When the Stedelijk museum in Amsterdam arranged to borrow an abstract painting for a new exhibition it had no idea the work was a lost masterpiece by Piet Mondrian. But as a new book by cultural historian Léon Hanssen reveals, it took an outsider to then determine the work was actually a forgery.
Two years ago museum director Beatrix Ruf asked the owner of the painting, a personal friend, if he would be prepared to lend the work to the Stedelijk for a couple of years. The aim was to present it as part of the Amsterdam contribution to celebrations marking the centenary of the De Stijl art movement.
With the Stedelijk’s help the work first went to the Brussels arts center Bozar where it went on show in February 2016. Mondrian’s biographer Léon Hanssen was astonished when he saw the exhibition – was this the 1923 masterpiece which had hung in the Kabinett der Abstrakten in Hannover and which in 1937 was used by the Nazis in Munich as an example of ‘degenerate art’? Everyone had assumed the painting had vanished during World War II.
It transpired that neither Bozar nor the Stedelijk had an inkling of the painting’s controversial history. A black and white photograph of the painting and a detailed description do form part of the back catalogue of Mondrian’s work but Bart Rutten, the Stedelijk’s then chief conservator, had not looked into its history. He would have liked to, he said later ‘but in practice there was no time’.
The Stedelijk asked Hanssen, a Tilburg University professor, to keep the find secret and to carry out research into the painting’s antecedents. After talking to the Swiss owner, who told him various stories about how he came to own the work, none of which stood up, Hanssen began to have serious doubts about its authenticity.
Hanssen says the Stedelijk first dismissed his doubts. Rutten had, apparently, described the work as being as ‘reliable as the Swiss franc’, a comment which the conservator says he no longer remembers. On the contrary, Rutten says now he ‘always thought it to be an odd painting which need thorough investigation’.
Zentrum Paul Klee
The museum’s director Beatrix Ruf pointed out that the Mondriaan had been lent earlier to the highly respected Zentrum Paul Klee museum in Berne. She also considered the authenticity of the rest of the Swiss collection to be an ‘important indicator’ of its genuineness.
Hanssen claims in his book that the Stedelijk only began to look critically at the painting when he went public with his findings. Research by the museum’s restorer proved conclusive. When she compared black and white photographs of the painting taken in Hannover and Munich, major discrepancies came to light: the signature was in a different place and the black lines were of different thicknesses.
Eighteen months after its first talks with the Swiss collector, the Stedelijk decided not to borrow the painting after all. ‘It was an extremely painful affair,’ says Rutten. ‘I’m not talking about whether it was real or fake, but of the probability of it being genuine. And that probability was so clouded by the investigation that we decided not to show it.’
The Stedelijk says it was not aware the Swiss owner planned auction the Mondrian after the loan period was up – something he did indicate to Hanssen. Experts say that a painting with such a provenance could be worth at least €40 million.
Bart Rutten, who became artistic director of the Centraal Museum in Utrecht on May 1, cherished plans to buy the work for his new employer. ‘Well, if it had been genuine,’ he says ruefully.
As for Brussels gallery Boxar which exhibited the forgery, included it in the show catalogue and paid part of the restoration costs, a spokesman says they have never heard from the Stedelijk again.