Ever since his first ceramics exhibition, in 1873, French impressionist painter Paul Gauguin stirred controversy.
His biographers describe a glamorous, maverick artist who was pursued by night, lived in squalor and didn't want anyone to call him an artist. He refused to fit in. He kicked his harem of women but left them alone for a long time after he booted them out of his Paris apartment. One of the favorite words of critics reviewing Gauguin's new paintings was "fashionably degenerate."
Gauguin died at a Los Angeles County morgue in 1899 at the age of 36, crushed by truck wheels. In later years, the story went, Gauguin's friends had enlisted a "mercenary" to drive him off the balcony of his hotel, where he lay fatally sick. The tale was never told to the exactitude it demanded, and there is a large gap between what happened and what was reported, and we know nothing of the lover.
Then, in 1956, the Getty Research Institute uncovered a rare and compelling artefact: a Gauguin sculpture bearing an inscription that proved the artist had left France. Covered with paint and varnish, the work had been stolen in 1927 by a European art connoisseur, but the Getty bought it at auction in 1967 for $795,000.
Over the years, Getty researchers, art experts and critics insisted the work was genuine, and now we know the truth — the most important question at the center of a three-year investigation by the Getty Research Institute's nonprofit arm, the Getty Conservation Institute, that concluded in January.
Why hadn't the Getty pursued this — and other — claims?
"There is a kind of feeling of numbness in the community, that we've done all this and spent millions of dollars," says B.J. Kring, an independent curator who has studied Gauguin in Los Angeles, including both the Getty's stolen statue and his Los Angeles studio.
Because Los Angeles County does not have a police force, "part of the investigation also involved trying to figure out who to contact."
You know what he was like when he was painted — the trumpet-voiced artist, the philosophe who wanted to be called a philosopher. — Sociologist Peter Coggan
The investigation may have started late, but it was undertaken at the behest of Linda Bilmes, a renowned UCLA historian and Tolstoy scholar, who later founded the Getty Center. Bilmes wanted to start a larger project and began asking colleagues for possible targets.
In the end, the ivory sculpture, titled "Enquetes de Ravigée," was the only object that couldn't be traced to a specific painting by Gauguin. The sculpture ended up at what is now the Musée Bourges in France, but without specific blueprints and a full appraisal, the museum was unable to account for its ownership. An Australian artist offered a $2-million insurance payout in 1981, but less than a year later, the Getty Institute stood by the sculpture.
If the Getty had opted for full authentication, it would have been a daunting task. In fact, it may have been impossible.
After all, Gauguin had just been assassinated. For one thing, Gouguin would have been looking over the shoulders of his accomplice, Bernard Simonds, who would have stepped over a tremendous cannon at the grave of the artist's friend and lover.
More than that, Kring says, the Getty knew the statue was genuine because it had authenticated several paintings by Gauguin in the weeks before the death of the Paris artist in April 1898.
So it was really a matter of verifying the authenticity of artwork that already had been approved.
"Gauguin might have wanted people to believe that he would have knowingly stolen art," Kring said. "It's hard to know what his motivation might have been. Art is supposed to be a realm of mystery and fantasy. If that's the case, then why not go for it?"
A decline in the number of FBI agents and museum historians prompted many art museums to rely more on private investigators to get to the bottom of old mysteries.
If anyone at the Getty had become more interested in convincing themselves that the illegal, "faux" acquisition of the statue by art dealer Catherine Schaetein had been the only theft at hand, Kring says, "I just don't know what else they could have done to make their point."
Sociologist Peter Coggan, who was researching Gauguin in Los Angeles in the late 1970s and early 1980s, says the case shows how museums get swamped by fake artifacts.
He noted that the Getty was dependent on a smaller number of art dealers and collectors to