The «Pere Mates Case» | Cultural Heritage. Goverment of Catalonia.

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The «Pere Mates Case»

The limits to absolute truth in the era of fake news. We revisit the Pere Mates Case, an episode involving the acquisition of three fake Renaissance altarpiece panels.




Orson Welles pointed it out in F for Fake: "the forgery of works of art should also be considered one of the fine arts". A controversial affirmation for an irreverent film, but one that achieved its aim of involving viewers in a satire that is half way between biography, fiction and essay. The story revolves around one of the greatest art forgers in history, Elmyr de Hory, a master of deception, and reflects on such issues as authenticity, authorship and the value of works of art in themselves.
 
Mark Landis is another master forger and the subject, due to his own merits, of Art and Craft, a documentary, perhaps not such a 'false' one as Orson Welles', but one which nevertheless leaves the viewer equally disconcerted. Landis' works were displayed for decades on the walls of the best galleries in the United States, but this time the modus operandi was diametrically opposed to the one generally employed by forgers. He adopted a false identity and in the guise of a philanthropist or a priest, he donated his works to American galleries without any financial motive, since his real intention was to be recognised for his skills in deception. He is still alive today but has never been prosecuted because, although deceptive, his actions were not actually illegal.
 
De Hory and Landis are accompanied by other geniuses in the art of forgery, such as Hebborn, Van Meegeren and Malskat, in an exhibition organised by the Museu d’Art de Girona, in which the main focus of attention is on a painter, born in Sant Feliu de Guíxols in the 15th century, whose works have been forged.

2016: Identical altarpieces sound the alarm.

On 14 October 2016, Carme Clusellas, director of the Museu d’Art de Girona, and the art historian and museum's consultant, Joan Bosch, were on their way to Madrid on a journey full of anxiety and concern. A few days previously a post on Facebook had sounded the alarm: the Abalarte auction house in Madrid was putting up six panels from a Renaissance altarpiece, the work of the Girona artist Pere Mates, for auction. The news acquired greater significance with the suspicion that two of them were identical to some that had been acquired by the museum six years previously. Thus began the episode that we have called the Pere Mates Case.
 
The alarm caused by the possible duplication raised many questions and doubts. At first it was thought that they could be works produced in Mates' studio by his students, or that they could be forgeries. This had to be established because there was a strong suspicion that the latter might be the case. There was, however, no doubt about it. After inspecting the works being put up for auction in situ both Clusellas and Bosch agreed that they were of superior quality, especially because they were more closely attuned to Pere Mates' style and use of colour.

Agència Catalana de Notícies (Àlex Recolons)

On 20 October 2016, the Generalitat de Catalunya (Government of Catalonia), via the Ministry of Culture, which exercised its right of first refusal, acquired the six panels of the Sant Joan Baptista altarpiece for a price of €36,000. That meant that the Museu d’Art de Girona was then in a position to exhibit six of the twelve panels from the original altarpiece as part of its collection. To them was added another that belonged to the collection of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, that, curiously, was also identical to one of the three acquired years before. The Museu d’Art de Girona was now best placed to exhibit the works of this Renaissance artist.
 
But what do we know about the three identical panels acquired in 2010? Were they works produced in the artist's studio? Or were they copies made at the time, or simply forgeries? The Generalitat de Catalunya and the Museu d’Art de Girona decided to get to the bottom of the question through an exhibition that would be open and transparent, so that everyone could understand what had happened.

Detail of the authentic tables from the altarpiece of Saint John the Baptist. Pere Mates, 1536:

  • L’Anunciació a Zacaries (Museu d’Art de Girona. Photo: Rafel Bosch)
  • Nativitat (Museu d’Art de Girona. Photo: Rafel Bosch)
  • Bateig de Crist (Museu d’Art de Girona. Photo: Rafel Bosch)
  • Prèdica de sant Joan Baptista (Museu d’Art de Girona. Photo: Rafel Bosch)

2015: Dubious panels. First clues.

The cloud of suspicion concerning the three panels by Pere Mates has persisted right from the start. Ever since they were acquired in 2010 they have been the subject of debate, opinion and conjecture. There have always been doubts about them.
 
Towards the end of 2014, during a routine survey by the museum's restoration staff, a couple of details were observed that did not tally with the artists other works, such as the materials used and the gilding. At the time, this was attributed to excessive restoration.
Detail of the false tables, in the manner of Pere Mates. Unknown author, after 1921:
  • Visitació (Museu d’Art de Girona. Photo: Rafel Bosch)
  • Bateig de Crist (Museu d’Art de Girona. Photo: Rafel Bosch)
  • Prèdica de sant Joan Baptista (Museu d’Art de Girona. Photo: Rafel Bosch)

The works were then the subject of a research project carried out by the University of Barcelona's Department of Chemical Analysis and Chemical Engineering, the aim of which was to analyse, using fluorescent techniques and X-rays, the use of certain pigments and their possible attribution, as well as the composition and structure of the works as a whole. During an event that was open to the public in March of 2015, the panels were subjected to analysis at the museum itself. The first results clearly showed that there was something amiss: either there had been an excessive amount of restoration work, or they were modern forgeries.
 
The museum directors and conservation and restoration teams decided to change the exhibition in hall 12 where, for five years, the panels had been displayed. But there was no time. The alarm had been sounded and everything was coming to a head.

Infrared refrectography study of the altarpieces attributed to Pere Mates, carried out by the research team of the Analytical Chemistry Department of the Chemistry Faculty of the University of Barcelona. March 2015.Art Museum of Girona (Rafel Bosch).

2010: Unique panels. The limits to truth.

The painter Pere Mates (1490-1558), from Sant Feliu de Guíxols, is considered to be one of the finest exponents of Renaissance art in Catalonia, especially Girona and its environs. He studied with foreign painters who resided in Girona, and it was in Girona that he became established as an artist.

Most of his work forms part of the collection held by the Museu d'Art de Girona, but much of it is also thought to form part of private collections, or to have been lost. That is why, in 2010, when three panels of a retable documented by Joan Sutrà in the 1950s came up for auction, nobody doubted the need to acquire them.


Reproduction of the tables published in 1956 by J. sutrà in "Contribution to the study of the work of a Renaissance painter". Annals of the Instituto de Estudios Gerundenses, vol. IX, Girona, 1956-1957, pp.88-89. Sheet VI.

In fact, everything coincided with some photographs that were taken during the early 20th century which show that the composition, details, drawings and even the skill with which the characters had been depicted, corresponded. But when new panels from the altarpiece, identical to the ones that had already been acquired, were offered for sale, the Pere Mates Case, as the newspapers called it, made the headlines.
 
That is how the Pere Mates Case came about. It was not the first such case, and most likely, it will not be the last in which copies and forgeries, plagiarism and the appropriation of other people's ideas make the news. In an era of fake news no one is surprised when such things happen, but when the aggrieved party happens to be a museum or a leading cultural institution, the repercussions are more widespread. Forgers will continue to exist, that will never change, it is our society that must learn to establish the real limits of truth.
  • El Punt Avui (12 octubre de 2016)
  • El Punt Avui (14 d’octubre de 2016)

2020: Falsos Verdaders. L’Art de l’engany (False truths, the art of deception)

On 21 October 2016 the Movable Assets Restoration Centre of the Generalitat de Catalunya submitted its report on the analysis of the three panels that were bought in 2010. The results were very clear. The medium was common pine, a wood that was hardly used at the time, and it was cut in an irregular fashion, on occasion even carelessly; the foundation contained barium sulphate, a compound only used since the 19th century and, even more conclusively, the pigments found were not used until after the 18th century, especially Prussian blue, discovered in 1705, and since then used widely instead of azure blue and ultra marine, and titanium white, marketed from 1921.
 
It was consequently definitively confirmed that the first three panels were forgeries and that the six being put up for auction were authentic. A surprising conclusion can be drawn from the case. The forger's skill had fooled the experts for years, or, to quote Orson Welles, who we mentioned at the beginning of this article, forgery can also be an art in itself.
Museu d’Art de Girona / Centre de Restauració de Béns Mobles de Catalunya

And it is with this in mind that the Museu d’Art de Girona is mounting a ground-breaking and courageous exhibition: Falsos Verdaders. L’Art de l’engany (False truths, the art of deception), an exhibition that brings together forgeries and authentic works from some of Catalonia’s main galleries, and which explains the analyses required to demonstrate the authenticity of a given work in detail. The exhibition provides a survey of the sordid and hidden world of forgers and their works, and how they have affected the history of art in recent years.
 
Falsos Verdaders. L’art de l’engany.
Until 13 September 2020, Museu d’Art de Girona.



 
 


Details of the exhibition at the Girona Art Museum (Rafel Bosch)