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CSI: Conservation Science Indianapolis

Part One in a series of blog posts on the ongoing technical examination of a purported 1874 Alfred Sisley Impressionist painting.

Has a crime been committed?  Where will the evidence lead?  I recently began teaching a course for graduate students in IUPUI’s Chemistry and Biological Chemistry department and the Forensic and Investigative Sciences (FIS) program. The course, Chemical Analysis in the Detection of Fakes, Forgeries, and Misattributions, explores the role of the physical sciences in unmasking ersatz artworks.  But this isn’t like any normal seminar course – the students not only receive lectures on the chemistry of artists’ materials and the instrumentation used to characterize them, they also work with me in the laboratory scrutinizing, imaging, sampling, and analyzing an artwork from the museum’s collection.

Painting attributed to Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), “House in a Village,” dated at bottom, May 16, 1874, oil on canvas, James E. Roberts Fund, 52.33.

For the past two weeks, the students have been learning about the IMA’s Impressionist painting, House in a Village, ascribed to the hand of the British painter Alfred Sisley who spent his adult life working in France. IMA Associate Curator for Research, Annette Schlagenhauff, has had her suspicions about the Sisley painting, which was purchased by the museum in 1952 for $3000. Many of the questions arise from the notorious scandal in 1962 in which many of the paintings included in a touring exhibition of Walter P. Chrysler Jr.’s collection were refuted by art experts as fakes. These paintings included works by the likes of Monet, Picasso, Matisse, and yes, two by Alfred Sisley.  The relationship between these debunked artworks and the IMA’s painting exists in the dealer responsible for both sales, J. P. Hartert of New York City.  Dr. Schlagenhauff has examined the museum’s documentation on the sale, including letters from Mr. Hartert to the museum’s curator.  Through online databases she has tracked the painting’s dubious provenance provided by Hartert, identifying several non-existent collectors and fictitious “experts” who are said to have owned or examined the painting.  These discrepancies, while troubling, do not necessarily invalidate the work.  Dr. Schlagenhauff’s challenge to the class is to identify any anachronisms in materials or inconsistencies in technique that would clearly place the painting outside the lifetime and painting style of Alfred Sisley. Stay tuned…

Filed under: Conservation, The Collection

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