2017-04-28 de Soles Knoedler Trial

Review: Center for Art Law Event “F for Fake”

Ruth Osborne
2017-04-28 Orson Welles F for Fake

Orson Welles in “F for Fake” (1973)

Last week, the Center for Art Law hosted an event at the Brooklyn Law School regarding the (unfortunately) highly relevant topic of fakes and forgeries on the art market.

Irina Tarsis, Esq., Founder and Director of the organization, introduced Orson Welles’s 1973 film F for Fake” to begin a discussion on the various parties involved with forged artworks and their respective motivations.


A presentation followed by Aaron H. Crowell, Esq., a partner at Clarick, Gueron, Reisbaum LLP who was a member of Eleanore and Domenico De Sole’s litigation team during the massive Knoedler trial in 2015-2016. Crowell brought up the issue of which side gets the most blame in these cases, and in Welles’s film: the art experts. The art experts are the ones who appear (misleadingly, and sometimes unbeknownst to them) as verifiers of a forgery. The art experts are the ones who can insist a work is authentic, only for a scientific test to prove it’s a forgery. But, as Crowell insisted, the focus on the experts as villains misses a more prevalent issue enabling the steady stream of fakes onto the art market.

Rather, the art world and the public at large act willingly as voyeurs looking for another “newly discovered” work, seeking the thrill of viewing a work by one of the old masters. That the art world at large still holds onto the Renaissance myth of the artistic genius is very true. But is it something that we can truly move away from? Would the public value of artworks risk being diminished if we did move away from this myth?

2017-04-28 de Soles Knoedler Trial

The de Soles at Trial in 2016. Courtesy: ArtNet/Elizabeth Williams/Illustrated Courtroom.

This discussion should serve as a reminder to approach connoisseurship – not avoid it entirely – in a manner that seeks as objective a point of view as a flawed human can have. In doing this, we might be more aware of potential shortcomings in our ability to truly see a work of art for what it is, to critique its value, aesthetically and monetarily.  Another essential matter to consider that always lies in the background of art market forgeries is that it is in fact a commercial market, in the sense that a market and its players can act wildly in order to drive up demand for a work to drive up a value. These market forces themselves have a rather deep impact on the prevalence of fakes, on what is authenticated and why, and on the ultimate valuation of an artist and his or her real or imagined oeuvre (see here for Scott Reyburn’s review of “insider” books on the art market today).

2017-04-28 Rothko fake Knoedler

Painting sold by Knoedler as a Rothko to the de Soles. Courtesy: ArtNet.


The “crisis of connoisseurship” that we are seeing in today’s art market and museum world has been thoroughly addressed already at the December 2015 conference “Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship” (put on by ArtWatch UK, the London School of Economics, and the Center for Art Law). We encourage our readers to take a look at the topics each speaker addressed, and to be on the look out for the upcoming publication of papers from this conference.

By Ruth Osborne


2014-01-31 - Nazi stolen art Ellingen Germany

Review of Art Law in 2013: Forgeries, Greed, and 70 year-old Wrongs to be Set Right

Ruth Osborne

Several interesting issues in the realm of art law came up in the last year. These will carry over new precedents into 2014 that will impact the field’s future. The following is a brief review of what 2013 brought under the ever –alert ArtWatch, and what this might mean for artistic and cultural heritage in the near future.

2014-01-31 - Knoedler Gallery

Knoedler Gallery, closed in 2011. Photo: The Art Newspaper.

In New York, new coverage appeared on the Knoedler gallery’s sale of forged abstract expressionist works. Beginning in 2011, the famed 165 year-old art gallery had shuttered its doors due to allegations of sold forgeries.  Beginning in 2007, lawsuits for sales of fakes began with a Pollock and Motherwell and have continued with federal investigation into possible forgeries of de Kooning, Rothko, and other abstract expressionists. Testimonies and court documents trickling in over the last few years have brought out the names of other leading art galleries involved in similar sales. As The Art Newspaper reports, the uncovering of the Knoedler fakes reminds us of the deep underlying problems of authentication in the business of art. This speaks to the ever-increasing, and ever more apparent, level of greed tainting the art market. As Jack Flam, President and CEO of the Dedalus Foundation (founded by Robert Motherwell), states, “Without courage, honest and open communication, forgeries will distort art history and pollute the market.”[1]  While the temptation may be great to follow after the profits of a promised art treasure trove, inaccurate authentication can also lead greater losses. In this case, it has resulted in the closing of a once-trustworthy international art dealership that supplied some of the greatest collections in the last two centuries.

It is the great shortfall of the world of art dealing that, when the market is strong and collectors are trusting, deception is more like to creep in. Collectors have millions to spare, and find themselves more likely to be duped. The temptation to cut corners is certainly greater in periods like these when the number of potential buyers is greater than the number of salable artworks. The surge of forgeries in the art market has also made art historians much more wary of consulting on authentication. When pointing out a fake could lead to a lawsuit, and with an influx of fakes on the market, connoisseurs are more and more hesitant to utilize their deep knowledge base for authentication. As Danielle Rahm (Director and Senior Appraiser at New York Fine Art Appraisers) reports in Forbes, several artist estate foundations dedicated to cleaning the art market of fakes have suddenly stopped authenticating because they have learned this comes with rather burdensome legal fees. She also points out the lack of objectivity amongst authenticators working with art dealers who are in the business of keeping competing works off the market: “Expert opinions regarding art used to be opinions rather than leverage in legal battles, so its little wonder that authenticators are heading for the hills.”[2]

2014-01-31 - Wolfgang Beltracchi Heinrich Campendonk art forgery

Wolfgang Beltracchi in court in Cologne & a painting supposedly by German Expressionist Heinrich Campendonk. Photo: Vanity Fair.

The issue of authentication has also been touched on in recent years with the Beltracchi fakes scandal. Werner Spies, the German art historian who examined a supposed Max Ernst forged by Wolfgang Beltracchi, was the accidental supplier of certificates ensuring the works’ authenticity for interested buyers. As Spiegel reported, “Authorities estimate that the sale and resale of the artwork resulted in total losses to the art community amounting to nearly €34.1 million.”[3]  Beltracchi, it seems, was himself the ringleader in an entire group that circulated forged German expressionist works around the world to internationally-renowned galleries and collectors. Sales of forged Beltracchi have entangled, among others, New York dealer Richard Feigan and German auction house Kunsthaus Lempertz.[4]  As the owner of the Lempertz has found after investing tens of thousands of euros into x-ray machines to test against forgeries, science only goes so far: “[it] only [helps] if the forger used the wrong pigments in terms of date…In the end, you need to ask the experts.”[5] Once again, it seems science is still not the highest measure of proof for authenticity. As ArtWatch UK has pointed out is the case with the Bowes Museum public restoration of a secure Turner painting, scientific analysis still leaves a few questions lingering with regard to restoration treatments.

Our New York colleagues at the Center for Art Law have remarked on the steady stream of fakes being discovered in major galleries, museums, and even exhibitions.  In order to protect boards of art experts, increasingly at the risk of shutting down,[6] the New York City Bar Association is working with a group of professional appraisers on new legislation.  Developing legal parameters that will “address the concern that authenticators have in continuing to provide their opinion on works’ authorship,” this newly formed alliance seeks to provide “a higher threshold and burden of proof for presenting authentication-based claims.” Evidently, this “Year of the Fake” has pushed both the legal and art worlds further together against a common enemy.[7]

As of August 2013, Freedman (of Knoedler) has had her lawyers argue that she was simply the victim to the schemes of New York art dealer Glafira Rosales, who herself is now faced with charges of tax evasion and money laundering connected with arranging sales of works forged by an unnamed Queens artist. Rosales supposedly accomplished the successful forgeries by having her boyfriend put the canvases through exposure to the heat, cold, and the elements in order to achieve an aged look.[8]  Considering this one point further, it is difficult to dismiss the interesting thought that a worn canvas wanting conservation would warrant its authenticity. Imagine if these works had been considered by a conservator after sale, as authentic items needing treatment? Would the purportedly infallible science of art conservation be able to uncover the lies? Or would they simply cover it over even more?

Freedman is also facing accusations of failure to do due diligence when she encountered the works, which she denies based on the involvement of twenty other “experts” she consulted.[9]  The Knoedler scandal as of 2013 has opened up a great deal of discussion regarding art attributions and, in so doing, has drudged up the figure of the untrustworthy art dealer. After all, art is a business, is it not?  It all comes down to a question of whose responsibility it was to examine the art works’ authenticity. If none claims full responsibility, then who in the world of art dealing can be trusted? While it is a business, this past year has certainly made clear the inherent issues of greed and deception that infiltrate the art world as much as they do Wall Street.

2014-01-31 - ICE Subash Kapoor looted antiquities

ICE with seized Items from Kapoor. Photo: Chasing Aphrodite.

December brought to light more actions of questionable legality in the figure of antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor and a Belgian collector working with Sotheby’s auction house. Chasing Aphrodite has examined the unraveling of Kapoor’s decades-long webs of trickery in the sale of stolen ancient artifacts. According to those who have worked closely with Kapoor, he has been instrumental in laundering looted goods, formulating false ownership histories, hiding stolen art.[10]

On the subject of looted artworks, from Germany came more news on the 2012 discovery of over 1,400 artworks stashed at the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt. These included pieces by Chagall, Picasso, Renoir, Dix, and Beckmann that his father Hildebrand Gurlitt had acquired during the short-lived Third Reich. Meanwhile, it has also been suggested that there could be several fakes within the collection. Spiegel reported in November 2013 that just under 600 of these works were illegally confiscated from their Jewish owners by Nazis.  Hildebrand Gurlitt was known to have had close connections with members of the Third Reich and was known by American military art inspectors as “an art dealer to the Führer.” Investigators further reported that he served more widely as “an art collector from Hamburg with connections within high-level Nazi circles. He acted on behalf of other Nazi officials and made many trips to France, from where he brought home art collections. There is reason to believe that these private art collections consist of looted art from other countries.”[11] The 2012 seizure of his collection by the German government, as a result of tax investigation, understandably created a spike in coverage about issues of Nazi-looted artworks. One might think this is strange, considering the fact the war ended nearly 70 years ago. However, recent news reports relate that Cornelius Gurlitt is suspected of slowly selling off pieces from his father’s collection over the years. While Gurlitt Jr. claims private property ownership on these now government-confiscated works, his using them as loose capital to pay personal bills would be quite the convenient way to dispose of them into unconnected hands.[12]

2014-01-31 - Cornelius Gurlitt Matisse looted art

Gurlitt (left) and a Matisse in his collection (right) Photo:

Now, Bavarian lawmakers are looking to change a law concerning pieces of art acquired in bad faith. In late November of last year, Bloomberg reported that Winfried Bausback, the justice minister in Bavaria, presented a proposal to the Justice Department that a 30-year statute of limitations on an artwork should be revoked, if that work was fraudulently acquired or inherited.  If previous owners could now demand restitution for looted works, this law change could, as Bausback mentions, “[bring] to light an issue that was not tackled and certainly not resolved after the war.” Now, it is up to the German government to show persistence in researching artworks’ provenance in order to ensure a just end to this story seven decades in the making.[13] According to the Antiques & Fine Art News, the German government has decided to post photo documentation of more than 400 of the allegedly stolen works in the interest of attracting rightful owners’ claims. Yet another news story reminds us that these 70 year-old injustices against cultural heritage are still lingering in our midst: just last week The New York Times reported on the upcoming sale of three paintings seized by the Nazi’s from important French collections.

The upcoming movie Monuments Men (in theatres February 7) brings the issue of looted art restitution to the masses. Director George Clooney has taken on the story of Capt. Robert K. Posey and his band of art-rescuing brotherhood through a Hollywood lens chock-a-block with A-list actors. The film has also spurned a support effort from its producers for the rightful recovery of works of art and archival documents still missing. At the Monuments Men Foundation website, one can report tips and “join the hunt” for “most-wanted” items stolen by Nazi looters.

2014-01-31 - Nazi stolen art Ellingen Germany

U.S. soldier viewing art stolen by the Nazi regime and stored in church at Ellingen, Germany. Photo: U.S. National Archives.


[1] Charlotte Burns, “Knoedler forgery scandal grows,” 9 January 2012. The Art Newspaper, News, Issue 231 (January 2012). (last accessed 17 January 2014).

[2] Danielle Rahm, “Warhols, Pollocks, Fakes: Why Art Authenticators Are Running For The Hills,” 18 June 2013. Forbes. (last accessed 24 January 2014).

[3] Scen Röbel and Michael Sontheimer, “The $7 Million Fake: Forgery Scandal Embarrasses International Art Wolrd,” 13 June 2011. Spiegel Online. (last accessed 26 January 2014).

[4] Julia Michalska, Charlotte Burns, and Ermanno Rivetti, “True scale of alleged German forgeries revealed: Major auction houses and galleries have been caught up in Beltracchi’s fake art scam,” 5 December 2011. The Art Newspaper. (last accessed 26 January 2014).

[5] Burns.

[6] Irina Tarsis, Esq., “Will the Real Andy Warhol Please Stand Up: the Authentication Board to shut down,” 24 October 2011. Center for Art Law. (last accessed 31 January 2014).

[7] Hanoch Sheps, “A Plethora of Fakes and a Series of Thoughts: Where Has All The Real ‘Art’ Gone?” 24 December 2013. Center for Art Law. (last accessed 26 January 2014).

[8] Laura Gilbert, “Art dealer is believed to be co-operating with federal authorities in fakes case,” 16 August 2013. The Art Newspaper. (last accessed 17 January 2014).

[9] Laura Gilbert, “Knoedler gallery fakes case heats up,” 11 September 2013. The Art Newspaper. (last accessed 17 January 2014).

[10] “Kapoor,” Chasing Aphrodite. (last accessed 26 January 2014).

[11] Druckerversion, “Art Dealer to the Führer: Hildebrand Gurlitt’s Deep Nazi Ties,” Spiegel Online. News. International. (last accessed 16 January 2014).

[12] Bruno Waterfield, “ ‘They have to come back to me,’ Cornelius Gurlitt demands Nazi-era hoard back,” 17 November 2013. The Telegraph. (last accessed 16 January 2014).

[13] Alex Webb, “Bavaria Investigates Law Change to Reclaim Nazi-Seized Artworks,” 27 November 2013, Bloomberg, (last accessed 15 January 2014).

2013-12-29 - Vermeer Girl Interrupted at Her Music Frick Collection

Vermeer Interrupted: A Study of Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl Interrupted at Her Music” at The Frick Collection

Ruth Osborne

In October, ArtWatch opened a discussion on the state of Vermeer paintings in New York collections, with the aim of establishing a greater understanding of each work in its multiple layers of conservation.  Unsettling examination of a Vermeer in the Royal Collection at St. James’ Palace by ArtWatch UK has energized our study of Vermeers on this side of the Atlantic.

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Visitors snapping shots of Mauritshuis’ Girl with a Pearl Earring at The Frick’s 2013 exhibition. Photo: AFP/Getty Images.

While Michael Daley calls London’s National Gallery to task on the blind eye they took to conservation in their recent “Vermeer and Music” exhibition, it appears quite the opposite is being done currently by the Frick. The Frick’s current show, “Masterpieces of Dutch Painting,” begins with conservation propaganda from the Mauritshuis that serves to build up a wall of defense around the changes made as a result of treatment efforts. The first large room (of only two for this exhibition) focuses the viewer on two simple items: Vermeer’s famed Girl with a Pearl Earring and a panel on the scientific “discoveries” of its conservation treatment in 1994.[1]
The Mauritshuis’ publication Vermeer Illuminated states that, as of the spring of 1994:

The Girl with a Pearl Earring was in a relatively good state of conservation. There were no imminent threats to the material condition of the painting…However, from an aesthetic point of view, the painting was not in good condition. The varnish had yellowed considerable and the old retouches had discoloured to such an extent that they looked like dark shadows.”

So essentially, conservators at the Mauritshuis put their hands once more to Vermeer’s canvas to undo previous bad restoration work. This is not something out of the ordinary for conservators, but the degree to which it lends to the debilitating of an artist’s oeuvre over several decades is astonishing. In Vermeer Illuminated, Mauritshuis makes sure to mention that their in-house conservators and restorers only set about the 1994 treatment “after consulting the international support committee,” which would no doubt give them the green light on removing the old varnish and touch-ups only to “sparingly retouch with stable materials” and revarnish.[2]

2013-12-29 - Vermeer Girl Interrupted at Her Music Frick Collection

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) Girl Interrupted at Her Music, 1658–59 (detail). Oil on canvas. The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Michael Bodycomb.

This post will focus on the first Vermeer to enter Henry Clay Frick’s hands, Girl Interrupted at Her Music (c. 1660). There is a general lack of knowledge about his oeuvre until being put on the map by Gustave Friedrich Waagen and Théophile Thoré-Brüger’s monograph survey essay in the early nineteenth-century. This gap of scholarship creates considerable problems for understanding the various damages and retouchings that occurred in subsequent decades.

Even before Girl Interrupted at Her Music entered Frick’s collection in 1901, Vermeer scholar Hofstade de Groot reported in 1899 on issues of inconsistency within the canvas. He noted the existence of a bird cage and violin painted-in by a later hand, which had by that point been painted over with the picture of Cupid that still appears today. The website “Essential Vermeer,” devoted to a close examination of the artist’s works, acknowledges both de Groot’s grievance and other issues due to “heavy-handed restorations.”[3] De Groot also took offense at the bird cage and violin hanging on a wall in the background which appeared to be a recent addition. In 1908, seven years after the painting entered Frick’s collection, de Groot relates conservation treatment with these issues of pictorial inconsistency:  “This picture of Cupid became visible when the work was cleaned. Its place was formerly occupied by a violin and bow, noticed in the catalogue of the Smeth van Alphen sale of 1810.”[4]  In 1995, Martin Bailey maintains that Girl Interrupted at Her Music is “in worn condition and the birdcage hanging on the wall near the window may be a later addition by another artist”[5]; the present day conservator of the Frick Collection backs this judgment.[6]

Girl Interrupted was also not so highly-admired among Frick’s purchases of this time. Today, the Frick places heavy blame on restorers who ruined the canvas with treatment between the time of Frick’s purchase and the painting being brought into the collection. Secondly, they place blame on the Knoedler dealer Charles Carstairs, who worked with Frick in his purchasing from the gallery:

“By all accounts, Frick’s 1901 acquisition of Vermeer’s Girl Interrupted at Her Music seems to have been a wise although not a calculated decision…Whatever his motivation, Frick paid Knoedler $26,000 for the Vermeer, a high price when compared to the amounts his contemporaries had spent for their Vermeers about this time. As was the common practice, the Girl Interrupted at Her Music, which had been in a private collection in Britain for almost a half century, was thoroughly cleaned shortly before it was sold. As a result, a violin hanging on the back wall, described in the 1810 auction catalogue, was removed by the restorer, who judged it a later addition. The birdcage to the right of the window, which may not be original to the painting either, was left intact. Although Frick probably was not aware of the fact, the Girl Interrupted at Her Music was only the fourth authentic Vermeer to come to America.”[7]

Only three years after the acquisition, Frick allowed Girl Interrupted at Her Music to be placed on loan for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904.5 Considering the ill-repute the canvas already held on its entering the collection, it is difficult to say the traveling and handling involved with the St. Louis Expo would not have heaped even more damages. It was again lent in 1909 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Hudson-Fulton Celebration, another grand, city-wide affair honoring an anniversary in U.S. history.[8] Unfortunately, the catalogue from the 1909 exhibition only reproduces the picture with overly-enhanced areas of contrast so that the level of detail in the picture disappears.

2013-12-29 - Vermeer Girl Interrupted at Her Music Burlington Magazine

Girl Interrupted at Her Music from Kenyon Cox’s 1910 publication. Photo: The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs (Jan. 1910).

As is evident from Kenyon Cox’s reproduced image of the painting in The Burlington Magazine of that same year, Girl Interrupted shows a few thick areas of shadow around the lower portion of the man’s upper lip and neck, which no longer appear today. Cox remarks in his short essay, that Girl Interrupted (listed as Music Lesson) is “difficult to classify.” He goes on to remark that, while the painting shows “exquisite passages” and “characteristic lighting,” it still “does not seem quite to hang together. The composition and the values are confused. There has evidently been some retouching needed, and the work of the restorer may account for the puzzling effect.”[9]  Other critics after Cox also remark upon the awkward treatment of light and shadow.  For example, Philip Hale suggests in 1913 that the “ridiculous folds” of the girl’s dress “may have been repainted by some clumsier hand than Vermeer’s.”  Furthermore, as with Cox, Hale also takes issue with the execution of light that fails to fall across the figures in the way Vermeer typically demonstrates.[10]

So what, then, would be the point in bringing “restoration” to a painting that has already been handled by supposed “restorers” and has come out damaged on the other side? Just how did those in charge of Frick’s collection see any possibility of bringing out the “true” Vermeer Girl Interrupted? It is the myth of the profession of paintings conservators that a hand skilled in minutiae and a mind steeped in chemistry can heal blemishes that occurred in the name of conservation in the first place. The loan of Girl Interrupted in its early years in Frick’s collection resulted in the damage one might assume from travel wear.  As a result, some minor work was performed on the canvas stretcher and surface. However, by the late 1930s enough concern arose to recommend a complete overhaul of the painting’s appearance in order to attempt a recovery from centuries of abrasion and poor past restoration efforts.


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Suhr (center) in his Berlin Studio, ca. 1920. Photo: Allison Stewart.

The conservator who would complete a full conservation treatment on Girl Interrupted was the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s very own William Suhr. Suhr has been examined by ArtWatch UK as the fateful “restorer” of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights at the Clark Institute. This treatment met an unfortunate end in the disappearance of a second steamboat; meanwhile, the trustees presented the final product as an “effectively new picture.” Indeed it was.  The Clark Turner was a case of re-restoration, just as the Frick’s Girl Interrupted. In both cases, we are left with muddled or flattened canvases that confuse the eye and disrupt the original artist’s hand.

Suhr’s background at the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, later work under William R. Valentiner (then-Director of the Detroit Institute of Art) in the 1920s, and performance for private collectors on both coasts of the U.S. eventually led him to a great appointment to restore Frick’s Polish Rider by Rembrandt.  His approach to treating Frick’s Girl Interrupted in 1949 was quite typical, but not revelatory in results: he removed the poor inpainting from former restorers, and in so doing was forced to remove old varnish, uncovered an even more abraded and stripped canvas (an image of which ArtWatch is prevented from publication at the request of The Frick Collection), and then proceeded to retouch Vermeer’s original brushstrokes and cover with a final revarnish.

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Girl Interrupted, as appears in Blankert’s 1975 publication. Photo: Albert Blankert, 1975.

A post-cleaning image of Girl Interrupted is reproduced in Albert Blankert’s Johannes Vermeer van Delft, 1632-1675 (1975).  Here, one sees that Suhr had attempted to fix the “ridiculous folds” of the girl’s hood.  He has repainted the hood so that it now appears with less-defined folds on the side. Also altered is the area where her red jacket meets her blue skirt and the sheet music she is holding. Now, it appears her jacket comes to a point at where it hadn’t before.[11] 

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Girl Interrupted, 1910 (detail, pre-restoration)

2013-12-29 - Johannes Vermeer Girl Interrupted at Her Music restoration

Girl Interrupted, 1975 (detail, post-restoration)

Suhr’s treatment, the most extensive conservation work recorded on the painting while at the Frick, quickly fell into disfavor with examinations in the following decades. What followed is exactly what is to be expected: yet more minor retouching and revarnishing performed.   Restorations done over in the span of only three decades do not bode well for the health of the canvas. ArtWatch UK has produced bountiful evidence on the damage of re-restoration on a Vermeer at the National Gallery in London.  ArtWatch UK Director Michael Daley is right in asserting that conservators’ hands have as much to do with the current handed-down appearance of a painting as do the abrasions and wear that Museum displays and exhibitions tend to emphasize.  In the case of Girl Interrupted, one sees this in the Frick’s website’s mention of inconsistencies due to bad restorations pre-Frick’s ownership.

It is astounding to think that, while Suhr was certainly considered one of the top conservators in his day, his treatments just a few decades later received major criticism, and rightly so.  Suhr’s work attempted to recover what others before him had failed to fix. Come 1981, Arthur Wheelock addresses lingering issues in Girl Interrupted: “Unfortunately, this painting is in very bad condition. Only the still-life area preserves something of its original surface qualities.”2   Just as Suhr’s work on the Clark’s Turner was gone over again by David Bull a few decades later, so too did his pass at Girl Interrupted prove to be unsatisfactory for restorers in the 1980s. Does this not provide a clear warning as to the abilities (or lack thereof) of the conservation profession in restoring truly damaged paintings?


While over-restoration has clearly proven of no assistance to this picture, is it possible the canvas has been so dismantled over the years that it now lacks significant trace of Vermeer’s original hand?  Photographic record only goes back to the late nineteenth-century and the author has been unable to turn up any illustration from the 1810 auction catalogue (its first illustrated appearance, which is cited by de Groot in the 1908).  Additionally, various elements in the painting tell of the portmanteau compositions churned out by forgers in great numbers at the turn-of-the-century, just when this painting first arrived in publication and exhibition. For instance, several pieces of this canvas relate quite closely to Vermeer’s Glass of Wine (National Gallery, Washington): the angle of the chair by the window with lion’s-head finials, the painting of Cupid in the same spot on the back wall, the composition and placement of the two main figures, and finally, the angled position of the stringed instrument on the table.  Admittedly, the chairs, window, and musical instrument are also all elements that Vermeer carries throughout other canvases (The Girl with the Wine Glass at the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Baraunschweig, Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, National Gallery, London, and The Music Lesson, Royal Collection, London, among others). The Frick has also permitted Girl Interrupted and their other two Vermeers for several forms of scientific analysis that would prove it originates in the proper time and place for it to be considered a Vermeer. Still, the small, now much weakened, canvas is unable to stand on its own without a series of explanations as to its excessive damage and overworked surface.


What strikes the eye when viewing Girl Interrupted is indeed the sheer flatness of the picture, lacking the detail of more delicate light and shadow. In cleaning, Suhr’s attempt to adjust previous conservators’ over-painting and marks of abrasion only resulted in a picture stripped of its dimensional qualities. Whatever mistakes were made by nineteenth-century restorers, Suhr’s treatment, along with other pressures on the canvas from travel, only made what was already bad a little bit worse. It is understandable that one would want to do whatever was possible to improve upon a $26,000 investment. However, the evidence presented 100 years after Frick’s purchase shows touching and retouching a painting does not always do the trick.

2013-12-29 - The Frick Collection Vermeer South Hall

The Frick Collection’s 3 Vermeers as they appeared in a 2008 display in the South Hall. Photo: Art and Living.

Today, Girl Interrupted at Her Music appears above a French tapestry-covered chair in the Frick’s South Hall, balanced at the other end of the room with a quite different-looking Vermeer canvas entitled Officer and Laughing Girl (c. 1657).  While these two paintings are spaced a good deal apart, the eye cannot lie. The varying shades of light and color, as well as the surface texture (or lack thereof) relates to the viewer the canvases divergent restoration histories. As we have stated in a previous post, Vermeer paintings in New York collections appear as if they were composed by completely different artists. Similar issues exist in works by Vermeer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which will be discussed in a later post.



[1] Jørgen Wadum, René Hoppenbrouwers, and Luuk Struick van der Loeff, Vermeer Illuminated: A Report on the View of Delft and The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer. (The Hague: V+K Publishing/Inmerc, 1994) 18-23.

[2] Vermeer Illuminated, 22.

[3] “Girl Interrupted at Her Music by Johannes Vermeer,” Essential Vermeer. (last accessed 22 November 2013).

[4] C. P. Hofstede de Groot, with W.R. Valentiner. Translated and edited by Edward G. Hawke, Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most eminent Dutch painters of the Seventeenth Century. Vol. 1 (London: MacMillan and Co., Limited, 1908). Listed in de Groot as “A Gentleman and a Young Lady.”

[5] Martin Bailey, Vermeer. (Phiadon Incorporated Limited: London, 1995).

[6] “Girl Interrupted in her Music by Johannes Vermeer,” Essential Vermeer. (last visited 20 September 2013)

[7] Esmée Quodbach, Assistant to the Director of the Center for the History of Collecting in America, “Frick’s Vermeers Reunited,” 2008. The Frick Collection: Exhibitions. (last accessed 17 November 2013).

[8] Wilhelm R Valentiner, Curator of Decoartive Arts, Catalogue of Painting by Old Dutch Masters, Hudson-Fulton Exhibition, Catalogue of a loan exhibition of paintings by old Dutch Masters held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in connection with the Hudson-Celebration, September-November 1909 (Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York, 1910) p. 139 (no. 138)

[9] Kenyon Cox, “Dutch Pictures in the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition-II,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 16, No. 82 (Jan. 1910) 246.

[10] Philip Hale, Jan Vermeer of Delft. (Boston, 1913), 254-55.

[11] Albert Blankert, Johannes Vermeer van Delft, 1632-1675. (Utrecth: Spectrum, 1975) 201.