It Might Have Been a Masterpiece, but Now It’s a Cautionary Tale

Mr. Hanssen, a professor at the Tilburg School of Humanities in the Netherlands, asked permission to research the provenance of the painting from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which was scheduled to receive it next. The Stededlijk and the anonymous private collector granted him the opportunity. Based on this research, Mr. Hanssen has revealed in a book released last week that the work he thought was a significant find is not — and in fact appears not to be a Mondrian at all.

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The Stedelijk said in a statement that it was unaware of any doubts about the painting’s authenticity when it arrived at the museum in 2016.

Credit
Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

What started out as a potentially major cultural discovery now turns out instead to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of presenting works of art owned by private collectors that have not been systematically vetted. In this case, art experts seem to have passed the buck on conducting basic due diligence on the artwork before displaying it as a Mondrian — putting their own reputations on the line because they gave such credence to a private collector.

When Mr. Hanssen, inquired with the Bozar about the provenance of the Mondrian on display, they could not provide him with a detailed history, he said. The arts center explained only that the loan from the Swiss collector had been suggested by the Stedelijk, which was considering exhibiting the work as well.

But information provided to The New York Times from the Netherlands Institute for Art History, known as the RKD, indicates that the Swiss owner of the work who has lent the painting to three art institutions — the Bozar, the Stedelijk and the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland — has known since 2006 that the attribution to Mondrian has been questioned.

The records show that Mondrian expert Joop Joosten, who co-wrote a definitive 1998 catalog of Mondrian’s abstract works, inspected the painting himself in 1994 and again in 2004. Both times he rejected it. In 2006, according to the RKD, Mr. Joosten informed the painting’s owner that it was most likely a copy. Mr. Joosten, who is over 90 years old and in poor health, could not be reached for comment, according to the RKD.

None of the art institutions or individuals involved would disclose the name of the collector, but Beatrix…

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