Albert Elsen: He knows when Picasso isn't Picasso
Palo Alto, California — Art makes news when Rembrandt's "Night Watch" is slashed, when sonic booms rattle Britain's medieval cathedrals, when Venice sinks further into its lagoon, when terrorists hold famous paintings as ransom for the release of political prisoners.
Art also makes news, more often than not, when art historian Albert Elsen picks up his phone and calls the press.
For years, the outspoken acting chairman of Stanford University's art department has been leaking stories and initiating investigations into art forgeries, corruption among museum trustees, and the politics behind art exhibitions. Some call him the "deep throat" of the fine arts world.
Elsen, a world authority on Rodin and former president of the College Art Association, is well known for riding herd on unethical practices by so-called custodians of culture -- artists, dealers, curators -- and the isn't afraid to tug the tail of any sacred cow that crosses his path.
"Most art historians could care less about the public," says Elsen, "but I can't sit by when I see something wrong."
While his outspokenness doesn't go down well with his more discrete academic colleagues, it certainly had brought a favorable response from what Elsen calls "the real world." Beating a path to his door these days are appraisers wanting authentication of sculpture, attorneys-general seeking legal advice on art matters, and reporters looking for a scoop.
"He's an eagle-spotter, a kind of cop policing the art world," says Grace Glueck, New York Times art critic and columnist, who has turned a number of Elsen's tips into front page news. "Most curators and directors are terribly tightlipped. The art world is like a club, but Elsen speaks out, and I admire him for that."
Silvia Hochfield, senior editor of Artnews adds: "It's hard to find a source like Al. He's full of moral indignation. Most art historians care only about their scholarly work. Al's different. He once told me: 'The history of [a work of] art doesn't end when it's created. It exists in the world and continues to be a matter of concern.'"
Elsen is a garrulous man with an elfin smile, a ruddy complexion, and broad brush moustache. His office has the ordered chaos of a newsroom. An old Royal typewriter sits next to a desk strewn with papers, magazines, and books. Elsen has recycled an orange marmalade jar to hold his paintbrushes and scissors.
Near a green feather sculpture on his door is a poster of Dennis Hopper gesturing from his Harley Davidson. His walls are papered with black and white photographers of the Rodin sculptures and plasters Elsen is assembling for a museum show in 1981, which, he says, will be the "largest exhibition in history of Rodin's work.
"Take a look at this," says Elsen, pulling a Kodachrome slide from a drawer and holding it up to the sunlight. "This is the crown of St. Stephen, used by Carter in 1978 to try and weaken the Communist Bloc in Eastern Europe by winning the hearts and minds of the Hungarians away from the Russians."
Since A.D. 1000 the crown had been the repository of legal authority in Hungary, and in 1944, before the Communists took over Budapest, the crown was turned over to American armed forces "for safekeeping," says Elsen. "The first thing the Communists did when they took over in Hungary was to build a replica of the crown. But it didn't fool anybody."
In 1974, a group of Hungarian artists asked Elsen to help get the authentic crown returned to Budapest. "I had never heard of the Crown of St. Stephen.It took me three months to find the crown was in Fort Knox, under the custody of the director of the National Gallery, who took his orders from the Secretary of State. I was told to 'cool it,' because the future of the crown is to be decided by the President of the United States."
Elsen went on to propound his theory that the international exchange of art exhibitions is not "art for art's sake." Many nations, he says, have found that sending their ancient treasures on a tour of the United States is one certain way to win American goodwill.
He calls the King Tut exhibition a "spectacular example" of art being used as international diplomacy, maintaining that "if you look at the public opinion polls before the Tut show and since the show, you will see a rather dramatic change in favor of the Egyptians vis-a-vis Israel."
He claims there's "not a scintilla of doubt that the prolongation of the show in America was because of the tremendous publicity and goodwill the Egyptians were getting."
He cites the exhibition of the Book of Kells as another ample, asserting that "the Irish were trying to compensate for the bad public image they get when people pick up the newspapers and read about children getting killed in Ulster.
The most recent "blockbuster" show to come to the United States is the "Treasure of Dresden." -- Asks Elsen "Why at this time does the East German government send to this country the cream of its great collection in Dresden? you think it's strictly for scholarship or to entertain the American public or to bolster the sagging financial fortune of a group of capitalist museums, then when your next tooth falls out you'll put it under your pillow."
Never underestimate the power of art to alter the political climate, says Elsen. "I guarantee that if . . . Ayatollah [Khomeini] would suddenly ship to this country for a three year national tour the treasures of Iran, the man on the street would revise his opinion."
Increasingly, says Elsen, terrorists will take Rembrandt and Botticellis as hostages. "I predict an increace in [words omitted from source] kidnappings,' the kidnappings of important works of art held ransom, not just to make a deal with the insurance com[Word Illegible], but for political purposes. This happened in England. A [Word Illegible] was kidnapped from the museums, and the thieves [Word Illegible] some Irish revolutionaries released from prison, or [ Word Illegible] would destroy the work of art."
They sent slivers from the painting to the Times of Lon[Word Illegible] But the British didn't give in, and the painting was even[Word Illegible] recovered."
When it comes to uncovering Rodin forgers, Elsen is a [Word Illegible] Sherlock Holmes. His educated eye can spot skulldug[Word Illegible] a mile away.
"Fakers want to do things that interior decorators will [Word Illegible] on walls, something that will show up from great dis[Word Illegible] Most of Rodin's drawings are too small for that. There are hundreds and hundreds of Rodin fakes in this country, and you can tell them because the drawings are large, or lightly colored, or obviously erotic, or often in an impossible [Word Illegible] The fakers just didn't have Rodin's knowledge of anatomy or understand how and why he applied color."
Why does America tolerate the forgeries?
"Americans look upon fakers as cultural heroes . . . It's [Word Illegible] of the country's love-hate relationship with experts. The [Word Illegible] of fooling the expert is everybody's dream. It's sort of the Horatio Alger story.
"Secondly, who gets hurt by forgeries? People with money. . . ." According to Elsen, an art forger can't lose. "If he gets caught he can make a fortune writing autobiography. Or he can threaten to reveal all the names of the muse[ Word Illegible] in which his fakes are hanging, which causes a great deal of suspense and embarrassment. People . . . don't like the world to know that they were had. With such intense competition for great works of art and so few qualified exports, there is bound to be an even greater boom in fakesand [Word Illegible]
In 1973 Elsen and one of his graduate students assemed on exhibition called "Rodin Drawings: True and Fake," knowing, a hundred authentic Rodin drawings, along with the work of four Rodin forgers. In the final part of the exhibition [Word Illegible] jumbled up about 30 drawings, gave museum-goes a scorecard, and asked them to separate the fakes from the deal McCoys.
"The public loves a detective story, and we figured not let them share in our detective story," says Elsen. Show hung for a total of eight months in the Guggenhein New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, during that time Elsen's delineation between true and fake was not challenged once.
Drawing the line between reproductions and counter as a more ticklish task. "Exact reproductions are getting good you can't tell them from the original, and that is feed the market for fakes and forgeries. It's the kind of [Word Illegible] [Nelson] Rockefeller was involved in [when he was market reproductions of items from collections].
"It's symptomatic of the culture. We're inundated with productions of all kinds, from synthetic food to gasohol. I don't think it's important whether you have gasohol, diesel, or gasoline, but it is important in art whether it's a substitute.
"Reproductions are big business. You know what the Metropolitan Museum of Art makes from their souvenir shop? Twelve million dollars a year. That's the tail wagging the dog. How far do you go to provide the public, with souvenirs.When do they become counterfeits?"
Since 1971 Elsen has taught, with his neighbor, Stanford Law School professor John Merryman, a course on "art and the law." "John went to his colleagues in the law school, proposed the course, and the vote was 31 against our giving the course, one in favor," says Elsen. "The vote in favor was the dean's, so we had a majority -- not a clear majority but a majority.
"We began ad-libbing it from week to week, depending upon the newspapers and current cases, while we frantically researched what the existing laws were."
Elsen's collection of newspaper clippings has since hatched a two-volume text , thicker than the Manhattan phone book, and used in law schools throughout the land. The text tackles such sticky legal issues as the international movement of stolen and smuggled works; censorship; tax and estate problems of artists, collectors, and dealers; art as investment; museum trustees and ethics; copyrights; forgeries; and artists' rights.
"We contrasted the American legal system regarding the treatment of art with the French and English and realized how unsophisticated America is. The French consider works of art not just as commercial commodities but as extensions of the artist, a projection of his personality," says Elsen, adding that, under the guidance of Merryman, California recently enacted the first "moral rights law" in the country.
"It prevents the distortion or mutilation of a work of art without the artist's consent. If somebody cuts a window through a mural or mutilates a painting, at this moment in 49 states the artist has no recourse in law against the person that violated the work. In the state of California, he now has a course of action."
The '70s scrutinized the ethics of presidents and congressmen. Now it is the turn of museum trustees. "Trustees of art museums have always been considered ladies and gentlemen of established reputations, who have nothing personal to gain. Museum were thought of as charities, and trustees served out of social obligation. Now people realize that museums constitute a crucial cultural resource in a community, and trustees will have to be more accountable to their memberships. The emphasis on ethics is a spillover from Watergate, and attorneys general will be more alert to trusttees' activites and possible conflicts of interest."
Forgers and corrupt museum trustees bring art into the news. Albert Elsen intends to keep it there.