Charge of Faked Utrillos Shakes Art MarketMARILYN AUGUST , Associated Press
May. 10, 1989 12:18 PM ET
PARIS (AP) _ Maurice Utrillo, the prolific painter who immortalized peaceful Montmartre street scenes, was plagued by counterfeiters - first in life and now in death, his widow's sole heir says.
Jean Fabris, 58, is waging war against the alleged fakes, accusing art dealers, auctioneers and experts of putting profit before art. Critics of his efforts claim he's the one who is after money.
He disrupted auction sales in April at both Christies and Sotheby's in London, crying ''Fake, fake.'' He was removed from the auction houses, and the sales of the 17 contested Utrillos went ahead. His campaign scored a tentative victory in Paris when he persuaded a criminal court judge to confiscate seven alleged Utrillo paintings valued at more than $1 million from well-known Paris auctioneer Guy Loudmer.
Verification of the disputed paintings will be handled by a court-appointed panel of experts. A final decision is not expected until early summer.
Fabris has also challenged the New York market. He has written to Sotheby's and Christie's threatening court action if they do not withdraw nine Utrillos to be sold by Sotheby's on May 10 and six more by Christie's on May 11.
''We're not surprised to learn that he is once again attempting to promote unfounded allegations in the press,'' said Diana Levitt, a vice president and director of corporate affairs for Sotheby's in New York.
''As we previously stated, and as the courts in France have also found, Mr. Fabris is not a recognized expert in Utrillo's works. We have notified him that we stand by our authentication of the works in our sale and that we intend to offer them for sale on the date scheduled and that if he interferes in our sale, we will take whatever action we think approbriate to protect Sotheby's and our consignors' rights.''
The seven Utrillos in the April 4 London sale fetched over 1 million pounds ($1.68 million).
Utrillo's naive street scenes, with their fine sense of atmosphere and composition, have become synonymous with Paris, and especially with artists' haunts in Montmartre such as the famed old music hall ''Le Lapin Agile.''
Utrillo, who died in 1955 at the age of 72, was known to have been copied widely during his lifetime. Locked into an unusually tight agreement to sell his work solely through his dealer, he reportedly sold paintings on the sly to support his increasingly debilitating alcohol habit.
''Later, when the paintings would surface, he would simply say they were fakes,'' Loudmer said in an interview. ''That was his way of getting extra money.''
Fabris, who was called a ''longtime devoted friend'' by Utrillo's wife, Lucie Valore, when she amended her will to leave everything to him, claims that in addition to the 3,500-4,000 original Utrillo paintings in museums and private collections, at least 3,500 fakes are circulating worldwide.
''Technically, it would have been impossible for Utrillo to paint more than the paintings which have been cataloged,'' he said in an interview.
Fabris said some of the contested paintings were probably the work of Valore, also an artist but less gifted than her husband.
''Utrillo didn't paint much during the last 10 years of his life,'' he said. ''She would paint, he would sign and that way, madame could have her jewels, her hairdresser and they could keep up their high living.''
The disputed works in the Paris court case are ''Montmartre,'' ''La Chaumiere d'Henri IV a Montmartre,'' ''Rue Saint-Rustique et le Sacre Coeur,'' ''La Rue Cortot a Montmartre,'' ''Le Moulin de la Galette'' and two works entitled ''Le Lapin Agile.''
Fabris says he determined they were fakes after studying enlargements of details from reproductions printed in the sales catalog.
''The signatures are not normal. The letters are hesitating and overdone, sure signs that they're fakes, when you know that Utrillo signed his name automatically, in a single gesture,'' he said.
''Montmartre never looked like the painting entitled 'La Rue Cortot.' It may be a street in Saint-Tropez, but it's not the Montmartre that Utrillo loved to paint.''
Fabris said he can only guess why Utrillo was copied so much more extensively than his contemporaries - Georges Seurat, Maurice de Vlaminck, Georges Braque and Marc Chagall - who also lived and worked in Montmartre in the early 1900s.
''That's part of the Utrillo mystery. He painted authentic street scenes that captured local people in their daily life. They became stereotypes symbolizing Paris and Montmartre, especially for foreigners,'' he said. ''It was a curse in life, and now a curse in death.''
Loudmer and other auctioneers claim Fabris has hurt the future sale of Utrillos in France, where the market already is struggling to compete with other European capitals where sales taxes are lower and regulations on export licenses less restrictive.
''People will take their Utrillos elsewhere,'' Loudmer said, adding that British auction houses sell $200 million to $300 million in French paintings each year.
Guillaume Duhamel, a spokesman for Christie's in Paris, said two Utrillos were withdrawn from a May 3 sale in Monaco at the request of the owners. Christie's, however, stood by its judgment that they were authentic.
Loudmer and other art world insiders accuse Fabris of trying to replace the existing catalog documenting the painter's complete works. Paul Petrides, Utrillo's dealer and long considered among the world's most reliable experts, compiled it.
''Fabris wants the last word. He wants authentication to go through him - and for a price,'' Loudmer said. ''Mr. Fabris is simply trying to 'get a piece of the Utrillo cake,' which is quite extensive.
''I have no doubt whatsover on the attribution of these seven paintings, all of which have been examined closely by numerous experts.''
But Fabris, who says he has spent 15 years sifting through some 50,000 catalogs tracking down original Utrillo works, says he is sure the works are fakes.
''The police laboratory analyses will vindicate me, and this will turn out to be the biggest art scandal of the century,'' he said. ''French experts are a joke. Experts, dealers, auctioneers are all in it together. The Paris art market needs to be purged.''