|Print | Back||March 4, 2013|
Moments in ArtThe Misplaced Turkey
by Lawrence Jeppson
West Germany honored the 700th anniversary of the Marienkirche in Lübeck by issuing two postage stamps depicting an ancient mural sky high in the church’s choir. It may be the only time that fake art figured in philatelic history.
The anniversary and art were lauded by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and some of Germany’s most distinguished art critics followed him overboard in praising the restored religious frescoes. The praise was gushingly picked up by the press everywhere, including America’s Time magazine.
This post-World War II story actually began a few years earlier in another German church, before the war, and the people bestowing the praise were Nazis.
Two shady figures are the crux of this story, before and after the war: Dietrich Fey and Lothar Malskat. I first encountered them in Guy Isnard’s Les Pirates de la Peinture (Pirates of Painting), Paris, 1955 and his two volume study Faux et Imitations Dans l’Art (Fakes and Imitations in Art), Paris, 1959. I was doing research for my own book, The Fabulous Frauds, long out of print, on art forgery.
The story begins in Schleswig, where a German bishopric established a cathedral town nearly eleven centuries ago in what had been Danish territory. St. Peter’s cathedral took centuries to build. Its greatest treasures were its fresco paintings in the choir and cloister. Centuries of Baltic fog, sea-blown grime, and burning candles eventually diminished the paintings, almost to obliteration. In 1888 a heavy-handed restorer, August Olbers, was hired to clean and restore them. Fifty years later they were again black.
Professor Ernest Fey, who had guilt-edged academic credentials, and his son Dietrich were hired to restore the frescoes to their pristine purity. The Feys were noted for their work restoring tattered frescoes in other churches. The Feys hired a young artist, Lothar Malskat, to help.
Dietrich Fey did not have much painter’s talent and traded on his father’s reputation. Malskat started out as an apprentice house painter, until he obtained his release and entered art school. There a Professor Marten was impressed by his “almost uncanny productivity and versatility.”
For week after week in 1937, behind barricades to keep out prying eyes, the walls of St. Peters were methodically scraped down to the bare bricks. These were replastered with a new ground which consisted of several layers of lime muddled with gray pigment to simulate age. Then Malskat sketched and painted a cycle of Teutonic figures of his own making. Teutonic! That fit the Nazi ideology perfectly. The Nazis applauded.
The restorers had made no effort to determine what the original paintings had looked like. Nothing had been restored. Decorating the walls with pre-Columbian 12th, 13th, and 14th century frescoes, Malskat perpetrated one of the most famous anachronisms in the history of art fakery. Among the animals in Massacre of the Innocents he included an American turkey!
The restored frescoes were hailed far and wide throughout the Fatherland. Dr. Alfred Stange, on his way to becoming one of the world’s authorities on Van Eyck, stepped out of his specialty to edit a large book, Schleswig Cathedral and its Mural Paintings. In time this would lessen his credibility. He did not identify what long-dead, pre-Columbian artist had observed American turkeys.
The Nazi-ologues had an answer to this conundrum: the picture was proof some Teutonic Norse Viking had indeed discovered America long before Columbus and had brought back a turkey.
All the praise for the superb restoration went to the Feys. Malskat got none of it, no recognition at all for his work. Although this rankled him, he did not break from his employers. Not yet.
Drafted into the Wehrmacht, Malskat spent the war with the troops occupying Norway. The war over, he drifted back to Hamburg, where he found Dietrich. The father was no longer on the scene.
Although he harbored resentment for the way the Feys had treated him, Malskat soon teamed up with the son, and the two created a picture factory. Malskat turned out a tide of drawings, watercolors, and paintings, fakes of Barlach, Chagall, Rembrandt, Corot, Watteau, Utrillo, Munch, Gauguin, Pascin, Rousseau, Hodler, Bechmann, Pechstein, and other German expressionists, which Dietrich sold.
Because of the wide-spread devastation, nail-biting politics, and the murky status of lots of art after the Nazi pillage and downfall, art began supplanting cigarettes as the black market currency of exchange, particularly if no questions were asked. Paper money was not trusted. By count, Lothar and Dietrich made and sold more than 600 fakes. German buyers only wanted assurance that their purchases had not been looted. Malskat assured they had been owned by his family.
Ludwig Erhardt’s currency reforms effectively killed the black market. Dietrich and Lothar had to find another livelihood. They took a big step backwards.
On Palm Sunday, 29 March 1942, in Britain’s first strike at carpet bombing to splinter enemy morale, 234 planes hit Lübeck, a Baltic city of wood buildings, with 300 tons of incendiary bombs, burning vast sections of the town. (Goebbels declared that the Luftwaffe would retaliate by obliterating every English town given three stars in Baedeker’s Guide to Great Britain.)
The Marienkirche was badly damaged in the raid. Despite some fiery opposition, Fey received the contract to restore its blackened frescoes. These were sky high in the choir, beginning 70 feet up, too far to be observed in detail by officials or the curious. To make doubly sure they were not watched by prying eyes, the restorers barricaded the entrance to the church and posted signs warning of the danger of falling masonry. Walled off from scrutiny, they did what they had done in Schleswig, obliterating originals and replacing them with their own work, mostly Malskat’s.
On 2 September 1951 the Marienkirche celebrated its 700th birthday. The restorations were complete, and the birthday party became a gala rejoicing for the whole nation. High ecclesiastical dignitaries made the pilgrimage to the church. They were joined by professors, city and municipal officials, foreign ambassadors, and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer himself.
When the Chancellor asked to see the frescoes, Dietrich gave him a personal tour, going from image to image explaining the difficulties the restorers had encountered with each.
Three days before the celebration the West German Federal Post Office issued two semi-postal commemorative stamps. The subject: Malskat’s “restored” frescoes.
The adulation of the frescoes was widespread and jubilant, in newspaper and magazine articles, critical essays, and books. In one, the countenances of Mary and the angels were described as “celestial beauty, detached from earthly worries.” These images supposedly painted from medieval models by an unknown genius of 1300 A.D. were actually based on some 1951 models: Malskat’s sister Frieda, his close friend Kurt Meiser, and film actresses Hansi Knoteck and Marlene Dietrich.
Malskat seethed over his being locked out off any recognition for his work. Although he continued to work for Fey on another project, he sent his employer a registered letter demanding that Fey “inform all interested parties that new paintings, not discoveries, are involved.”
When Malskat received no reply, he wrote to church authorities in Lübeck and told them the sordid details of the fraud. When they did not respond, he took his battle to the public.
He was denounced as in imposter: his story could not be true. But Malskat had used his Leica to take before-and-after pictures!
The walls came tumbling down. The truth of Fey’s and Malskat’s duplicitous collaboration, including the forgery mill, became the grist for widespread scandal. Malskat’s frescoes were stripped from church walls, which were left ugly and vacant.
Both men received prison sentences, Fey getting 20 months and Malskat 18.
Before and after, Malskat tried to make a living selling his own paintings. The irony of the situation: none of them is worth as much as the postage stamps depicting his frescoes, little pieces of paper which are rare and much sought after by collectors.
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