majority of his works in Elne. He began painting portraits before moving on to formal still lifes then landscapes, for which he is most well known. While he spent most of his life in his hometown, he studied in Paris and became acquainted with painters including Henri Matisse and André Derain. The Musée Terrus, which opened in 1994, features his paintings as well as artworks by some of his contemporaries.

The museum’s unfortunate revelation shines a sharp spotlight on the regional art market. Local police are now investigating the case, which they believe is part of the operations of a well-organized network of art forgers and middlemen. On Friday, Barnoil emphasized that Elne plans to pursue the investigation until the very end.

“We will not let go,” he said. “We will look for all the elements, the deliberations, the certificates … that will allow us to go back to the counterfeiters.”

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...