From the very beginning I was less than enthused about the Met’s Costume Institute’s Punk exhibition. My biggest concern was that with all the wonderful objects within the Met’s costume collection, it was sad that they were yet again focusing on fashion from the past twenty or so years. And then, before the Punk show opened, Malcolm McLaren’s widow made the claim that some of the objects were fakes.
This was not a new claim. In 2008 McLaren himself had studied objects that had come from the same source as some of the Met’s punk items, and had found them to be fakes. Artist Damien Hirst had spent about $150,000 on punk clothing from Simon Easton, who was selling the stuff through eBay. After the items were viewed by a former punk and seller of reproductions, Camden Jim, who recognized some of the designs as the ones he had sold at Camden Market, Hirst became alarmed and contacted McLaren, who found that most of Hirst’s items were fake.
In the meantime Christie’s Auctions, who had some of the Easton material had concerns and called in McLaren to examine the items they had obtained from Easton. Easton’s Ebay account was suspended.
To backtrack a bit, in 2006, the Costume Institute, in preparation for their Anglomania exhibition, acquired quite a few Westwood/McLaren punk items. These were a prominent part of the exhibition and accompanying catalog. When the Hirst fakes were exposed in 2008, it soon became evident that there might be some problems with the Met’s items as well. At the time, Andrew Bolton, the associate curator responsible for the purchase and the Anglomania exhibition said that the pieces bought from Simon Easton would be reviewed.
At this point the story goes cold until February, 2013. Malcolm McLaren had died in 2010, but his widow started questioning the validity of objects that were to be shown in that summer’s Costume Institute exhibition, Punk: Chaos to Couture. She wrote to the Met outlining her objections to several of the items that were to be in the exhibition. Along with Paul Gorman, who had worked with McLaren to try and establish the authenticity of many items, she gave detailed reasons why some of the objects were “wrong.” A spokesperson for the Costume Institute replied that “the provenance of all the punk pieces in our collection and in the upcoming exhibition have been verified”.
But now it appears as if they were not. Paul Gorman, who examined the Met’s McLaren/Westwood holdings in May 2013 wrote a detailed report on his findings – a report that was not good news for the Met. Not only did he believe that a large number of the garments were fake, others were suspect, and still others were misdated. After the Punk exhibition came down, other experts were called in. As a result, two bondage suits with the Seditionaries label were marked for de-accession. Both suits had been in the Anglomania exhibition of 2006.
However, the two suits in question are still on the Met’s website, but very recently the listing designation was changed to “Attributed to Vivienne Westwood” and “Attributed to Malcolm McLaren”. Around thirty other objects now have “Attributed to” in the item description, and photos of most of these items have been removed.
Just as disturbing is the faulty dating of objects. Gorman gives the example of a pair of bondage trousers that were dated to 1976, but the trousers have the Vivienne Westwood Red label – a label that was established in 1993! In his article on his blog, Gorman shows the museum’s page on the trousers (2006.253.18) which has a photo of them and the label. When I looked up the page today, I see that the photograph of the label has been removed.
Update: The label is still missing, but the date of the trousers has been changed to 1988–89.
You should read Gorman’s detailed blog post, and judge for yourself. I see some very shoddy scholarship in action here. As a very small-time collector I can tell you that it is very difficult to always get dating and attribution correct. But even with my limited resources I want to be as accurate as possible, and I am always willing to admit when I am wrong, no matter how much I want to believe otherwise. Should not our institutions be the same?
Thanks to Sarah at TinTrunk for the Gorman article.