The Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Archive in Wichtrach/Bern and the clarification of questions of authenticity concerning Kirchner’s works

Lecture delivered at the conference “Bild und Wissenschaft – Der Umgang mit dem künstlerischen Erbe von Hodler bis Jawlensky”, Hochschule der Künste Bern, 14th February 2003, published (in German) in the series “Bild und Wissenshaft, Forschungsbeiträge zu Leben und Werk Alexej von Jawlenskys”, Vol. 1, Locarno 2003, pp. 35-44.

The Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Archive in Wichtrach/Bern and the clarification of questions of authenticity concerning Kirchner’s works

(Reprint of a lecture delivered in 2003. See end of text for details) 

First, a prefacing remark: since the beginning both of our work of building up the archive and of my activity as an expert appraiser of the works of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, I had long been of the opinion that experts should keep their knowledge to themselves in order that art forgers could not use this knowledge to make their forgeries even more perfect. There were many good reasons for this attitude and I shall come to them later.

Since taking part in the symposium on Jawlensky’s works on paper in Essen I have come to the opposite conclusion that the experiences and methods of archiving and appraisal should be the subject of a lively exchange, not least because forgers of works by altogether different artists do in fact operate according to similar basic patterns, thus making a methodology of forgery recognition possible – and hence communicable. I shall be giving several examples of this later.

There is also another long-held opinion, not to say prejudice, that I have recently had to correct: for over twenty years I was of the opinion that questions of authenticity should, if possible, always be clarified by “scientific forensic” methods, i.e. by means of objectively detectable facts, and that the art-historical method of style criticism was the least reliable and hence applicable only as the last possible resort. A lecture given by Ewald Rathke at the Swiss Institute for Art History in ZĂĽrich two years ago made me change my mind.  Even if all the evidence points to a work’s authenticity, style criticism must on no account be neglected.  More about this later as well.

There are also two preliminary remarks I should like to make concerning the peculiarities of Kirchner’s oeuvre that have a bearing on the work of our Archive:

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner had a hard struggle in life – with his art, with the world about him and with himself – and so it is not surprising that even the indirect threat of National Socialism – the Nazis could not get a direct hold on him in his safe haven of Davos – was what finally killed him. His work, on the other hand, was blessed with many a good fortune.  Unlike the works of his fellow artists of “Die BrĂĽcke”, Erich Heckel, Max Pechstein and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, whose works – above all their works on paper and their sculptures – largely fell victim in their Berlin studios to the Allied air raids during the Second World War, Kirchner’s oeuvre survived. Their works, which – until 1913 – were produced virtually together with those of Kirchner’s, have survived only fragmentarily, while Kirchner’s works, which were moved in their entirety from Berlin to Davos around 1920, have been preserved, with the exception of only a very few works that had been confiscated from German museums within the compass of the “Degenerate Art” campaign. Moreover, Kirchner’s works were kept and inventoried at the Basel Art Museum from 1946 until 1954 under the outstanding supervision of the then director of the museum, Georg Schmidt. Each individual work was marked with Kirchner’s estate stamp. From 1954, Kirchner’s oeuvre was in the care of the estate administrator appointed by Kirchner’s heirs, my late father-in-law Roman Norbert Ketterer, who died last year (2002). His administrative function has now been taken over by Ingeborg Henze-Ketterer and GĂĽnther Ketterer.

The second peculiarity has an even greater bearing on our work of clarifying authenticity: in the course of his life as an artist, during which Kirchner produced tens of thousands of drawings and thousands of watercolours and oil paintings, Kirchner developed a special pencil and brush stroke that is very difficult to imitate. We once had the opportunity of subjecting this fact to a practical test. A young academy graduate, a highly gifted draughtsman but still young enough to be trained to copy works of others, assisted us during an exhibition of Kirchner’s drawings. We spoke about the difficulty of imitating Kirchner’s drawing style. The young artist could not rest until he himself had tried to imitate Kirchner’s style. He tried time and time again and then finally gave up the attempt as impossible. This fact has made my work of clarifying authenticity much easier.

1. The Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Archive: Current status and future objectives

The Kirchner Archive in Wichtrach consists of a documentation of the entire oeuvre of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and a library of publications on Kirchner, Expressionism, modern art and art history in general.  Our work of documentation began in 1979 with the publication of the book “E.L. Kirchner – Zeichnungen” through the Belser-Verlag, Stuttgart.  It was based on Roman Norbert Ketterer’s documentation of the works of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner at the Stuttgarter Kunstkabinett until 1962 and on his continued documentation in collaboration with Wenzel Nachbaur in Campione until 1979. Contrary to expectations, the inventory of the works kept at the Basel Art Museum from 1946 until 1954 had not survived. Recently I was at last afforded – thanks to the kind help and support of Mendes BĂĽrgi – an insight into the files relating to Kirchner’s estate.  While our Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Archive is listed in all relevant catalogues and indexes, it is a private archive and therefore accessible only by appointment. Most enquiries, however, can be dealt with in writing, which I do “in bits and batches” on quiet weekends. Given this situation and structure of the archive, a complete evaluation of any specific aspect of Kirchner’s oeuvre is not readily possible, and certainly not without the input of my experience based on my 24 years’ work in this field. I am sure that this will be understood and accepted by all concerned.

Every work by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner that comes to our knowledge has a file in the archive. The literature in the library on Kirchner and Expressionism is constantly augmented for completeness. Missing books – mainly from the period before 1945 – are acquired whenever possible or substituted by copies. However, the said books are for the most part accessible in the library of the Kirchner Museum in Davos, the latter having been formerly donated to the museum by Roman Norbert Ketterer. All new literature obtained by our library is scrutinized for works by Kirchner, which are then documented in the relevant file [...]. This applies both to all works that have already been offered on the art market and to works offered for the very first time. The guide sheets for the newly acquired books are then collected for bibliographical use [...].

Kirchner’s oeuvre comprises a total of around 25,000 – 30,000 works, of which there are approximately 12,000 sketchbook pages, 10,000 drawings, pastels and watercolours, 1,500 oil paintings (including verso paintings) and 2,100 prints, the latter being mostly unique exemplars inasmuch as prints from the same plate were few in number and differed from one another considerably in terms of their states, colouring and paper and therefore demanded an individual description in each case. (Any estimation of the size of Kirchner’s oeuvre all told cannot in any way be based on the number of works that originally constituted Kirchner’s estate, as Kirchner sold many more works during his lifetime than is generally assumed. The collection of Dr. Bauer, for example, comprised 229 drawings, pastels and watercolours; the Gervais collection at least 500 etc.)               

The documentation of Kirchner’s oeuvre in the Kirchner Archive is divided into the following departments:

A. Oil paintings
B. Sculptures

C. Drawings, pastels and watercolours
D. Prints

E. Photography
F. Textiles from Kirchner’s designs

G. The artist’s writings, texts, letters etc.
H. Bibliography

Up until now, Department C (Drawings, pastels and watercolours) has been sorted within the individual years from 1900 to 1938 according to themes [...] so that at this stage – the “material collecting phase” – it is possible to keep like with like. However, on account of the fact that many works are still of uncertain date, some works have been sorted simultaneously into various years according to their varied dating. Department C also includes complete and excellent photocopies of all sketchbooks, the originals of which are kept at the Kirchner Museum in Davos.

The “material collecting phase” is now finished, as it may be assumed that the collected information is now present to a high degree of completeness. The next phase involves putting the material collected in Department C together with the documentation relating to the works still existing in the Kirchner estate, sorting them according to groups of related works and identifying fixed points of dating, thus bringing us closer to a more accurate chronology than has hitherto been possible in this area of Kirchner’s oeuvre where works are so difficult to date reliably.

It goes without saying that the dating of Kirchner’s works in Department C would hardly be possible without taking into account the works in all the other departments: oil paintings and prints, sculptures and photography, and also Kirchner’s writings. Indeed, the logical, long-term objective is a catalogue raisonnĂ© of all Kirchner’s works in their chronological order of production. What has today been possible with the 9,000 works of Paul Klee ought soon to be possible with the 30,000 works of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, not least on account of the rapid developments in computer science and printed media technology. The aim is to input all collected data into a computer database with integrated illustrations. Work has already begun (Access-MsWord, MuseumPlus).                

The many tasks of the Kirchner Archive, all of which are time-consuming and hence costly, include the preparation of exhibitions in public institutions, collaboration on publications authored by experts on Kirchner and Expressionism and the worldwide administration of Kirchner’s copyrights. I would like to describe these three tasks briefly before going on to the main topic, the clarification of questions of authenticity.


2. Preparation of exhibitions

Numerous exhibitions on Kirchner and Expressionism have since the 1980s taken place with the help of the Kirchner Archive. The Archive not only affords a complete overview of Kirchner’s oeuvre but also has at its disposal the largest imaginable quantity of good and, more importantly, coloured illustrations of Kirchner’s works. It is in this regard that the significance of a work that is generally known only through a small-format, black-and-white photograph can be fully realized. A coloured photograph loaned from the archive may be a good alternative to a work that for some reason cannot be obtained for an exhibition.

Besides its permanent collaboration with the Kirchner Museum in Davos, the Archive is intensively involved in the curating of exhibitions and/or cooperates closely with curators who use the Archive for the preparation of their own exhibitions. The following exhibitions are typical examples:


German Expressionist Sculpture / Skulptur des Expressionismus, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Hirshhorn Museum Washington, Josef-Haubrich Kunsthalle, Cologne 1983/84

German Art in the 20th Century / Deutsche Kunst im 20. Jahrhundert, Royal Academy of Arts London, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart 1985/86

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Zeichnungen, Aquarelle, Pastelle, Kunsthalle NĂĽrnberg, Nuremberg 1991

Presentation of the Collection in the New Museum Building, Kirchner Museum Davos 1992

Figures du Moderne, L’Expressionisme en Allemagne 1905 - 1914, Musée d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris 1992/93

Ernst Ludwig Kirchne - Die Strassenszenen 1913-1915, BrĂĽcke-Museum Berlin 1993

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Von Jena nach Davos, Stadtmuseum Göhre in Jena 1993/94
Von der BrĂĽcke zum Blauen Reiter, Museum am Ostwall, Dortmund 1996

Die Expressionisten vom Aufbruch bis zur Verfehmung, Museum Ludwig, Cologne 1996

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner auf Fehmarn, Schleswig-Holsteinisches Landesmuseum Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig 1997

Espressionismo Tedesco: Arte e SocietĂ , Palazzo Grassi, Venice 1997

Nolde, Schmidt-Rottluff und ihre Freunde, Die Sammlung Martha und Paul Rauert, Ernst Barlach Haus Hamburg, Museum fĂĽr Neue Kunst Freiburg i. Br., Kirchner Museum Davos, BrĂĽcke-Museum Berlin and many other venues 1999ff
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Farbige Werke auf Papier, Kunstmuseum Bonn 1999

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Leben ist Bewegung, Galerie der Stadt Aschaffenburg, Landesmuseum Oldenburg 1999/2000

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – “Kirchner in Königstein”, Galerie Jahrhunderthalle Hoechst 1999/2000

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Das innere Bild, Kirchner Mueum Davos, Museum Folkwang Essen 2000

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Museo d’Arte Moderna Lugano 2000

Der Potsdamer Platz, Nationalgalerie Berlin 2001

Die BRĂśCKE in Dresden 1905-1911, Galerie Neue Meister Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden 2001/02

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Zeichnungen, Aquarelle, Druckgraphik, Saarland Museum, SaarbrĂĽcken 2001/02

“In Momenten grössten Rausches” Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Zeichnungen, Druckgraphik, Staatliche Museen Kassel, Graphische Sammlung 2002/03

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Das plastische Werk / Der Maler als Bildhauer, Kirchner MuseumDavos, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart 2002/03

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner at Dresden and Berlin, National Gallerery, Washington, Royal Academy of Arts, London 2003

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Bergleben, Die frĂĽhen Davoser Jahre 1917-1926, Kunstmuseum, Basel 2003/04

Another time-consuming but necessary task in connection with exhibitions is the locating of works of art and the conveying of loan requests – together with an accompanying letter – to private collectors. […] The actual choice of exhibits is always made by the exhibiting institution. The Archive acts as an intermediary only on request or makes alternative suggestions only in the event of a loan refusal.

In order to co-ordinate the work of the Archive more effectively and to avoid any excessive competition between organizers of exhibitions wishing to obtain the same works, the Archive keeps a constantly updated list of planned exhibitions on Kirchner and Expressionism, thus being able to give appropriate advice to the public institutions (museums, galleries etc.) concerned […]. This should actually be the task of a central agency affiliated to the exhibiting institutions, which could then co-ordinate all exhibitions, but the public institutions that would actually benefit from it have so far not been able to take the initiative.


3. Publications

In principle, what I have just said about exhibitions also applies to publications on Kirchner and Expressionism.  Here, too, a complete overview of Kirchner’s work is extremely important. It ensures that not always the same works are illustrated and described, for it is often the case that the most important works belong to collections that are difficult to access and are hardly known due to the inadequate quantity, quality and/or size of available illustrations.

The files documenting Kirchner’s individual works also contain complete bibliographies relating to each work, and the books or essays listed in the bibliographies are contained in the library in the same room. This facilitates the work of anyone working in the Archive. This facility is, however, available only to a limited number of academics at any one time due to lack of space and organizational capacity (so far the rule “from dissertation upwards” has proved to work well).     

The Archive has been involved, for example, in recent publications by Lucius Grisebach, Gerd Presler and Roland Scotti. For my recently published book on the sculptures of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner I was naturally able to enjoy the full benefit offered by the Archive. Currently in the process of publication are Kirchner’s letters to Carl Hageman, edited by Hans Delfs. 

Just as the Archive is involved in the location of works of art for exhibitions, so too does it obtain photographic material from the owners of works for publication purposes. The Archive can provide its own photographs only to a limited extent, that is to say, only photographs of the those works owned by our gallery or, but only partially, the works that still form part of the estate.  Our Bolliger-Ketterer Photo Archive supplies good prints of the photographs that Kirchner took himself. These photographs are meanwhile also available from the Kirchner Museum in Davos, some of them in a much better quality, as they can be printed from the negatives that are kept there.

4. Copyright administration

Part and parcel of the work of the Kirchner Archive is the administration of the copyrights to the works of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. In this context the Archive in no way sees itself as a cash gatherer (like Pro Litteris or VG Bildkunst, for example) but rather as a means of promoting the work of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner worldwide on the one hand and a means of obtaining information and literature for the Archive on the other.

The copyrights are administered on behalf of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s heirs, to whom 70 percent of the gross income through copyright royalties is payable. Exempt from royalties, but not from the obligation to send voucher copies and to give notice of copyright, are publications sold only in museums […] or used by teaching or social institutions and also the entire art trade and all art galleries. Publications relating to Davos and the Kirchner Museum were of course also exempt for as long as Kirchner was still subject to Swiss copyright law.

The voucher copies received by the Archive are sorted according to the bibliographical practice already mentioned and documented at regular intervals before being put into the library. Large prints – in calendars or as posters – are also collected.

5. Questions of authenticity

a. General

The need for a comprehensive documentation of Kirchner’s entire oeuvre in the form in which it exists today was occasioned around 1980 by a sudden feeling of uncertainty whenever it came to dealing with questions of authenticity. It was found that, no matter how well one was familiar with the work in question, clarification of authenticity simply with the aid of memory was no longer possible and could easily lead to a wrong conclusion. In other words, we needed as large a quantity of readily available illustrations as possible for comparison purposes. Our initial task consisted above all in documenting those drawings, pastels and watercolours that had never been catalogued. The end result was an archive of Kirchner’s entire oeuvre that had the subsequent ongoing task of taking in all information that might still come to light about one work or another.

Since then, questions of authenticity have been clarified with the aid of all readily available comparative examples and other accessible information. In cases where there is still some doubt, we are able to consult a number of experts, including Roman Norbert Ketterer [meanwhile deceased], Eberhard W. Kornfeld, Annemarie Dube-Heynig and Wolf-Dieter Dube. When it comes to clarifying questions of authenticity, the Archive operates not just on request but also whenever any suspicion arises concerning the authenticity of a particular work. This last aspect has of course often meant losing friends rather than gaining them, as does our strictly observed principle “in dubio contra reum” (“if in doubt, decide against the accused”), for here we are concerned with things, not people. Photo-certificates are issued only upon presentation of the original work in the Archive – for the duration of at least one week. […] Enquirers receive detailed information on the necessary procedure. In cases where there is absolutely no doubt about a work’s authenticity, a comprehensive report is issued without any need to present the original work for examination in the Archive. […]

Enquirers must provide all the necessary information in writing and send, not bring, the work in question to the Archive. Telephone and personal conversations should be limited to an absolute minimum in order to avoid any possible misunderstandings. It goes without saying – indeed, we must stress the fact – that our archiving activities and those of our gallery, which also sells works from the Kirchner estate commercially, are strictly separated. In other words, any work that is being – or has been – examined for the purpose of establishing its authenticity is taboo for the gallery.

The implementation of this strategy has made the clarification of the authenticity of Kirchner’s works comparatively reliable – as far as it is humanly possible to tell – and much more reliable than is the case with other artists of his generation and with the other Expressionists (not to mention the works of some modern artists from non-German-speaking countries). Let me give you a concrete example: recently exposed forgers were identified by the Kirchner Archive as Kirchner forgers many years before their actual general “exposure” – Edgar Mrugalla in 1987 and the postcard forger Armin Eigner in 1988.

Naturally, Kirchner forgeries and works wrongly attributed to Kirchner also have their place in the Kirchner Archive, sorted according to theme. Indeed, we have a complete fake “Kirchner” in a whole multitude of files.

b. Forgers’ strategies

Forgeries are not deemed as such until they are offered for sale under the name of supposed artist. Before that they are merely copies, replicas, imitations, reproductions, possibly variations, unless they have been produced with the deliberate intention of “making money” by selling them as originals. Unfortunately this is the case with most of the forgeries hitherto documented by the Archive.     

Copies may be just as dangerous: we know a great many collectors who, for one reason or another, wish or have to sell their works and then hang in their place good copies painted in the original manner, not just to console themselves, but in some cases to deceive others, even members of their own families.  What might happen with such copies – depending on the quality of their execution – is anybody’s guess.

For the most part, Kirchner forgeries take the form of copies, partial copies or completely new compositions produced from several partial copies.

The copyist among the forgers may at times make the most naïve mistakes: he uses certain books or catalogues on Kirchner as “sample or pattern books”, so to speak, making whole series of copies from them. Despite the extremely high quality of many an imitation, two basic mistakes are often made:

Firstly: The copyist confuses the techniques, that is to say, he copies drawings and pastels from his “sample book” but then also copies a lithograph, mistaking it for a pastel.

Secondly: He fails to recognize the depicted objects properly and draws something completely different. Thus it is possible that a haystack is transformed into a dog kennel or the like.       

The more ingenious copyist is the one who makes partial copies. These are details or individual parts of a composition, mostly produced in the format 1:1 from printed illustrations. Typical examples are the postcards forged by Armin Eigner. It is not clear how he achieved such exact congruence.

The third kind of forgery – completely new compositions produced from several partial copies – can indeed be altogether confusing at times. Here, for example, the bathers on the beach of Fehmarn are simply lying on the beach in a different order, though each individual figure is still congruent with its original. (Incidentally, the postcard and letter forger Armin Eigner also produced completely new compositions from partial copies, but in his case a painted postcard, for example, featured two Kirchner motifs together with one of August Macke’s, which Eigner had copied from a just published catalogue. There is no likelihood, in my opinion, that this was a mistake, for Armin Eigner showed himself to be a very ingenious and successful forger. Even after our court exposure of Eigner as a Kirchner forger he still succeeded in flooding the art market with countless forged postcards by other Expressionists. I much rather assume that this forger sought to expose the expert, in the sense of putting him to the test, in much the same spectacular way as his almost neighbour in Feldafing, Lothar Günther Buchheim, exposed the forger years later. The whole story is hardly credible all the same; I for my part suspect a reversal of roles. This is just by the way.)

A king among Kirchner forgers is one who has immersed himself in Kirchner’s oeuvre so deeply that he is able to create completely new compositions exactly in Kirchner’s style, copying Kirchner’s pencil and brush work with absolute perfection. This is very rare, for the reasons already explained. Needless to say, I am still afraid of encountering such forgeries.  There have been cases in this category where I have been unable to decide, even after consulting my aforementioned colleagues, for it is a category at the opposite end of the spectrum, where one can no longer speak of a forgery. There were a great many artists who were close to Kirchner, both geographically and artistically, and also students and following generations of students who created works very similar to Kirchner’s, some of which can be attributed neither to Kirchner nor to this or that student or successor with any definite certainty. These are then complicated questions of attribution – as is so often the case with the Old Masters – and no longer questions of authenticity, although the borderline between the two can be very blurred.

Another king among Kirchner forgers is one who possesses such craftsmanship and imitating ability that he is able to produce an identical copy. Here, too, I am always afraid of such forgeries.  By “identical copy” I mean, for example, the copy of a print such as an etching, a lithograph or a woodcut. Forgers have tried their hand here, too, either with straight copies or completely new creations modelled on Kirchner’s style, which is quite astonishing considering the time-consuming and hence costly work of printing.  Even in such cases, however, we can benefit from one of the peculiarities of Kirchner’s oeuvre: with but a few exceptions, Kirchner produced only a few hand-pulled prints from each plate or block and, as I have already mentioned, these invariably differed from one another in one way or another. As our Archive documents every single print that comes to light anywhere in the world, any large number of exemplars of the same work would immediately make us suspicious. Astonishingly enough, this has not happened as yet. It did happen, however, with one of the tapestries woven by Lise Guyer from Kirchner’s designs. It had come to my notice that one such tapestry was being offered on the market much too frequently. I approached the auctioneering house that happened to be auctioning the said tapestry and expressed my suspicions. The tapestry was auctioned all the same and then shown in an exhibition in an art gallery in Davos, where it was discovered one day by a local craft weaver who, in a fit of anger, declared that she had recently woven the tapestry for a customer. The customer, she said, was a “heartless scoundrel” who had had three copies made, allegedly for his three children, but as soon as he took delivery of the first one, he put it out for sale.  By the way, the “heartless scoundrel” in question is a very wealthy man, and I therefore suspect that he too was trying to put the experts to the test. There are many prejudices against the art trade, and conferences like the one we are attending today can do much to help to dispel the prejudices against the experts in this field. It is not least for this reason that I am pleased to be here today.


c. Methods of forgery recognition

What I have just said about forgers’ strategies will already give you an idea of some of the possible methods that should be used for the detection of forgeries. It goes without saying that we are not concerned here with rough forgeries, i.e. forgeries that are immediately recognizable as such. In this regard I would go so far as to say that such forgeries can even be recognized and declared as such simply with the aid of photographs, i.e. without any need for a physical or forensic examination. Examining everything in the – presumed – original would be far too time-consuming. However, even in such cases, extreme caution is the order of the day, for the following reasons: firstly, one might easily be accused of negligence and a legal action for damages – especially one from the USA – should be avoided at all costs; secondly, there are cases where a genuine work can become falsified through extraneous circumstances. I once rejected – a little too hastily – a work that seemed altogether untypical of Kirchner. It was a charcoal drawing of a Fehmarn motif, broadly worked over with opaque white, which is never a feature of Kirchner’s works.  Fortunately I had the opportunity of examining the drawing in the original. Removing it from its frame, I could see, from the edges of the paper underneath the mat, that the drawing had once been a wonderful watercolour painted in many colours, a few  millimetres of which were still visible on all four sides underneath the mat. The large area of opaque white had once been a strong, wonderful pink before the painting lost all its colours, probably because it had hung for too many years in strong sunlight. The moral to be drawn from this is a simple one: even if a work seems to be an obvious fake, one must approach it with the utmost care and attention, not least for legal reasons.                 

And now let us turn to the “scientific forensic” examination, as I like to call it: this begins in the case of Kirchner’s works on the reverse side of the work with an inspection of the support. Kirchner almost always used strong, smooth, calendered paper that practically never turns yellow. Brown paper, which crops up in certain phases of his oeuvre, was used intentionally for certain works: mainly the reverse side of brown packing paper that had the roughness of pastel paper for drawing with chalk. Handmade, rough-edged paper – whether smooth or ribbed – must set the first alarm bells ringing whenever a work is supposed to be one of Kirchner’s.  The estate stamp on the reverse side of all works not sold by Kirchner during his lifetime or by Erna Kirchner up until 1946 must be examined for its authenticity. This stamp, too, is known to have been forged from time to time. To this end I have at my disposal a genuine stamp imprint photocopied on transparent film which I can place over the stamp in question.  These estate stamps, which were applied at the Art Museum in Basel, each contain a reference number written in ink. To my knowledge, there is no available inventory of these numbers, although there ought to have been one. Nonetheless, the first three to four letters of the reference number provide us with useful information. The first two letters indicate the place – Dresden, Berlin or Davos – where the work was produced. The members of the museum staff who inventoried the works at that time were hardly ever wrong. The following two letters refer to the depicted motif. While the first two letters are relatively easy for a forger, the second set of letters is coded and therefore unknown to him. If these letters are incorrect, the alarm bells will certainly go off very loudly. On the reverse sides of all works on paper that were among the works of Kirchner’s estate placed in the care of Roman Norbert Ketterer in 1954 are, in addition to the estate stamp, two further inventory numbers written in pencil. The inventory book containing these numbers is available to nobody and it alone can therefore be the key to determining what is genuine and what is not.  As these works still constitute a high percentage of the entire oeuvre, the situation is very much akin to that of the oeuvre of Paul Klee, for which there is a hand-written and type-written catalogue that is likewise not accessible to the forger. Even in the case of those works on paper that were sold prior to the inventory work done by the Art Museum in Basel, there are definite indications on their reverse sides. For example, all the many hundreds of works in the Gervais Collection have specific, characteristic numberings in ink. We intend to compile an inventory of these numbers, thus enabling us to recognize immediately any cases of duplicate numbering.  The backs of works may hold many other clues too. There are, for example, museum stamps on works that were confiscated from art museums by the Nazis during their “Degenerate Art” campaign and then rescued by the art trade. However, whenever the stamps bear the inscription “Degenerate Art” (Entartete Kunst), the works in question are mostly forgeries. Drawings on the backs of works can likewise be particularly telling.  What I have just said about works on paper largely applies to oil paintings as well. Here the main question concerns the kind of canvas used. Kirchner used only canvases that he himself had primed. Canvases perfectly primed by someone else are to my knowledge not featured in his oeuvre.

No matter how authentic a work may seem when viewed from the front at a distance, the forgery will readily reveal itself when viewed in close-up, especially where the strokes of the brush, pencil or crayon are concerned.  In this regard I can count myself fortunate in having at my disposal original works from all periods of Kirchner’s life that are indisputably authentic and can be used for the purpose of comparison, without any need for photographs.  Like most other artists, Kirchner produced works in series. In such cases where I do not have at my disposal an original work from the same series, I can take an illustration from our Archive and make a coloured photocopy enlarged to the original size. If the work in question is indeed a forgery, the photocopy will expose it as such immediately.  The signature, on the other hand, tells us very little, as it is the easiest thing to copy perfectly, but even here I can make comparisons with authentic originals.

Whenever I receive an enquiry concerning the authenticity of a certain work, I usually receive a photograph showing a complete view from the front. If I am lucky, I also receive such details as the dimensions of the work together with rudimentary information on the technique. My immediate reaction is to write to the enquirer giving him information on how we clarify questions of authenticity and asking him for further information, especially concerning the verso of the work, for even if I check and find that the work is already documented in the Archive, the photographed work could still be a copy, this being probably provable by the details – or their absence – on the reverse side of the work. If I do find the work in the Archive, perhaps even with further details that confirm the work’s authenticity, and if the other aforementioned details prove to be correct, I then issue a simple confirmation to the effect that the work is documented in our Archive and that – insofar as one can judge from the photograph (this small salvatory clause is imperative) – the work is an authentic work from Kirchner’s own hand. It must be possible for us to issue such initial confirmations in cases where authenticity seems obvious, as we would otherwise be inundated with work in view of the enormous volume of Kirchner’s oeuvre.

However, if I do suspect that the photographed work is a forgery, I then make a coloured photocopy of it in the given original size, thus enabling a very good appraisal of the work (a photocopying machine that reduces and enlarges the image does in many cases facilitate authenticity appraisal enormously). If I still suspect a forgery, I then set out in search of possible models based on the aforementioned  principle of copies, partial copies or completely new compositions produced from several partial copies, unless I had actually found some during the initial examination and still considered the work to be a possible variation. Searching for partial copies is often particularly time-consuming. If I do find the models I am searching for, I then proceed to search for the illustrations used directly by the forger. These are in most cases illustrations in books from which the forger has made 1:1 copies. Once I have found them, I then photocopy them onto transparent film, likewise to the scale of 1:1.  Despite all the many similar variations in Kirchner’s oeuvre, the artist never once copied them exactly to the scale of 1:1.

Thus it is that in my work I avail myself of scientific forensic methods for the purpose both of proving the authenticity of a work and, whenever possible, of disproving it. In cases where the authenticity of a work has been disproved, the question then arises as to whether the reasons should be given or not. It is the same question as the question as to whether or not we should make our experiences and methods known, for it is not least the scoundrel that can learn from them, unfortunately. The following case, for example, illustrates the problem perfectly: among our documentation of forgeries was an expert’s report written by R. N. Ketterer and accompanied by a photograph taken around the end of the 1970s. He had rejected a drawing and given his reasons for doing so. During the 1980s I discovered a very similar drawing in the catalogue of a New York colleague. I was absolutely delighted, for I believed that I had at last found the work on which the forgery had been modelled. I immediately wrote to my colleague in New York, asking him to let me know where this work had already been illustrated and/or whether he knew how the forger had managed to copy it. There then came one of those weekends where I had to work at the Archive but still had time to think, and the suspicion came to me in a flash. I photocopied the forgery onto transparent film, enlarging it to the same format as the reproduction of the drawing in the said catalogue. When I placed the transparent copy over the reproduction, I could see that the latter was likewise a forgery. Large parts of both drawings were congruent. In other words, I was looking at one and the same drawing but in different states. I then read my father-in-law’s report and, lo and behold, the drawing now offered for sale had been so “corrected” that the features to which my father-in-law had objected were no longer discernible. This experience was one of the reasons why at one time I would never disclose what I am telling you today.

This is not the only point on which I have changed my mind in recent years. I also changed my mind as regards the art-historical method of style criticism. Admittedly, this method was always implicit in my work, but instinctively so. If I felt uncomfortable about a work, I was in fact implementing style criticism, albeit unscientifically. It was a “gut” feeling more than anything else. But even a comparison of a work’s microcosm, namely its brushwork and pencilwork, which is what I do anyway, is a scientific method of style criticism. In the macrocosm of a work, in its composition as a whole, individual nudes that have been copied from somewhere and arranged in a different order on the beach of Fehmarn are obviously faked, not least because their relationship to one another is not in keeping with Kirchner’s compositional principles and/or with his characteristic visual narrative. The most obvious weaknesses of any Kirchner forgery, however, are the colours. Unless he is making a direct copy from an original, there is hardly any forger capable of choosing the colours so correctly that he is not immediately exposed. If the postcard forger Armin Eigner had studied Kirchner’s use of colour slightly more carefully, I would perhaps have had no suspicions whatsoever when I was asked to examine a series of postcards and letters in 1988. The form, content and colouration of the works of a great artist manifest a very precise, unmistakable structure that is even discernible in the artist’s smallest and remotest works. The knowledge of this precise, unmistakable structure – on which the method of style criticism is essentially based anyway – can always be a reliable help in the last resort. Nonetheless, we must always reverse the legal principle of giving the accused the benefit of the doubt: in dubio contra reumAnd it is with such a completely open question that I shall again be faced this coming weekend.

Wolfgang Henze


Lecture delivered at the conference “Bild und Wissenschaft – Der Umgang mit dem künstlerischen Erbe von Hodler bis Jawlensky”, Hochschule der Künste Bern, 14th February 2003, published (in German) in the series “Bild und Wissenshaft, Forschungsbeiträge zu Leben und Werk Alexej von Jawlenskys”, Vol. 1, Locarno 2003, pp. 35-44.

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