Alexander Turnbull Library caught out with forged Lindauer portrait
The Alexander Turnbull Library has admitted it paid $75,000 of public money for a forged Lindauer portrait.
The national heritage collector, based in Wellington, bought the painting in 2013, despite being warned by an expert before the purchase that is was likely to be a forgery.
It bought the portrait of Hoani or Hamiora Maioha, signed G. Lindauer, at auction.
Gottfried Lindauer (1839-1926) painted hundreds of portraits of leading Maori figures, many of which are in public collections.
Before making the purchase, the library got the advice of colonial art expert Roger Blackley, of Victoria University, who told them it looked likely to be a fake. However, it went with the advice of its own experts, and went ahead with the purchase.
On Monday, chief librarian Chris Szekely admitted the library and its in-house experts had made a mistake.
"After having the painting forensically examined, the painting is not what we believed it was," he said.
However, he defended the process involved with buying the painting, and said the library made a "reasonable decision".
"This wasn't a rash purchase but it was the wrong purchase," he said.
Szekely said the painting was bought with due diligence.
There were discussions with outside experts who did express some doubts but the library backed its own expertise, he said.
He also defended the library's decision not to have the painting forensically examined during a one-week cooling-off period after the sale.
"We had a week to decide if we were happy with the painting," he said. It would have cost a "few hundred dollars" to have the painting forensically examined.
Blackley said he was very surprised when the curators went ahead and acquired the supposed Lindauer work. "It was always very odd-looking."
However, it was "very brave" for the library to admit its mistake, and lessons could be learnt from the process, he said.
"I imagine the library will be more cautious and also inclusive of outside opinions in the future."
He felt somewhat vindicated by the discovery, but said spotting a fake was never absolute and, throughout the history of art, there had always been forgeries.
The 60cm x 50cm painting was bought at auction through noted auctioneer Dunbar Sloane.
Company spokesman Dunbar Sloane Jr said major paintings sold at the auction house were inspected by several experts, including the Alexander Turnbull Library.
"In this case, the library bought a painting that it had authenticated itself and was satisfied with," he said.
"We also hold viewings of pieces we put up for sale and, if someone says there is something wrong with a painting, we take it off the wall and get another opinion. Nobody said anything about the Lindauer."
If a painting was found to be a fake, the auction house went after the vendor, he said.
In this case, the Lindauer vendor had disappeared. "We've tried to reach them but have been unsuccessful."
Thoughts on who produced the fake have brought up the name of New Zealand's most infamous painting forger, Karl Sim – who changed his name to Carl Feodor Goldie.
Sloane did not point the finger at Sim as the culprit, but said a "rumour" going around hinted the forger worked out of the Hawke's Bay or Palmerston North area during the late 60s or early 70s.
"Whoever it was was pretty good. They fooled the Alexander Turnbull Library."
The forgery was confirmed earlier this year when Auckland Art Gallery conservator Sarah Hillary analysed the painting as part of her preparation for an essay on the painting style of Lindauer.
Hillary told Radio NZ her forensic study indicated that there was no way the work could be a Lindauer as the pigments contained titanium dioxide, which was not available at the time Lindauer was painting.
The library has informed police about the forgery.