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Getty, Simon Works Stir Dispute

March 07, 1985|WILLIAM WILSON | Times Art Critic

An art dealer has charged that two multimillion dollar Old Master paintings recently purchased by the J. Paul Getty and Norton Simon museums are forgeries, according to the March issue of Art & Auction magazine. The dealer, Alain Tarica of Paris and New York, says that the Getty's $6-million "Annunciation" by Flemish primitive Dieric Bouts is a "stupid forgery" and that the Simon's $4-million "Resurrection" by the same artist is equally bogus.

Norton Simon, who has been ill, was unavailable for comment, but Getty Museum Director John Walsh scoffed at Tarica's allegations saying, "They have been the cause of general hilarity and head shaking. I am so convinced of what we know that the picture is hanging in the gallery for anyone to inspect. The consensus of my colleagues is that the painting is superb and authentic. This is a pseudo-controversy. There is nothing to it except these objections, which have no weight when you understand the technique and temperament of the artist."

Tarica's doubts about the paintings first emerged in an article in the Times of London, where he alleged that the paintings lacked elements usually found in 15th-Century Flemish pictures, that the composition was awkward and the work in too fresh a physical condition to be authentic. He concluded that it was a forgery by two different hands, possibly done within the last 40 years.

Reached by telephone in New York, Tarica acknowledged that his primary knowledge is in 20th-Century art and that he has no formal academic credentials to evaluate Old Master art.

"I have not dealt in this material. It is too rare," Tarica said, "but you study in the museums and you know what a painting should look like. If you have a problem you send it to the specialists. In this case the Bouts should have been sent to the Royal Institute of Artistic Patrimony in Brussels. The Getty didn't do that."

Walsh, in response, said that there are many experts in the field and that the case made here for the painting was so persuasive that it would have been "irresponsible" to ship the delicate work to Brussels. He also reiterated his surprise that Tarica's admittedly less-than-authoritative suspicions had managed to capture public attention.

"At first I thought he was a crank," said Stuart Greenspan, Art & Auction editor-in-chief and author of the article, in a phone interview from New York.

"I tried not to give him credibility. He really is not qualified and this magazine is not saying the paintings are forgeries."

The two-page article gives the preponderant weight of evidence to authenticity, citing such eminent authorities as Sir John Pope Hennesey, director emeritus of the British Museum who called the Getty picture, "marvelous and in absolutely immaculate condition."

Greenspan, however, insisted that in his view Tarica's objections were intelligent and logical and represented questions that should have been answered before the Getty bought the picture or before it was displayed at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was first publicly exhibited. He termed the Getty's actions "hasty and irresponsible."

Walsh again replied somewhat wearily that the picture has been carefully examined. The Met's conservator, John Brearley said, "The Getty is very lucky. We would have died to have that picture."

Greenspan acknowledged that his article presents "no evidence, just a lot of questions."

The two paintings were recently discovered by London art dealer Derek Johns of Harari &Johns who resolutely refuses to discuss their origin. They found expert acceptance as the work of Bouts, who was born in Haarlem and died in 1475 after working mainly in Louvain. He is a somewhat shadowy figure who brought a gentle, almost metaphysical poetry to the crisp, realistic style of the time. The manner of his work seems to stand between the minute realism of the Van Eyck brothers and the more decorative approach of Rogier van der Weyden.

The "Annunciation" and "Resurrection" are painted on linen in a form of gouache called tuechlein in German, a semi-staining technique that Walsh claims is very hard to fake. They are believed to be part of a lost five-part "Altarpiece of the Sacrament" painted around 1464-68 for St. Peters, Louvain. It disappeared for generations, but in 1875 Sir Charles Eastlake discovered what he believed to be parts of it in a private collection in Italy. He purchased the "Entombment" section for the National Gallery, London, where it hangs today.

The Getty and Simon pictures are believed to be part of the same altarpiece. The Simons was acquired at auction in 1980. The Getty picture was purchased from dealer Eugene V. Thaw. The controversy arose after Thaw offered it to a private collector who was a client of Tarica's. Tarica then examined the picture and drew conclusions, which he admits remain virtually unsupported.

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