Thu, 23 Nov 2000

Experts decry grand art auction as likely fraud

JAKARTA (JP): An upcoming auction of a group of paintings touted as long-lost works of local and international masters may turn out to be a huge swindle, experts warned on Wednesday.

Agus T. Darmawan angrily demanded that the organizers of the exhibition and auction, titled The Old Paintings of Pre-World War II, halt the event.

Several of the 50 paintings are attributed to international masters, such as Pablo Picasso's El Toro Rosa (estimated sale price US$200,000), Pierre Auguste Renoir's Girl with a Flower (reportedly found in Semarang and estimated at between $1.5 million and $2 million), Marc Chagall's A Bride's Dream (found in Depok, West Java, estimated at $600,000) and van Gogh's Corn Farmers (found in Riau and estimated at between $2 million and $4 million).

Works attributed to Indonesian masters S. Soedjojono, Affandi and Hendra Gunawan as well as foreign-born artists Rudolf Bonnet, Le Mayeur and Arie Smit, who spent much of their lives in the country, are also part of the event.

First Lady Sinta Nuriyah, who was scheduled to open the two- day exhibition at The Regent Hotel in Central Jakarta, failed to show on Wednesday evening. The auction, jointly organized by Batavia Auctioneer and Amana Inc., is scheduled for Saturday afternoon.

"This is the biggest scandal in modern Indonesian art and it is a completely dubious art enterprise," Agus said.

He believed the auctioneer and the owner of the paintings were trying to defraud buyers. He said they once contacted him to become their adviser but he refused.

He said it was clear the organizers lacked knowledge about the arts. "If they were out to do forgeries, they did it very unprofessionally. This is a misleading exhibition and auction which will ruin the image of Indonesian fine arts."

Agus noted glaring mistakes in the catalog, such as a painting of two Balinese dancers attributed to Smit, even though the painter never used women as his subjects.

The biggest blunder, he said, was that the organizers tried to legitimize their activities by inviting the participation of the First Lady, Director General for Culture I Gusti N. Anom, who wrote the introduction for the exhibition catalog, and Soelebar Sukarman from the Jakarta Arts Council, who is the event adviser.

"Pak Anom should have consulted his team of experts before writing an introduction in the catalog," Agus said.

Art critic Jim Supangkat acknowledged that Anom consulted him before writing the introduction. "But Pak Anom said the organizers changed some parts of the content," Jim said by telephone from Bandung, West Java.

Jim said he informed Anom about the history of Western paintings collected by the Batavia Kunskring, an art collectors' circle founded in 1902.

He said the circle acquired a substantial collection of works by van Gogh, Chagall, Amadeo Modligiani and Monet. "But we have to view this in the appropriate framework. At that time, these painters weren't as famous as they are now."

Throughout the Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945, the paintings were kept in storage at Javasche Bank (now Bank Indonesia), but were reportedly returned to Europe sometime after the end of the war. Many of the works were bought by American museums, prestigious galleries and collectors, Jim said.

"This means that the possibility of having those paintings left behind in Indonesia is ... very slim. There is almost no possibility of finding a Picasso in a flea market or a van Gogh in Riau, Semarang (Central Java) or Cianjur (West Java)."

Painter Soelebar recognized that the event was likely to spark controversy in the local art community, because "it is natural to question the authenticity of the displayed works".

Soelebar said the paintings underwent laboratory tests by art conservationist Puji Joseph from the National Museum. "But it was not to check their authenticity, but only the period of each painting."

The president of Batavia Auctioneer, Jonathan Gunawan, said his firm and the client did not intend to cheat buyers. "We invite art experts to see our paintings here and to determine for themselves whether they are fakes or originals."

The owner, A.GA Fine Art's, found the artworks over a period of 20 years, Jonathan said.

Bentara Budaya Jakarta's art curator Ipong Purnomo Sidhi said the organizer should have been more careful in its claims.

He added it was a prime case of buyer beware.

"Buyers have to think twice before spending millions of dollars on scraps," he said. (raw)