Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Rodin forgeries and the DC connection...

A work in progress (a very rough draft)...

As part of a larger project on Rodin's drawings I've been researching Ernst Durig, who is the only identified forger of Rodin's drawings. Durig was born in Switzerland in 1894. He claimed to have been Rodin's last student, and owned a photograph of himself as a young man posing next to Rodin. His supposed relationship with Rodin has been called mostly untrue. Durig was a sculptor, mostly of portrait busts. He managed to sculpt quite a few notables, including Pope Pius XI, Mussolini, President Truman, and the poet Tagore, though he was paid for few of these. His M.O. seems to have been to offer to sculpt a famous figure for his "personal collection" and then grow angry when the subject declined to purchase the bust.

Durig married a widow and the family arrived in the U.S. in 1927-28. Sometime after this he apparently began exhibiting and selling signed Rodin drawings, as well as forgeries of sculpture by artists such as Houdon.

He was active in Washington DC from about 1930 to the end of his life. The DC Public Library's Washingtoniana department has a file of clippings from DC papers on Durig. The librarian called Durig "tv movie material" - Durig had somewhat of a tabloid notoriety here. In 1933 he was reported missing by his wife. He was missing for about a month, and the day after his equally mysterious return he and his family were evicted from their home for non-payment of rent. There are several sensational articles in the major DC papers surrounding the events, with photographs of Durig's possessions and sculptures set out on the curb. Durig apparently attempted to destroy many of the works in anger. Both Durig and his wife made paranoid comments to reporters regarding a "powerful political enemy" who hindered Durig's artistic career. There are several more clippings detailing further evictions from the same period.

In 1937 Durig and his family were present at the dedication of his Peace Memorial in Greenwood WI, for which the city paid him the cost of materials. Durig's wife and adopted daughter were killed in a car accident sometime after this. Durig's life went downhill after their deaths. In 1958 he was admitted to the hospital suffering from malnutrition, and the next year he was taken to St. Elizabeth's hospital, where he died penniless on November 4, 1962. In an obituary a friend calls him one of the "10 best" sculptors of all time. Sadly, though he claimed to be Rodin's pupil he didn't seem to have absorbed any lessons from the artist. His sculpture was mediocre at best.

After his death a chest of papers was found at St. Elizabeths which included letters written by Rodin and "Rodin" drawings. Sotheby's initially authenticated the drawings and agreed to sell them to repay the District for Durig's care. Soon afterwards Sotheby's declined to auction the drawings due to questions about the attribution. In June of 1965 Life magazine published an expose of Durig's forgery, and by a 1971 exhibition at the National Gallery a young Kirk Varnedoe had extensively studied Rodin's drawings and outlined features of the major forgers of Rodin's drawings, including Durig.

Durig's is a fascinating and sad story. He doesn't seem to have profited much from his forgery or his legitimate work as a sculptor.

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