Martin Lang is a 63-year-old property developer in Leeds, West Yorkshire, U.K., who happens to be an art lover. Back in 1992, he bought a painting by Marc Chagall called “Nude 1909-10” for £100,000 (about $160,000) from an art consultant in London. Recently, he sent it to a BBC program called “Fake or Fortune” to have it authenticated, which he should have done before he bought it. The program’s producers sent it to the Chagall Committee in France, which declared it a fake. Under French law, droit du moral, the heirs of Marc Chagall can have it burned, and it looks like that’s what will happen. Which makes me wonder just who won the second World War?
The committee is an organization run by Chagall’s grandchildren to protect the artist’s legacy. At least that is the official story; they seem to be more like a band of Vandals. The committee stated to Agence France Presse, “It is a very bad copy of an original 1911 painting that is in a private collection. A stylistic analysis is enough to conclude it is fake. Unlike what is suggested in the documentary [“Fake or Fortune”], the association does not take any arbitrary measures and does not proceed with any destruction without prior agreement from the owner, or failing that, without court authorization. When the destruction is authorized, it is implemented by a bailiff who chooses the most suitable method according to the nature of the support of the counterfeit work.”
In other words, if Lang doesn’t agree to having a painting he paid for burnt Joan of Arc style, the Committee will get a court order to make the bonfire happen. And this is not out of the ordinary in France.
An AP report included this gloomy news, “Francois Duret-Robert, author of ‘The Law of the Art Market,’ said that the destruction of a counterfeit painting is not only legal in France, but expected. He said an artist’s heirs have the right in France to destroy a work that is officially deemed counterfeit under what is called ‘the moral law of the artist.’ ‘You could say that a forgery is an infringement on an artist’s work,’ Duret-Robert explained, adding that French law is possibly the world’s strictest when it comes to protecting the works of painters and sculptors.”
Lang, for his part, is being a damn sight more reasonable than I would be if a cabal of Lucky Sperm Club members wanted to burn £100,000 of artwork for which I had paid. “It was just total disbelief that they would want to destroy it. I’m not attacking the committee — I just want them to please reconsider. They could just mark it unoriginal and send it back,” he told The Associated Press. I’d damn well attack the committee, and I don’t think I’d restrict myself to writing a very cross letter. My approach to resolving this conflict would probably scare the crap out of Charles Manson.
As I see it, there are three really big problems here. First of all, the damn painting belongs to Lang whether it was painted by Marc Chagall or Koko the Gorilla. He paid good money for it, and even in France, you own something if you paid for it. It seems pretty reasonable to me that he should get it back so he can hang it wherever he likes. For £100,000, he’s entitled to bore the bejesus out of anyone down the pub who’ll listen to the story. The Committee has no moral right whatsoever to decide what happens to his property.
Second, who the hell do Chagall’s grandchildren think they are anyway? How in the name of art do they reconcile protecting grandpapa’s legacy with burning paintings? Lang has proposed a perfectly amicable solution here — mark it as a fake and send it back. And remember, he’s the one who is out all that money. A decent American ambulance chaser could make a case that the Committee is at fault for not rooting out this forgery before Lang bought it, some kind of negligence.
Third, and this is what makes me the angriest, is just how damn stupid the French law is in the first place. I write for a living, so I have a great deal of sympathy for creative types getting paid full value for their work. But any law that allows for the burning of works of art, even counterfeit ones, is barbaric. Suppose I forge a Chagall signature on an Andy Warhol original. Should we burn it because Warhol isn’t Chagall? Or better still, put Warhol’s signature on a Chagall original. Would the Committee be all right with Andy’s heirs burning one of grandpapa’s works because it wasn’t a Warhol?
Or suppose I put my name on a copy of “The Three Musketeers.” Would the French government dare burn the work of Alexandre Dumas simply because some clown in America pretended it was his work?
If this painting (and it is rather bad) burns, I hope the whole thing is put on YouTube under the title “French Civilization — an Oxymoron.”