Museum Donor Replaces Originals with Digital Copies

Reproduction Monet
The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article about Nelson Atkins Museum donor Henry Bloch. After the donation of an important collection of 29 paintings, the museum printed digital copies of each works, and and sent them to Mr Bloch. They are now hung in his home in the same spot the originals were.

The article states that the museum is now offering this option to other donors. In the Block donation, they museum would have had to wait for the passing of Mr Bloch and for the estate to pass the collection along. The museum was able to secure the collection much sooner and display as part of its permanent collection through the use of the digital copies.

I found this interesting as recently I had an assignment with a large law firm which had a portrait of the founding name partner from the 1930. They wished to donate the painting to a museum, but was also interested in copies to place in its various national and international offices. It was not that expensive of a proposition.

The Wall Street Journal reports
After Kansas City, Mo., collector Henry Bloch donated an enviable group of impressionist artworks to the city’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the museum returned the favor, sort of.

The museum printed digital copies of each of Mr. Bloch’s 29 paintings—including examples by Edouard Manet, Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse—and delivered the framed replicas to his home two months ago so he could hang them in the exact same spots as the originals. Mr. Bloch, co-founder of tax-return preparer H&R Block, said the copies are so realistic, he has to peer closely to discern the differences. “Every museum should be offering this service,” he said.

Art forgers aren’t the only ones using technology to produce ever-more-convincing fake paintings. Museums, in a rarely discussed practice, are churning them out as thank-you gifts to major donors. Curators say it’s mostly a taboo topic because the recipients don’t always like to admit they’ve got a glorified poster hanging in the place of a masterpiece, but Sotheby’s said auction houses have long gifted their major consignors with framed copies of big-ticket items.

Julian Zugazagoitia, CEO and director of the Nelson-Atkins, said he initially considered the Bloch copies to be a fluky one-off, a gesture that could allow the museum to display Mr. Bloch’s art as part of its permanent collection when it reopens its renovated European art galleries March 11. Otherwise, it would have had to wait for the works to be given in a promised bequest as part of the 94-year-old collector’s estate. (Mr. Bloch’s foundation paid $12.7 million for the renovation.)

Yet as word spread of the museum’s unconventional offer, the director said his own trustees started reaching out, seeking prints for their art holdings. The director said going public about the potential perk could elicit gifts while donors are still alive. “The offer is becoming part of my tool kit now,” Mr. Zugazagoitia said.

Mr. Zugazagoitia said he is aware that such swapping could undermine one of the intangible factors that fuel an artwork’s value, namely the evidence of the artist’s own handiwork or at least the artist’s legitimizing involvement. The museum itself will continue to display only original works, not copies. “We still believe in the aura of artists’ works,” he said. “People who come here need to see the originals.”

The museum’s knockoffs are designed to look real—but only from the front so as not to dupe anyone long-term, said Steve Waterman, the museum’s director of design and experience. The fake canvases lack telltale brush strokes, and the backs of their frames lack gallery labels and other notations that appraisers and authenticators typically use to determine a work’s legitimacy.

For his part, Mr. Bloch said he and his late wife, Marion, spent several decades learning how to sift genuine masterpieces from fakes. After he and his brother Richard started their namesake tax company in 1955—having altered the spelling to “Block” to avoid mispronunciation—Mr. Bloch said he started paying more attention to art. Early on, he said he got “burned” when he found out one of his earliest purchases, a Dutch Old Master, had been heavily restored to cover up damage, and therefore worth far less than the $10,000 he’d paid for it. “I wondered why it was so reasonably priced,” he said.

After that, he said he and his wife pivoted to collecting impressionism and postimpressionism, relying heavily on the advice of experts at the Nelson-Atkins. Between 1975 and 1997, they amassed a well-respected collection, led by Manet’s “The Croquet Party” and a Paul Cézanne portrait of a “Man with a Pipe” that’s linked to the artist’s iconic “Card Players” series.

One recent afternoon, he walked easily around the plush parlor and sun-dappled living room of his 1962 home. He has stories for each one of his artworks, from the Camille Pissarro streetscape that once belonged to actor Edward G. Robinson to the Pierre Bonnard kitchen scene that his wife hung in their dining room. The Bonnard was her favorite, he said, stepping close and letting his fingers gently stroke the canvas. “See? You can touch it because it’s fake,” he said.

They always intended to will their collection to the Nelson-Atkins, he said. But after she died four years ago, he started thinking he would like to see the art resettled during his lifetime. The copies keep his walls from “getting lonely,” he said, and he’s not embarrassed to live with fakes because it gives him a chance to tell visitors about his new Bloch Galleries at the museum. He is also sleeping more soundly because he doesn’t fear burglars or a house fire as much as he did earlier, and he’s no longer paying as much in corresponding insurance, he said.

Catherine Futter, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs, said she understands how Mr. Bloch could make the easy leap from authentic to imitation art. “When he walks in and sees that Cézanne, he’s remembering the original,” she said. “We want to see brush strokes and the impasto, but he doesn’t need that now. He still sees it.”
Source: The Wall Street Journal 

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