What happens if a museum, a beacon of knowledge of art and art history, features forgeries or even dubious works of art and glorifies them as the best examples of Indonesian art?
In recent years, the price of fine art pieces by Indonesian “Old Masters” and a handful of contemporary artists have skyrocketed.
Lured by financial rewards, many started collecting. Nevertheless, rather than basing their collection on their knowledge of art, the limited comprehension of fine art has propelled collectors to primarily seek works by renowned painters that ultimately offer lucrative financial gains.
Driven by market demand, gallery owners, auction houses and dealers hastily sought to stock their collections. Consequently, the already limited availability of renowned works by “Masters” diminished further. Therefore, it is likely many forgeries are on the market.
Apart from research about certain artists stemming from the vested interest of certain collectors or art dealers, Indonesian art history remains largely neglected.
People realize that the establishment of a solid infrastructure for Indonesian art is crucially needed, including proper art museums where art enthusiasts will be able to obtain comprehensive knowledge about art.
The opening of prominent collector and art patron Dr. Oei Hong Djien’s OHD Museum in Magelang, Central Java, gave many in the art scene high hopes.
Sadly, the authenticity of several works displayed in the inaugural exhibition was questionable. The issue was finally brought to light in a recent roundtable discussion at the National Gallery in Jakarta.
During the discussion, Ucok Aminudin TH Siregar, art researcher and author of Sudjojono: Sang Ahli Gambar (Sudjojono: The Drawing Specialist), pointed out irregularities in the collection’s paintings, which were presented as the original works of S. Sudjojono and Soedibio.
The OHD Museum featured a number of paintings that depict gruesome scenes of warfare unusual for Soedibio’s work. The artwork seemed to hint at a link with another famous Soedibio painting in the museum’s collection, entitled Ke Kau Penduduk Jogja (To You, Residents of Jogjakarta), that is known to be authentic as it was published in a brochure on the arts in 1949.
However, Siregar pointed out several differences in technique, style and subject matter, between the 1949 painting and the other works that were presented as Soedibio’s.
With regards to the paintings claimed to have been produced by Sudjojono, Siregar also questioned differences particularly in technique, composition and content of the paintings.
He pointed to Perjuangan Belum Selesai (Our Struggle Continues) dated 1967, which seems to depict communist party members gathering in a hideout, preparing artwork espousing their party spirit.
According to Siregar, during that period Sudjojono – who was a former Communist Party member – would not have created such a painting, as he was avoiding persecution. This was affirmed by Watugunung, Sudjojono’s son.
Tedjabayu, another son of Sudjojono, questioned Wajah-wajah Pejuang, dated 1947, because apart from Kawan-kawan Revolusi (Friends of the Revolution), which was purchased by Sukarno, all other paintings dating from that era were destroyed during the 1948 Second Clash of the Revolutionary War.
Suatu Kejadian Mengalihkan Perhatian, said to be from 1953, lacks the photographic realism that is evident in all other known paintings by Sudjojono between 1950 and 1955.
Another painting, Sabda Alam (said to be from 1964), allegedly depicts Rose Pandanwangi, Sudjojono’s wife, standing in the nude looking out a bedroom window. In this painting, the appearance of the model’s body is very different from Sudjojono’s paintings of Rose dating from the 1960s.
“That’s not me in the painting,” Rose exclaimed when she saw a reproduction of the painting in the exhibition catalog.
Siregar further added that the paintings dated from the 1940s and 1950s, were unlikely to be large in size, as large canvases were not available then. Those of such proportion from that period were usually merged from smaller canvases.
If proving a painting is a forgery is difficult, we should also ask whether there is any requirement to prove its authenticity?
In the Indonesian case, the requirement to provide provenance about a work of art is only considered a formality. A simple two-sentence anecdote is often accepted as sufficient proof of origin.
The case of the paintings featured at the OHD Museum brings up important concerns surrounding the discourse on art museums and authenticity in art.
The presence of an unauthentic work in an institution as important as an art museum is gravely detrimental to Indonesian art history and perhaps even our own history.
The International Council of the Museum Code of Ethics states that “museums should avoid displaying or otherwise using material of questionable origin or lacking provenance. They should be aware that such displays or usage can be seen to condone and contribute to the illicit trade in cultural property.”
A collector may take “liberties” in their own collection, kept within the private domain. However it is a different matter when it comes to the public domain.
As further assurance of their authenticity, artwork that is featured in museums should be required to have complete proof of provenance with publicly accessible information.
Collectors have a choice: If they want to present their collection to the general public, either in an exhibition or museum (even a private museum, which is a public institution of education), they are accountable for its authenticity. Otherwise, they should keep their collection in the private realm.
In Indonesia, anyone who even doubts the authenticity of a certain work faces the threat of litigation. On the other hand, the business of art forgery remains, sadly, comfortably “sanctioned”.
As we start taking the initial steps toward building solid infrastructure for Indonesian art, it is urgent that we proceed by placing far greater attention to the development of research of art history, so that Indonesian art flourishes and gains appreciation, free(r) of forgeries.
The author is a nationally recognized art curator and owner of Sidharta Auctioneer.