Forgery always leaves a long trail, particularly when it happens in a creative field such as art. It always triggers controversy, pros and cons, doubts and accusations, which in turn lead to enmity that benefits no one except those who 'fish in muddy waters.'
There is nothing new about forgeries in this nation's world of art, particularly when it comes to paintings. It comes and goes with the rise and fall in the sale of paintings, which are affected by the political and most especially by economic conditions. Because of their investment value, paintings attract the interest of businessmen with the power to develop and control the market. Therefore it is unsurprising that forgery cases go beyond borders and become a global phenomenon.
During the second wave of Indonesian paintings' popularity during 1993 to 1994, a painting said to be the work of Djoko Pekik was sent to Christie's auction house in Surabaya. Fortunately, a few days before the exhibition opened, the artist got hold of the catalog, and demanded a 'clarification' from the management. The fake painting was immediately removed from the list of items to be auctioned.
At around the time when Christie's was placing Indonesian old masters as the main lot, a whole series of forged paintings emerged, including the works of Lee Man Fong, S. Sudjojono and Hendra Gunawan. Assuming 250 paintings were up for sale in one auction, it is almost certain that 10 percent of them were fakes. As a result, auction managers at the time named Indonesia as the leading source of forgeries in Southeast Asia.
In the past two months, Indonesia experienced amazing shock. The issue at hand is complex and serious, because it involves some of the nation's major figures in the art world. The story began with an exhibition that opened in April at the Oei Hong Djien art gallery in Magelang, Central Java. The exhibition, titled 'Back to Basics' featured the works of 'Five of Indonesia's Modern Art Masters,' the late Affandi, S. Sudjojono, Hendra Gunawan, H. Widayat and Soedibio.
The exhibition caused a stir, but just when the storm was expected to pass, the wife of one of the maestros cast doubt on the authenticity of the paintings, allegedly the works of her husband. Not long after, several of the painter's colleagues and close friends who came to see the exhibition expressed similar doubts. The fuss grew after a collector wrote about his suspicions in his blog. Recently, several art experts and well-known collectors have also begun asking questions.
The Indonesian art world has been rocked to its foundations because the doubts, which are turning to charges, involve Oei Hong Djien better known as 'OHD.' He is no ordinary name in the national, or even regional, art scene. A forensic pathologist by training, Oei has been collecting paintings for more than 30 years, accumulating more than 2,000 works, worth hundreds of millions of rupiah. He is known not only for his hard work and courage in collecting, but also for his generosity to young painters, especially around Yogyakarta. In the international world, he has long been an adviser to the National Art Gallery, Singapore.
Naturally, OHD denies the charge that he has been collecting forgeries. Logically, it is difficult to imagine a dealer gambling with the reputation he has built up over almost half a century, including his friendship with several major painters. The debate now has reached a stalemate, with no movement forward or backwards.
There is nothing at all wrong with buying and keeping forged paintings if they are only for personal pleasure. But once they are placed on public display in museums and galleries, things change. The paintings on display at the OHD gallery, for example, represent the long journey of Indonesian modern art, and can be seen by visitors. If, for example, forgeries have been included, this long journey could go astray, or even become lost.
It is not easy to tell when a painting is a forgery, especially if it is allegedly made by an old master. Empirical tests are open to question, especially after so many years. Therefore, the most logical move would be to undertake laboratory tests involving people from a 'neutral' body. And we earnestly hope for transparency and cooperation from OHD.
The government could also learn from this case, by registering and making an inventory of Indonesian art works, especially paintings. We should not only splutter and shout if our paintings are claimed by a neighboring country.
No. 44/12, June 26, 2012