Paul Gauguin's £15m Unfinished Painting at Tate Britain Might be a Fake

At Tate Britain is an unfinished Gauguin painting (1848-1903) which is priced at a whopping £15m (US$18.54m). However, a French art historian recently pointed out that this painting might be a fake. Although there is yet to be a conclusion, many are encompassed with doubts as the Frenchman had previously identified a fake Gauguin sculpture. 

This unfinished painting can be a fake Gauguin

Self-Portrait with Halo and Snake by Paul Gauguin|National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

This story of discovering the alleged ‘fake Gauguin’ can be traced back to eighteen years ago. 

In 2002, the Getty Museum spent between US$3m-5m (£2.45m-4.08m) to acquire a sculpture named Head with Horns from Wildenstein & Co. The sculpture measures at 22cm and is carved using sandalwood.

Gauguin had created only a few sculptures in his lifetime, and amongst them Head with Horns is the largest and most unique, making it exceedingly rare and valuable. Although the statue has no trace of Gauguin’s signature, experts believed that it was the original. 

In fact, Wildenstein & Co. is a renowned art gallery that has outstanding results in dealing impressionist and modern art. For instance, many of the works sold at Christie’s ‘Hidden Treasures: Impressionist & Modern Masterpieces from an Important Private Collection’ sale in February 2019 came from an important American collector who purchased the artworks from Wildenstein & Co., including the Monet and van Gogh’s masterpieces. 

The Getty Museum values Head with Horns greatly. It held exhibitions around the world to showcase the sculpture, including at Tate Modern in London, National Gallery of Art in Washington, MoMA in New York and MUDEC in Milan.

The sculpture which was believed to be Gauguin’s Head with Horns

However, last December, someone discovered that the museum has amended the details of the sculpture, reattributing it to an unknown artist. The museum even added to the work’s description that it was once erroneously attributed to Paul Gauguin. Ever since, the work has not appeared in any exhibitions planned. So how did the museum realise that it’s a ‘fake Gaugin’?

The evidence which made people believe that the sculpture came from Gauguin’s hands was only two photos. The images are of the artist travelling in Tahiti, taken by his friend and engineer Jules Agostini. Head with Horns was also in the photos which led many to think that the artist created the sculpture in Tahiti. 

However, another picture of the same fake sculpture by Agostini proved the experts wrong. The words ‘Iles Marquises: Idole’ was marked on the photograph, suggesting that the sculpture was very likely created by locals of the Marquesas Islands* but not Gauguin. And after a thorough investigation of relevant documents, it was proved that the sculpture is indeed a fake Gauguin.  

The Frenchman who first pointed out that the work is not an authentic Gauguin was Fabrice Fourmanoir, a French art historian. And this time around his target is the painting located at Tate Britain. 

*Editor’s note: The Marquesas Islands and Tahiti are French Polynesian islands located in the Pacific Ocean

French art historian Fabrice Fourmanoir

The painting is half done with only the left portion painted

The protagonist this time is an unfinished oil on paper work named Tahitians. Only the characters and background on the left side of the painting are painted. 

The painting shares a few similarities with the fake Gauguin mentioned. First, the artist’s signature cannot be seen on either work. Second, both of them do not represent Gauguin’s style. And the latter reason is exactly why Tahitians, although unfinished, carries an estimate of  £15m (US$18.54m).

However, this mind-blowing estimate might very soon vanish into thin air. Fourmanoir thinks that Tahitians is not in the drawing style of Gauguin and lacks his distinctive perspective. He is also skeptical about the gaps in the recorded history of the work, pointing out that unfinished paintings are an ‘easy way to frame up a fake’. 

Fourmanoir thinks that the unknown painter who actually created the artwork had been to Tahiti and ‘borrowed’ Gauguin’s name to make himself known. Tate Britain is currently in touch with Fourmanoir to further discuss the details of the painting. 

Tate Britain was established in 1987

Despite being one of the largest museums in the world, Tate Britain cannot escape the fate of acquiring fake artworks. The unfortunate news is that there has been an increasing number of cases regarding counterfeit works. 

In 2017, Palazzo Ducale held a major exhibition featuring the Italian-Jewish painter Modigliani which attracted over 100,000 visitors in merely three months. However, experts soon concluded that one-third of the exhibits were forgeries which halted the show.  

After the news broke out, many people were appalled. Who would have expected to step into one of the most renowned museums in the world to see fake art? And where are people supposed to go to see ‘real’ art?

In this day and age, it is extremely hard to prevent forgeries but we can always try to appreciate every artist's hard work regardless of if they are famous or not.