Leeds: £100,000 gamble that led to art failure

Martin and Jackie Lang, pictured at their home in Alwoodley, Leeds.
Martin and Jackie Lang, pictured at their home in Alwoodley, Leeds.
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Leeds businessman Martin Lang was recently seen on BBC show Fake or Fortune? being told his cherished painting was a forgery. Jayne Dawson talks to him.

There is a space in a Leeds hallway where a painting of a nude woman ought to be. It hung there inoffensively for 20 years, not causing anyone any trouble - but no more.

Its disappearance has caused quite a fuss. In fact, wars have been started for less.

Luckily, war has not been declared this time, but the painting’s fate has certainly created what can only be described as An Incident.

The story, to bring you up to speed, is this: the artwork was bought two decades ago by Leeds businessman Martin Lang for £100,000 - a large sum of money now, but back then enough to buy a four-bedroom detached house in Leeds.

It was created by a Russian-born artist called Marc Chagall around 1910. Or rather it wasn’t - but just possibly it might have been. That really is the heart of the matter.

Mr Lang, now 64, bought it as an investment hoping it would be part of an inheritance for his son Frazer, and also because he liked the look of it at a time when he had just had the inside of his house redone by an interior decorator. He and wife Jackie, 53, chose it together.

At £100,000 the painting was actually cheap, for what it was, and Mr Lang knew it didn’t have what is known as a provenance, proving conclusively it was the work of the named artist, but it had been cited in a respected book about him and, besides, Mr Lang is a risk taker in life generally, and was prepared to take the gamble. And so Nude 1909-10 became a fixture in their hallway and their lives.

Twenty years later their son Frazer, now 23, saw the programme Fake or Fortune? presented by Fiona Bruce, which researches the authenticity of artworks, and decided to let the show know about the family nude.

It only took one email, and then there followed a full year of extraordinary events throughout 2013 which ended in the painting being sent to France and declared a fake by the Chagall Committee, headed by the artist’s granddaughters, which decides on the authenticity of work attributed to him.

That was bad enough, but it got worse. The committee announced that not only is the painting a fake, but that Mr Lang could not have it back.

And it got worse: not only could he not have the painting back but they intended to destroy it, possibly by burning it.

Finally, to put what you might call the tin lid on it, Mr Lang was told of the committee’s intention to bill him for the legal process involved in being given the permission to destroy the painting in front of a magistrate - allowed under an old French law - though this has yet to happen.

A statement issued by the Chagall committee said: “Contrary to suggestions made in the documentary, the Association does not adopt arbitrary measures and does not destroy works without the prior agreement of the owner, or in default of such decision, authorisation by a court of law.

When destruction is authorised it is implemented by a legal official who selects the most appropriate method depending on the medium of the counterfeit work.”

The episode of Fake or Fortune? showing the progression of events was aired a couple of weeks ago, though the family have known since October.

Four months on, Mr Lang is surprisingly philosophical about the whole thing back at his Leeds home, not contesting the decision of the committee that his painting is fake and resorting only to a stiff letter about how they intend to treat his property - and declaring that he will not pay the costs incurred in getting permission to destroy it.

His own solution was that the painting be returned to him marked as not authentic on the back, so he could continue to enjoy his own property in his own hallway

He said: “We have accepted that it is 95 per cent certain that the painting is a fake.

I thought my solution was reasonable but they have committed themselves to this course of action.
 “It is very Draconian, a gross over-reaction which lots of people are complaining about it. I haven’t met anybody who thinks what they are doing is a good idea, but I don’t want to spend a fortune chasing them through the courts. I have written to them asking them to reconsider.”

It’s a considered response from a man who has lost a lot of money, and his painting, but there are others who are getting hot under the collar on his behalf and The Incident has reached international proportions with MEP Edward McMillan-Scott talking to both the European Commission and the Minister of Culture in France.

There is also the small matter of the European Human Rights Act to investigate, which the Lang family are hoping might come to their aid with its rules about citizens being allowed to peacefully enjoy their own property.

And the family have been contacted by not only friends but members of the art world from all over the globe, expressing dismay at the turn of events.

Yet at the beginning of 2013 there was no clue that all this might happen. Mr lang, who runs property development company Stainsby Grange, was fishing in Canada when Frazer made the decision to email the show.

Researchers came up to Leeds, stood in the Lang hallway, looked at the painting, and got excited.

After that there was a year of action. The painting was taken down from the hall wall, carefully wrapped and travelled the world. As more people saw it, it progressed up the ladder of authentication until it reached the Chagall committee.

Mr Lang travelled too, visiting Belarus to see the area where the artist lived and to discover more about his background.

“It took over our lives, it was the focal point of everything that was happening. We knew it was a journey but we thought it was going to be a journey towards the painting being proved without doubt to be original.”

In Belarus the team could not find anyone who knew anything about the woman in the painting, said to have been a dancer.

In France, where the artist later lived, doubts began to grow. The committee had the paint pigments tested and discovered they were from the 1930s, too modern for a painting thought to have been created in 1910.

Mr Lang was back in his favourite fishing spot in Canada when the bad news was given to him in the middle of the night.

“I was exhausted so I wasn’t really thinking anything, but I look very dismayed.”

So now the painting is in France awaiting its end. It’s not where the family expected the story to end. They are not major collectors of art but could afford to buy the Chagall after building up successful businesses.

Mr Lang, who was a corporal in the Royal Corps of Signals until he was 30, then went into business running nursing homes, and later children’s day nurseries.

He now a millionaire property developer and builds commercial premises for firms like B&Q.

He said: “I was lucky with my businesses, you need the right environment and that for me was when Margaret Thatcher came into power which coincided with me starting my first business. I would not be able to do the same thing now.

“It was unusual for me to send so much on a painting but it was an opportunity. We knew it was a risk but it could have been a great bargain.”

Basically though, there is an air of regret but not devastation within the family.

“I am willing to take risks, I do it in my work. There is nothing wrong with risk, as long as you win more times than you lose. You have to temper the way you feel about things overall. I haven’t lost sleep over it.

“It was a terrific journey and good fun, even though it had a sad outcome.”

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