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Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum may have a forgery on display, according to a new book by Stephen C. Jordan.
In Bohemian Rogue: The Life of Hollywood Artist John Decker, Jordan claims that “Bust of Christ,” a small oil-on-oak-panel painting attributed to Rembrandt, is actually the 1939 forgery of John Decker and Will Fowler, two California artists.
Fowler mentions numerous forgeries in his two books, The Young Man from Denver and The Second Handshake, without referring to specific paintings. But in discussion with Fowler, Jordan learned the pair claimed to have faked a Rembrandt entitled “Bust of Christ.” Jordan remembered Fowler clearly explaining how he and Decker painted on an old bureau drawer.
“They purposefully cracked it down the middle to further suggest its age and give it greater authenticity,” he said.
Decker, who had extensive training in Europe, learned to replicate the masters at the start of his career. He used galleries in Europe and America for his transactions.
He also employed Wilhelm R. Valentiner, a Rembrandt expert, to authenticate his work.
“Valentiner would get paid handsomely to give his blessing to the paintings that Decker would create, and in this instance he was paid 600 bucks for his authentication of the Rembrandt,” Jordan said.
E.A. Silberman Galleries in New York sold the Rembrandt to Hollywood actor Thomas Mitchell in 1940 for $45,000, acccording to Jordan. It remained in his possession until his death in 1962 and was put up for sale at a California art gallery in 1964.
That’s when former Fogg Director Seymour Slive bought it for Harvard, Jordan said. “He comes across this painting, and he says it says Rembrandt on the bottom. And he says it’s not a Rembrandt price and others must have come to a conclusion that this is not a real Rembrandt.”
Yet Slive was intrigued enough to bring it to the Fogg for $35,000. Jordan said Slive was well aware of its questionable history, but decided to call E. A. Silberman Galleries regardless to see if any records remained from the original transaction. Silberman Galleries, according to Jordan, said all their records had been sent to Europe and lost in the war.
Decker and other forgers often blamed World War II for the loss of records, said Jordan.
According to museum data sheets, the painting was brought to America by a Polish prince fleeing in advance of the Nazi invasion. Yet no prior records of this painting exist, said Jordan. He pointed out that, while the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, the letter of validation provided by Valentiner is dated June 1939. This means the painting was in America prior to the alleged escape.
Ivan Gaskell, a curator at the Fogg, challenged Jordan’s proposition.
“Mr. Jordan and I cannot be talking about the same object,” he said.
Gaskell cited a 1977 dendrochronological test, which dates the oak panel by comparing its rings to those of other works.
He said that this study, conducted by a scientist and art historian in Berlin, concluded that the oak panel came from the same tree as one used for a seventeenth century painting at the Gemaeldegalerie in Berlin.
“It’s seventeenth century Baltic oak, there is no question of that,” said Gaskell.
He also questioned Jordon’s story that the forgery was painted on the bureau drawer.
“I don’t think you’re going to find that kind wood in a dresser drawer anywhere, let alone down a dirt road in the San Fernando Valley,” he said.
Gaskell said he did not necessarily subscribe to the story portrayed about the Polish prince, either. He said that the prince might have left before the Nazi invasion.
Even if Fowler’s story is true, Gaskell said, “it may well be referring to a totally different painting.”
But Gaskell said that in light of the controversy, the Fogg would re-examine the painting’s authenticity.
Despite questions about its history, “Bust of Christ” is visible today on the second floor of the Fogg Museum, though the plaque to the right still reads “Rembrandt,” not “John Decker and Will Fowler.”
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