A wooden sculpture thought to be created by Paul Gauguin and showcased at the J. Paul Getty Museum quietly had its attribution changed to “unknown” late last year and was shunted to a storage room.
It was an ignominious exile for the late 19th century sculpture known as “Head With Horns,” which the Getty proudly purchased in 2002 while it was on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, calling it a “superb example” of Gauguin’s work.
How did one of the world’s leading museums get it so terribly wrong? And who gets credit for uncovering the error?
Read the news coverage of the Gauguin downgrade and you’ll find a number of articles cite Fabrice Fourmanoir, a collector of 19th century Tahitian art who retired to Mexico after residing in Tahiti for 25 years. While there, he ran an art gallery and took a keen interest in the French post-Impressionist Gauguin, who famously lived and worked on the island in the late 1800s.
In interviews with The Times, Fourmanoir said that before the Getty purchased the sculpture from Wildenstein & Co. in New York, a representative of the dealer sent him a photograph of the piece, asking if he thought it was made by Gauguin. Fourmanoir said he replied “no” based on two key deatails: the sculpture’s smoothness (Gaugin’s sculptures are known for being rather rough and primitive), and the presence of a plinth (Gaugin never used that kind of base in his sculptures).
When the sale to the Getty became public in 2002, Fourmanoir said he made it a personal quest to prove that “Head With Horns” was not created by Gauguin. Fourmanoir said he first alerted Scott Schaefer, the Getty’s then-curator of paintings and sculptures, to express his suspicions soon after the acquisition.
Gauguin kept two photos of “Head With Horns” in his travel journal “Noa, Noa,” and the presence of these photos, as well as the appearance of “Head With Horns” in several of Gauguin’s paintings, were often cited as evidence that Gauguin carved the sculpture.
These photos were taken by a friend of Gauguin’s, photographer and colonial administrator Jules Agostini. But in an “aha” moment, Fourmanoir said, he combed through his large collection of Tahitian photos and found images of the sculpture identified as a piece of Polynesian art in one of Agostini’s photo books.
If “Head With Horns” had been made by Gauguin, Fourmanoir reasoned, Agostini would have been proud to label it as such.
“The Getty began to have its doubts, but it was too late,” Fourmanoir said, adding that he asked Schaefer to send him a high-resolution photograph of the sculpture. Fourmanoir said he had the photo analyzed by a wood identification specialist, who said the plinth material was lacewood, which doesn’t grow in Tahiti.
“That was another clue,” Fourmanoir said. “Gauguin used only Polynesian wood.”
After that, he said, he began spreading the news of his findings to curators in America and Europe.
“Every time I saw the piece in an exhibit, I would write to the museum and ask why,” Fourmanoir said.
Then, he said, came the coup de grace.
Fourmainoir said he discovered a legend in his collection detailing the dates that Agostini took his photos of “Head With Horns.” The year was 1894, a year Gaugin was not in Tahiti but in France. Gauguin and Agostini are documented not to have met until the following year, when Gaugin returned to Tahiti. The fact that Agostini had not met Gauguin by 1894 made it unlikely he would have possessed and photographed a sculpture made by the artist.
Anne-Lise Desmas, the Getty’s head of sculpture and decorative arts since 2008, didn’t dispute that the sculpture has long simmered in controversy, but she asserted that Fourmanoir is one of a number of people who doubted the sculpture’s attribution. She cited Tahitian photography expert Patrick O’Reilly and Musée d’Orsay curator Isabelle Cahn as examples.
The Getty released a statement that said its decision to change the “Head With Horns” attribution was based on “scholarly research over recent years by Getty professionals and other experts in the field, including significant new evidence that was not available at the time of its acquisition.”
That has prompted Fourmanoir to demand that the Getty acknowledge his role in that research. He said he is threatening legal action if the museum does not comply.
“They are so ashamed,” Fourmanoir said. “They are trying to say they discovered [the truth] by themselves, but it’s not true.”
Demas agreed that the museum fully realized its error only after it discovered that Agostini took the “Head With Horns” pictures in 1894. But she pointed out that the photos the Getty evaluated were found in albums acquired in 2015 by Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris.
At that point, Demas said, she met with the curators there, as well as with other Gauguin scholars and experts in Polynesian art. She also consulted curators at Musee d’Orsay and those who worked on the 2017 Gauguin exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, which did not feature “Head With Horns.”
“As soon as there were concerns, there was a team at the Getty that really tried their best to redo all the research, but at that time they couldn’t find the Agostini albums because they were in private hands,” Demas said, adding that the museum would never base its decision about the provenance of a work of art solely on correspondence from one person.
She also said that in the early 2000s, many major museums did not authenticate provenance with the same rigor as they do today.
When the Getty acquired “Head With Horns,” there was no record of the sculpture from 1894 to the moment it was photographed in 1993, when Wildenstein & Co. told the Getty it had purchased the piece from a private Swiss collection.
“The way in which museums used to do things in the early 2000s, it’s not at all the way we do things now,” Demas said. “I could never propose an artwork to a museum for consideration with such a gap in provenance.”
The tightened rules governing provenance can be traced to the decade-long legal woes of former Getty chief antiquities curator Marion True, who was tried for conspiring to deal in artifacts stolen from Italy.
The case against True ended in Rome in 2010 after a court ruled that the statute of limitations on her alleged crimes had expired, but not before the shockwaves of her career-ending humiliations rippled through the art world.
Demas recently offered to meet with Fourmanoir in Paris. In the meantime, Fourmanoir is intent on being given a research credit by the Getty.
He shared with The Times an email dated Dec. 26, 2019, and sent from famed French art historian Anne Pingeot, who is writing about “Head With Horns” for the Getty Research Journal to be published in early 2021.
She told Fourmanoir that the attribution on “Head With Horns” had been changed. “A great victory!” she wrote. “‘Unknown’ has replaced ‘Gauguin.’”
She concluded: “I wish you new investigations, new discoveries and especially much happiness, and thank you for your messages.”
For Fourmanoir, the email signaled the end of an art-world mystery but failed to provide the validation that he still hopes one day to secure.