National Gallery not displaying painting because of doubts

Collector Patrick Goh, with the Chen Wen Hsi painting he owns. He has produced evidence that his piece is authentic.
Collector Patrick Goh, with the Chen Wen Hsi painting he owns. He has produced evidence that his piece is authentic. ST PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH

THE National Gallery of Singapore will not be displaying a painting by the late local pioneer artist Chen Wen Hsi after a private art collector with a similar work produced evidence that his piece is authentic.

Local art collector and retiree Patrick Goh, 56, bought the 1950s abstract oil on canvas titled Net Drying from another collector in February last year. That collector had successfully bid $95,000 for it in an October 1995 Christie's auction. Mr Goh declined to say how much he paid.

Mr Goh, who has collected art for more than 20 years, told The Straits Times that he had done extensive research to ensure that the painting is authentic.

He cross-checked his acquisition with two books which catalogued the work - a 1987 publication by The Old & New Gallery, owned by Chen when he was alive, and a 1991 Taiwan publication.

Then, he chanced upon a Singapore Art Museum publication that showed an identical version of the painting with the same title in the national collection, and which referenced the two authoritative books as well.

Mr Goh realised that the piece he owned differed slightly from the one in the national collection, notably in the paint strokes made with a palette knife.

Convinced that his piece is the original, he said: "My painting is identical to the one published in the two books. As a collector, I pay money for every painting I buy, so I study each one very closely."

In response, the National Gallery, which opens in October, convened a panel of experts, including an art historian, a conservator and a collector, to study the artwork. The investigation, which ended in February, could not "establish beyond doubt" whether the work is by Chen, it said. The painting is currently stored at the Heritage Conservation Centre in Jurong.

"As the results are inconclusive, the gallery will not as yet remove the artwork from its collection, but will refrain from displaying the painting... until its authenticity can be established," it said.

The painting was acquired for the national collection in 1994, though the gallery declined to say from whom.

It noted that renowned artists do paint more than one artwork in a similar style, subject and composition. According to its website, it owns at least five other works by Chen.

The artist pioneered the Nanyang style, combining Chinese ink painting with European styles such as cubism and fauvism. He died in 1991 aged 85.

Art experts said they found Mr Goh's painting authentic. A Chen Wen Hsi collector who declined to be named said the National Gallery's version looked "still and two-dimensional", whereas the strokes in Mr Goh's version were "lively and had layers to them".

Mr Ho Sou Ping of ArtCommune Gallery runs a class on how to authenticate Chen Wen Hsi paintings. "As demand and prices for Chen's art increase here, it's likely that higher-quality fakes will enter the market."

Ms Janet Fong of Ins' Art International, a gallery specialising in Singaporean art, advises buyers to do their due diligence.

"Even the most reputable auction houses are not 100 per cent reliable. It's important to train your eye."

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