When is a fake not a fake? Forgery fiasco involving Prince Charles highlights grey areas of the art world

When is a fake not a fake? Forgery fiasco involving Prince Charles highlights grey areas of the art world

Art CritiqueDecember 13, 2019

In the wake of Prince Andrew’s controversial and ill-advised BBC interview, the British royal family has struggled to fend off unwanted media attention over his past and present conduct. The beleaguered prince braved a television appearance in an attempt to stamp out the flames of suspicion surrounding his relationship with the disgraced financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, but only succeeding in fanning them further. After a swath of universities and charities distanced themselves from him, the Duke of York was forced to announce that he’s stepping back from royal duties until further notice.

However, Andrew isn’t the only royal to have become embroiled in a problematic situation of late. His brother Charles, first in line to the throne, appears to have been ensnared by a massive art forgery scandal. Several paintings at Dumfries House, the headquarters of the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Fund, have been removed from public viewing over concerns regarding their authenticity. Once thought to be genuine originals by artists such as Monet, Picasso and Dalí, the provenance of the art was called into question when convicted art forger Tony Tetro claimed them as his own work.

The revelations over the Dumfries House paintings not only compound what has been a difficult few weeks for the royal family—the Queen herself reportedly gathered her children for an emergency meeting against the rapidly expanding scandals—but also draw attention to the grey areas of morality and illegality that plague the art world. Tetro claims his works were only ever intended as “reproductions” rather than forgeries, but when they are being displayed as legitimate originals (even when no money has changed hands), where do we draw the lines between what is legal and what is ethical?  What is the future of an art world whose integrity is under threat from the very secrecy and obscurity intended to protect it?

Royals under siege

Prince Andrew’s calamitous decision to tell his side of the story has prompted criticism from almost all quarters, with a poll conducted by popular daytime show This Morning revealing that 81% of viewers believed he should retire from his royal duties as a result – and he duly obliged days later. Perhaps one tiny silver lining to the whole sordid affair is that it has overshadowed another embarrassing story involving Prince Charles and the artwork on display at Dumfries, the stately home in the Scottish Lowlands that the Prince of Wales purchased in 2007 alongside his charitable foundation. Specifically, the Prince’s Foundation was forced to admit that several paintings had been removed and returned to their owner due to doubts over their legitimacy.

At the centre of the scandal are three paintings believed to have been created by Monet, Picasso and Dalí. Part of a 17-set collection on a 10-year loan at Dumfries House from recently-bankrupted ex-billionaire James Stunt, the artworks were reportedly insured for a cumulative £104 million. However, American forger par excellence Tony Tetro has come out and alleged that Stunt commissioned him to create the reproductions for his own personal collection, amid suggestions that the latter may have been looking to sell one or more of them to pay off his own creditors. Stunt, the ex-husband of Formula 1 heiress Petra Ecclestone, refutes the claims, stating unequivocally that “none of my stuff is fake”.

Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder

Conflicting accounts abound. According to Stunt, the artwork all received official authentications from the prestigious Wildenstein Institute in France. The Wildenstein, meanwhile, has insisted that it never looked at the works. Complicating the drama still further, James Stunt’s offices sent allegedly fraudulent emails about two works supposedly by Salvador Dalí. The emails were sent under the name and address of Nicolas Descharnes, the world’s foremost expert on Dalí—who now says that not only did he never write the emails, it took him less than fifteen minutes in front of the “Dalí” to realise that the painting was a fake.

Tetro himself, meanwhile, counters that not only were none of his works created with the intention to deceive or pose as genuine originals. What’s more, the one-time forger has insisted that he took concrete steps to ensure that his copies would never stand up to professional scrutiny for a second—as Descharnes’ examination seemingly confirmed.  For example, the modern pigments he uses are immediately distinguishable from older materials by a trained eye, while the canvas differs in its pliancy and the stretcher bars carry stamps, watermarks and other indicators of their past history.

Tetro, who declined to comment for this article, maintains his labours are only ever meant to be enjoyed in private settings, allowing buyers to hoodwink their friends or but not profit financially from the deception. When it emerged that Stunt was considering the sale of an unnamed Monet to alleviate his insolvency issues, Tetro allegedly suspected foul play and blew the whistle. That decision was perhaps prompted by the events of 1991, when he was charged with 38 counts of lithograph forgery and 29 counts of watercolour forgery.

After serving a six-month prison sentence, Tetro returned to doing what he does best – creating close replicas of the work of other artists. Things aren’t quite the same anymore, however. For one thing, Tetro has vowed to be more upfront in his dealings, making it clear that his works are not original Dalís or Picassos. Admittedly, this newfound commitment to transparency wasn’t all altruistic—the court order that allows Tetro to continue painting also requires him to sign all his works under his own name, making him the only living American artist to work under such a condition.

Nor is that the only thing which has changed. In one interview, Tetro highlighted the gap between his former life in the lap of luxury and his post-prison reality. “I used to have my suits handmade by an Italian designer”, he lamented. He fondly recalled his old arsenal of flashy cars—two Ferraris, a Lamborghini Countach, and a Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit—in sharp contrast to the rented Mercedes he drives around in now. Where once he lived in a triplex wallpapered with lizard skin and celebrated his birthday alongside hundreds of guests at lavish white-tie galas, by 2000 he lived in a hotel room and celebrated his birthday alone in a bar by sticking a single candle in a glazed doughnut.

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