Fake Beuys drawings scandal in officially sponsored exhibition at Accademia di Brera

Thirty-eight works impounded while court searches for a reliable expert


In 1974 the art critic Thomas Hess proclaimed "The Germans are coming! The Germans are coming!" in New York magazine. Since then, the German presence has made itself progressively felt in the US and in Europe as art follows power, and Germany counts for more on the international scene now than at any time since the last war. Germany's most influential post-war artist, Joseph Beuys, is part of the current exhibition round; he has his token representation in international museums, and his following of collectors. There is, for example, the sculpture exhibition "Joseph Beuys; the revolution is us" at the Tate Gallery, Liverpool, until 3 January 1994, and a group of his drawings is touring America (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, until 15 August). In 1991, the Tate Gallery in London bought his room installation, "The end of the twentieth century".

This artist/philosopher, who died in 1986, is revered as a classic in his own country, and public funds are poured out unhesitatingly to secure his major installations for public collections: in 1988/89, DM16 million was paid for the group of objects in Darmstadt, and in January this year, DM 16.5 (£6.6 million, $9.9 million) for another group in the Neue Galerie in Kassel, which consists of a beaten-up VW bus pulling twenty-four sleds, each with its roll of felt.

One of the numerous questions his gnomic and often rather untidy assemblages and scribblings pose is to what extent he is comprehensible outside Germany, where most of his preachings and events took place. He occupies a special position there as the war veteran-turned artist who played the holy fool from the Sixties until his death, reacted against the driving materialism and trauma of a country which had felt compelled to suppress its terrible past, spoke of every an as an artist and called for "a better structure of thinking, feeling and the will" to reform society. The emotional charge he carries there derives to a great extent from the painful neurosis of the particular society in which he was moving. In fact, the question could be asked whether his "works of art" should not more properly be regarded as relics of his personality and etching rather than as complete, objective works in themselves.

When the cult of relics flourished, fakes abounded; so also now in the case of Beuys, whose least drawings sell at auction for around £10,000 ($15,000). At the moment a case is unfolding involving a group of thirty-eight Beuys works, mostly drawings, which have been impounded by the Milanese magistracy, but which until March were on display in the Accademia di Brera there, with a catalogue to which no less a figure than the director of the Albertina in Vienna, Konrad Oberhuber, has contributed. Sponsorship came from the highly respectable Goethe Institut, the cultural arm of the German Foreign Office, and the Fondazione Marzotta. The works belong to the Viennese dealer Julius Hummel, and are said to have been executed by Beuys during his various visits in Vienna, which began in 1967 with his musical performance called "Eurasienstab 82 min. organum" in the Nächst Sankt Stephan art gallery. During the Seventies, Beuys went to Vienna more often to teach his idea of "social sculpture', which for him meant a combination of performances, political discussions and lectures, held in the Hochschule für Angewandte Kunst, where Oswald Oberhuber (no relation of Konrad) taught and is now director. He enters into the story because he took over the Nächst Sankt Stephan art gallery in 1973, and the three installations in the Brera exhibition, "Jungfrau", "Menschfähre" and "Nässe Wasche" come from there.

With so many of Beuys's works of an informal nature, the question of what is and what is not a fake is by no means easy and the testimony of people who were around to see what he was doing is especially important. Unfortunately, many of those who were, have vested interests, not least in discrediting other potential witnesses. One of the sceptics over the Milan exhibition is Heiner Bastian, the Berlin dealer and exhibition organiser, who at present has an order issued against him by a Berlin court to prevent him, on pain of a DM500,000 find from repeating his allegation that the exhibits from Hummel's gallery are mostly fakes. Bastian had been asserting that some of the works were faked by Oswald Oberhuber himself, while Oberhuber says that they were done by Beuys in his presence and given or sold to him, and that he then sold them on to Hummel.

Another sceptic is the Neapolitan dealer, Lucio Amelio, who enabled Beuys to make one of his largest installations, "Palazzo Regale", in the museum of Capodimonte in Naples and now in the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westphalen in Düsseldorf. Amelio, who himself owns 150 works by Beuys, considers himself to have been appointed the guardian of Beuys's reputation in Italy by the artist's widow, Eva, although there is no confirmation from her of this. Amelio's objections to the works are three-fold: first, the inadequacy of the catalogue, which fails to provide clear provenances and datings for some of the works, which Amelio says neither he, nor Beuys's heirs have seen before; it tries to establish provenances by comparing them to other known works; second, that some of the works have a "painterly quality" which Amelio says is uncharacteristic; third, the generally atypical nature of the material, with fourteen out of the thirty-eight works presented as "Untitled".

When Konrad Oberhuber, the esteemed Albertina art historian, who lately has been showing what could be called "New Age" tendencies in his theories, and at whose institution the exhibition was supposed to be shown next, was asked his opinion by the Giornale dell'Arte (No 109, March 1993 p.4), he denied being a specialist in Beuys and said that he had relied on the opinion of an expert on the artist, such as the other Oberhuber. He opined, though, that Beuys's widow had not necessarily seen everything made by Beuys while he was in Vienna as she stayed behind in Germany, but admitted, "it would probably have been wise to have got in touch with his heirs before the exhibition".

As for Beuys's widow, she preferred not to comment to The Art Newspaper as the matter is still sub judice, awaiting the appointment by the Milan magistracy of an expert, on the basis of whose opinion the case will either be dismissed or will go to court. She referred us instead to forty-six year-old Hans Joachim Verspohl, lecturer at the universities of Dortmund and Jena, who, with "German Tüchtigkeit" is compiling an enormous catalogue raisonné, not just of Beuys's tangible works, but also his utterances and performances day by day throughout his career.

A specialist in Renaissance and twentieth-century art, Verspohl first began the project in 1977, when he started a seminar on Beuys at the university of Hamburg in 1977. He got Beuys's own support for it in 1981, and now has that of his widow and two children, Wenzel and Jessyka. Speaking to The Art Newspaper from the Collegium Budapest in Hungary, Verspohl emphasised the importance now of doing "objective research", disassociated from the art market, particularly because of the problem of fakes. He has already catalogued 50,000 works of all sorts by Beuys. Together with his co-editor, Armin Zweite, director of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westphalen, Uwe Schneede, director of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, and the Beuys heirs - a heavy-weight and authoritative team - he is putting in train the publication of the catalogue in a huge number of booklets, one for each of Beuys's works, to be collected as a series at a rate of about fifty or a hundred a year. He tactfully aims to collaborate with Heiner Bastian and Lucio Amelio and anyone else who had dealings with the artist for the sake of what they remember about him, but is clearly aware that these are shark waters. "Most important", he says, "are documents. I view this work as scholarly research; we want to work very precisely and check all the information". He sees it as no different from cataloguing a Michelangelo. "I do not wish to boast, but I think that if I see the signature of Beuys, I can say whether it is right or wrong, because I have seen a lot of letters and drawings by him, and it is not so easy to forge it as he was a wonderful painter and you can see at once whether a line is by him. That is why I cannot understand why a colleague like Oberhuber didn't look carefully at the drawings in Milan". He will not say definitely whether the Milan drawings are fakes as he has not seen them, but says that the signatures reproduced in the catalogue do not look genuine to him. It is mostly drawings that get faked, he says, as they are the most saleable. These were shown to a student of his two years ago by Hummel, who, he thinks, was suspiciously forthcoming about them.

The information in the existing catalogues, of the multiples of Schellmann, and of the "Vitrines" by Gerhart Theewen, will be incorporated, and publication will begin in about two years with sponsorship, Verspohl hopes, from bodies such as the Kulturstiftung der Länder and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. When asked whether there is not a paradox in producing a minute catalogue raisonné of the works of a man whose impact was largely through his personality and through what he represented when he spoke, Verspohl says, "I don't think so. Beuys was first and foremost an artist; only second was he a theorist, and what he wanted to say is that all our actions must be carried out according to the rules of art - not as an aesthetic thing, but under the rule of aesthetic things. Beuys wrote an essay called "Avant-garde and social awareness" which shows that he tried to live every activity by artistic criteria". He admits that for many people there is a great contradiction between Beuys's theories and their understanding of his art, but he feels that they go together very fruitfully. "I am sure that people have not yet grasped what `social sculpture or social art' is. That is why we need very precise knowledge, not just of the works but of all the surrounding circumstances. It is certain that he was a very great artist, one of the greatest of our century, and his works will survive into the next".

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Fake Beuys drawings scandal in officially sponsored exhibition'