She clasped her hands to her mouth. The painting that she thought she knew so well looked completely different.
The cleaning had removed varnish and exposed its true content. What she had been told had been a lie. Now, the genie was out of the bottle. And she knew life would never be the same again.
Shan Kuang was living her dream. She was smart. Cambridge and Yale smart. One doesn’t become a student at two of the most prestigious colleges in the world unless they have brains. And Shan had that in abundance.
Now she was a restorer for the Kress Foundation, her hard work paying dividends. Life was good. Until a certain painting arrived.
Allentown Art Museum is an art museum that was founded in 1934. Humble and catering to the local community, it survived hard times, making it through the Great Depression when many other museums like it were forced to close.
Life was made a lot easier for Allentown when philanthropist Samuel H. Kress gifted 53 Renaissance and Baroque paintings in 1959. These paintings were valuable and reputable. But one made more headlines than all the others combined.
Few painters are as revered as Rembrandt. The Dutch genius has been hailed as one of the masters of the art world. Famed during his lifetime, Rembrandt’s reputation has only gotten better and better since his death in 1669.
Owning a Rembrandt painting is a big deal. They are rare and highly valued. Allentown wanted to know if Kress donated one to them.
Looking through the collection, Allentown found what they were looking for: A Rembrandt. A Dutch master’s painting was all theirs.
‘Portrait of a Young Lady’ was a typical Rembrandt work. It had all the hallmarks of his back catalogue. Or so it seemed. They got a surprising response when they sent it off to Holland for an examination.
An assessment from Rembrandt experts in Holland found that it wasn’t actually a Rembrandt at all. Allentown had been duped.
This wasn’t actually an original painting by the Dutch master. But who was it by? And why would they lie about it? These were threads that begged to be pulled. Allentown needed an assessor with all the skills to figure this mystery out. That was when they called Shan.
Decades had passed since Allentown received the gutting news that their Rembrandt painting was illegitimate. It was a beautiful painting no matter the hand it was created by. It hung in the museum but didn’t hang proudly. Rather, it haunted the gallery.
Would they ever know who made this painting? All they had were theories. The Rembrandt Research Project believed they knew.
It was not uncommon for masters of the great Dutch art era to take on protégés. Many of the best depended on mentors to take them under their wings and show them the ropes. Rembrandt wanted to pass on his knowledge and thus took on assistants.
The Rembrandt Research Project acknowledged that Portrait of a Young Lady was a great painting. They saw why it was confused with a Rembrandt. Yet the techniques they detected were inconsistent with the artist’s work. Therefore, they said, it was an assistant. Another theory also emerged.
Many tears were shed when the verdict came back from Holland. Elaine Mehalakes could tell stories about the sadness caused by that painting. Allentown’s vice president of curatorial affairs, there was something fishy about the whole thing. She just didn’t know what.
Then a thought came to her: What if they were being lied to because the actual painter did something awful?
Michelangelo Caravaggio was one of the great Italian painters of the Baroque movement. But he wasn’t just that. He was also a killer.
Famous for his temper, Caravaggio had to flee Rome in 1606 after stabbing a man to death after a tennis match. Naturally, this has complicated his legacy. Could galleries proudly display the work of a murderer? Elaine was conflicted. That was when she got a call from Shan.
Shan had spent what felt like an eternity on the restoration. She removed layers of varnish and with each layer removed the painting seemed to reveal its true identity. By the end, all she could do was gasp. The painting looked so different to when it arrived.
She had tears in her eyes. Picking up her phone, she called Elaine. When she picked up, Shan said: ‘You’re not going to believe this.’
When Shan was removing the varnish, she deduced that previous restorers had poured it on to create a ‘mirrored surface’. This was fashionable in the 1920s. Not seeing texture was viewed as a good thing. However, it obscured the original brushwork and colour of this artwork.
After undoing that damage, Shan concluded that the last 50 years had been a lie. The true artist was Rembrandt. Now she had to prove it.
At the time that they appraised Portrait of a Young Lady, the Rembrandt Research Project was the authority on Rembrandt paintings.
Their scholars got the final word on whether a Rembrandt painting was genuine. Back in 1970, they told Allentown that they didn’t have an authentic piece of art. Did they take the varnish into account? Maybe not. By the time this re-appraisal came in, the Research Project had finished. A lack of funding for the project was one of the reasons it couldn’t continue. Yet the media were still around to ask important questions.
When the media were notified about this story there was only one person they wanted to speak to and that was Shan.
It was her keen eye and her years of education at the highest level that allowed Shan to spot the mistakes her predecessors made. Interviewers kept coming back to the same question over and over again. How did 50 years pass before somebody corrected this error?
It’s hard to know why it took so long for Allentown to get a reappraisal that told them the truth. Given the reputation of the Rembrandt Research Project, they probably took their word as law. If anybody would know, they would.
There’s a lesson here: Always get a second opinion. Yet even the most reputable of evaluators make mistakes. One such mistake ended up costing a woman over 160,000 pounds of her own money…
Lyn Fuss had spotted the William Nicholson painting “still life of a glass jug and pears” and fell in love with it.
However, there was no way she was going to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds unless she was sure it was real. The first clue was to examine a string of mysterious numbers and letters on the back.
Using ultraviolet techniques, the authenticator eventually discovered they were train departures that coordinated with when the British painter was alive and working.
The second clue was more important to Fuss. It was the physical paints on the canvas. And for this particular artist, they still had samples from Nicholson’s paintbox.
That was enough for Fuss, not to mention the art community.
Since the paints were a match, it had to be real. The art enthusiast shelled out over 160,000 pounds and carefully took it back home to enjoy. Things seemed fine until she made the huge mistake of appearing on television.
The British television show, Fake or Fortune was an amazing (and free) opportunity for Fuss to have her painting’s worth properly evaluated.
After all, there could be a chance to sell it in the future. The show’s main authenticator, Patricia Reed took a close look and frowned. It was a bad sign.
She had barely looked at the canvas and already had some very strong opinions that drew tears to the owner’s eyes.
The first stab to the heart was the words “boringly painted”. The next was “close and disquieting similarities”. But the woman was still going to move forward with a thorough examination – including the same tests that had “proved” it was real.
Fuss wasn’t the only one waiting in agony. The main format of the show was to first evaluate the piece and then reveal the verdict in the following episode.
Everyone was desperate to know the real value of Fuss’s investment. As soon as the show aired, you could see something strange in the presenter’s eyes.
It was normal to draw out details for added suspense and air time. But, at that point, nobody cared that Winston Churchill had been “a very apt pupil” of Nicholson.
The presenter finally pointed to the painting delivered two pieces of devastating news that nearly brought Fuss to her knees.
Not only was there “not enough evidence” to show this was a true Nicholson, but the value also dropped from hundreds of thousands to a mere couple hundred.
Everyone watching felt the same stab of disappointment and loss, but none more than the owner. An unexpected twist is that Reed became somewhat of a villain.
People vehemently protested that if one person thought there was “enough” evidence (including paints from the artist’s own box) then how was her “not enough evidence” ruling the superior one?
There were even calls for torches and pitchforks to her front door. Reed fired back with a very common claim.
The theory was that Nicholson had many students in his workshop and one of them probably practiced with his paints.
One woman’s ruling ended up countering past examinations. Fuss was forced to go home with an old piece of canvas that was worth less than the handbag she was carrying. So much for second opinions.