Collioure in the Pyrenees by Étienne Terrus. The museum discovered half of the paintings it believed were by the artist were forgeries
A state-owned French art museum has discovered that more than half of its collection consists of worthless fakes and experts fear that other public galleries may also be stuffed with forgeries.
An art historian raised the alarm after noticing that paintings attributed to Etienne Terrus showed buildings that were only constructed after the artist’s death in 1922.
Experts confirmed that 82 of the 140 works displayed at the Terrus museum in Elne, the artist’s birthplace in southern France, were fakes.
Many of the forged oil paintings, watercolours and drawings were bought with £140,000 of municipal funds over the past few decades. Others were given to the museum by two local groups that raised money to buy them by appealing for donations. Some were bequeathed by a private collector.
Yves Barniol, the mayor of Elne, near the Spanish border, said: “It’s a catastrophe. I put myself in the place of all the people who came to visit the museum, who saw fake works of art, who paid an entrance fee. It’s intolerable and I hope we find those responsible.”
Etienne Terrus, Vue d'Elne. The museum said it wanted to showcase the work of the local artist
The municipality has filed legal complaints for forgery and fraud. Police have seized the fakes and are trying to trace the forgers and dealers who sold them.
The fakes were spotted by experts asked by the museum to help prepare an exhibition. “We wanted to showcase the museum and the work of Terrus, our village painter,” Mr Barriol said. “We will continue to promote local art. We have invested €300,000 (£265,000) in refurbishing the museum.”
Detectives suspect that other museums may also contain large numbers of forged works attributed to southern French artists.
A source close to the investigation said: “We know there have been a lot of forgeries circulating and we believe a well-organised network was behind this."