Chalk, Lead and TitaniumOctober 19th, 2015
In April 2013 the Alexander Turnbull Library purchased a portrait of a male subject, described as Hamiora Maioha, signed by G. Lindauer. Earlier this year the painting was closely examined using forensic techniques. The examination concluded that the painting was unlikely to be an authentic work by Gottfried Lindauer.
The Turnbull Library had acquired a forgery.
The forged portrait attributed to Gottfried Lindauer.
Why did we buy the painting? Because the painting was potentially the only image of a 19th century Māori leader. Our interest centred on the uncertain identity of the sitter. To our knowledge the individual did not match any known image, and the subject appeared to be a person of some importance. Gottfried Lindauer (1839–1926), was New Zealand’s best-known painter of Māori subjects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, famed for the accuracy of his portraits.
Our mistake became apparent earlier this year when a conservator from Auckland Art Gallery, Sarah Hillary, analysed the painting. Ms Hillary was researching an essay for a book about Gottfried Lindauer. The focus of her interest was on the artist’s painting technique.
Here are some excerpts from Ms Hillary’s report:
“… Pigment analysis of the ground layer … identified titanium dioxide and calcium (chalk). Titanium dioxide was not available as an artist pigment until the mid-1920s in France, and not widely available from artist suppliers until the 1930s… Lindauer used canvases that were commercially primed with chalk and lead oil grounds which were commonly available at the time. As Lindauer died in 1926, the presence of titanium dioxide white in the ground layer would appear to indicate that the work is a forgery.”
“Under infrared… it is usually possible to see the pencil underdrawing in paintings on canvas by Lindauer, but it was not possible to see any underdrawing in the infrared image of ‘Hoani Maioha’. In addition, when viewed under magnification, the paint application is quite rough compared to the careful brushwork of Lindauer.”
This revelation is particularly disappointing for the library, as we backed our own judgement in the face of an assessment from an external expert. Art historian Roger Blackley had commented to us on the painting’s strange appearance. We listened to his views but proceeded with the auction. Differing opinions are not uncommon in these matters, and in this instance we went with the library’s in-house expertise. It is now evident that we were wrong.
The library paid $75,000.
What happens next? Last week we informed the police of the situation who are now looking into the matter. The painting remains in our care but removed from the catalogue. It still has research value, but not for the reasons we originally envisaged. The true identity of the sitter may yet be revealed, or possibly prove to be a complete fiction.
About the Alexander Turnbull Library
The Alexander Turnbull Library is a part of the National Library of New Zealand. Its purposes are described in the National Library of New Zealand (Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa) Act 2003. They are:
(a) to preserve, protect, develop, and make accessible for all the people of New Zealand the collections of that library in perpetuity and in a manner consistent with their status as documentary heritage and taonga; and
(b) to develop the research collections and the services of the Alexander Turnbull Library, particularly in the fields of New Zealand and Pacific studies and rare books
(c) to develop and maintain a comprehensive collection of documents relating to New Zealand and the people of New Zealand.
The library was gifted to the people of New Zealand in 1918 by its founder Alexander Turnbull. Since then the collections have continued to be developed as the nucleus of a national research collection.
The Turnbull Library collects a wide range of formats, including books, manuscripts, drawings, paintings and prints, photographs, sound recordings and digital media. The collections are grown through donation and purchase, with a collection budget of just over $1.5 million.