In Brief

$3M Gauguin Sculpture Acquired by Getty Museum Deemed a Fake

The museum, which purchased the work in 2002, has changed the attribution of the sculpture “Head with Horns” to “unknown.”

The sculpture “Head with Horns,” formerly attributed to Paul Gauguin (photo by Thad Zajdowicz / Flickr)

“Head with Horns,” a wood sculpture in the collection of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles formerly attributed to Paul Gauguin, is a fake, reports Le Figaro. The museum purchased the work for an estimated $3 million from the New York-based gallery Wildenstein & Company in 2002.

“In December 2019 the museum changed the attribution of the sculpture ‘Head with Horns’ to ‘unknown,’” a Getty spokesperson told The Art Newspaper. “This decision was based on scholarly research over recent years by Getty professionals and other experts in the field, including significant new evidence that was not available at the time of its acquisition.”

In a press release published in June 2002, the museum described “Head with Horns” as a rare, Polynesian-inspired self-portrait by the French Symbolist painter known only from two photographs pasted in Gauguin’s personal manuscript of Noa Noa, a diary of his first trip to Tahiti. “Every visitor to the Getty will be moved by this powerful and personal sculpture, which was displayed in Gauguin’s own house in Panaaiua, Tahiti,” said Barry Munitz, then president and chief executive officer of the J. Paul Getty Trust, in the press release.

While “Head with Horns” was celebrated when it resurfaced in an exhibition at the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in 1997, specialists had misgivings about its attribution even after the Getty acquisition. According to Le Figaro, the circular pedestal of the sculpture appears to have been made through woodturning, a technique Gauguin did not employ, out of wood found only in Australia or New Zealand, contradicting claims that Gauguin carved the piece in Tahiti. 

In 2015, Fabrice Fourmanoir, a former art dealer in Tahiti and a collector of 19th century Tahitian photography, discovered an image of the sculpture in a photographic album by Jules Agostini, a friend of Gauguin. The photograph was captioned “Idole Marquisienne” — “Marquisian Idol” suggesting the work was made by an indigenous carver from the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia. It was also taken prior to December 1894, predating the sculpture’s purported production date between 1895 and 1897. Fourmanoir’s findings helped experts reach the determination of misattribution.

The Art Newspaper notes that when Getty inquired about the work’s provenance, Wildenstein replied only that the work had been bought from a Swiss private collector. But the gallery’s limited provenance report was bolstered by its scholarly credentials Daniel Wildenstein, who led the French art dealing dynasty, had authored a catalogue raisonné of Gauguin’s paintings.

Last year, the gallery became embroiled in another case of misattribution when it was sued for allegedly selling a fake Pierre Bonnard painting in 1985.

The sculpture found a permanent home in the Getty’s collection in November 2002, following a brief loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for its exhibition Gauguin in New York Collections. The work has since been exhibited as part of multiple acclaimed exhibitions of Gauguin’s work, including Gauguin: Metamorphoses at the Museum of Modern Art in 2014.

“Head with Horns” was on permanent display at the Getty until last year, when the museum removed the work from view.

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