When Matt Seaton was told that his second-hand collages could be valuable works by the German artist Kurt Schwitters, he decided to discover whether they were genuine. In the process, he traced the story of a strangely fractured man

I SAW IT in Bermondsey Market. A small collage. Abstract, modernist, not much bigger than a postcard in size. Its main feature was a trapezoidal slab of khaki-green paper pasted on to a background of off-black card, beneath which a few small fragments of what have might been old newsprint or encyclopaedia text showed. It was roughly executed, almost slapdash, but peculiarly pretty and satisfying.

There was a pencil signature and a date: 1946 and a German-looking name in an old-fashioned script. Kurt Sch- something. Schmitters perhaps. It was, I guessed, probably by some obscure Forties art student and entirely worthless. Still, I liked it.

The stallholder was asking pounds 140. Too much. I wandered off to look at the rows of miniature glass bottles, ancient Leica cameras, handcrafted joiner's tools and horn-handled magnifying glasses that filled the other stalls. But that collage piece was working on me: on the swell of overpriced Edwardiana, its jaunty angularity kept bobbing back into my thoughts.

I decided I had to have it. But when I got back to the stall, it had gone. Someone else had bought it. Trying to swallow my disappointment, I told myself that I'd probably had a lucky escape.

Six months later, I went back. There is a timelessness about Bermondsey Market; but presumably one day even the old Volvo estates that the stallholders drive will become antiques. I sought out the art stall, and there it was: another piece of collage, obviously by the same artist. This time I set any doubts aside. The man quoted pounds 140 again. Nervously, I offered pounds 100. We settled on pounds 110, and I bore off my funny little cut-and-paste thing by this "Schwitters". Or was it Schmitters?

A few weeks later, a friend, Steve, a graphic designer, noticed it on my kitchen wall while I was cooking supper. "Is that a Schwitters?" he exclaimed, suddenly animated. "Where did you get it?"

"A stall in Bermondsey Market," I replied. "Who is he?"

Steve told me the little he knew about Schwitters: that he was a huge influence on collage and that, if it proved to be genuine, the small example hanging in my house could be worth several hundred pounds.

The next day, after dropping off the children at school, I visited the stall again. There was another little collage, also signed by Schwitters. It was less immediately pleasing, made out of scraps of letters and stamps, but quite intriguing. Several of the stamps were French, and the postmark showed a date of 1939, which corresponded with the date next to the signature - 1940.

I had to have it. This time we settled on pounds 100. The stallholder told me he'd bought a folder of four or five of these little collages from an old lady, since deceased, who had lived in Kent. I told him that I might be interested in the remaining two pieces and he promised to bring them in for me a few days later.

Excited, I called my friend Louisa Buck, an art critic, as soon as I got home. "Schwitters?" she said. "Yes, he's important. Hanover Dadaist, I think. He turned his house in Hanover into a kind of sculpture and called it the Merzbau - full of weird alcoves, secret passageways and sloping floors. What are they worth? Quite a bit I should think. Hold on ..." She broke off and called to somewhere in the house: "Tom: small collage by Schwitters, what would it go for?"

Tom's estimate was pounds 20,000. Trying to sound calm, but already mentally calculating my fortune, I said that mine were certain to be fakes, then, weren't they?

"Don't know. But you should take them to Sotheby's or Christie's and see if they'll value them. Apart from anything, if they're authentic, you should have them properly insured."

I was beginning to feel as though I was the only person in the world never to have heard of this artist, so I decided to embark on some research. I found out that Schwitters was born in Hanover in 1887, the only child of a prosperous ladieswear retailer. Epileptic and asthmatic, he was judged unfit for active service, and spent the last two years of the First World War as a mechanical draughtsman at an iron works. In 1915 he had married Helma Fischer and taken up painting seriously, and the following year he began to produce his first collages.

Collage had been popular in the 19th century as a way of arranging albums, but it was radically re-invented as an avant-garde technique by Picasso and Braque from 1912, and was subsequently taken up by the Dadaists. They judged its cut-and-paste cannibalism to be a perfect mode of expression for their nihilist exultation at the collapse of the old order which had followed Germany's defeat. "Everything had broken down in any case," wrote Schwitters, "and new things had to be made out of fragments."

Schwitters tried to ally himself with the Berlin Dada group, which included the political satirist Georg Grosz, but they rejected him as "too bourgeois". So he fell back on his own resources in Hanover. Unlike Grosz, he eschewed agitprop themes. Instead, his collages were abstract, aesthetic compositions of fragments of magazine typography, postage stamps, tram tickets, even pieces of metal and glass he picked up in the street: a magpie art. The word Schwitters coined for this was "Merz". "You may believe it or not," he said, "but the word Merz is actually nothing else but the second syllable of Commerce [Kommerz]." So began, in the words of the American critic Dorothea Dietrich, "a one-man postwar artistic movement that lasted until the artist's death in 1948". So, besides Expressionism, Dadaism, Constructivism, Cubism and Surrealism, should stand Merz.

Schwitters' entire life became an ongoing Merz project. He ran a design agency, published a journal, and held performances of phonetic poetry. Even his home in Hanover mutated organically into a 3-D collage, the "Merzbau". Alternatively titled the "Cathedral of Erotic Misery", this architectural sculpture made of Merz fragments insinuated itself throughout Schwitters's house. Had it survived, it would surely be regarded as one of the wonders of modern art, but the Merzbau was destroyed by Allied bombs in 1940. The Sprengel Museum in Hanover today houses a partial replica, reconstructed from the few photographs and contemporary accounts extant. In later life, Schwitters must have felt the irony of his masterpiece being blown to smithereens by the blind forces of history. But by then his whole life had become a recomposition of fragments, rescued scraps from a fractured life: a Merz-Geschichte. A Merz-story, if you like.

As I discovered more about Schwitters, my collages acquired greater meaning. The earliest was dated 1940; the latest 1948. So they spanned from the year when Schwitters fled to England to escape the Nazis, to the year of his death, still in this country. When I took one of them out of its frame, I could see that this was art improvised, literally, on the back of an envelope. It was impossible not to read an autobiographical theme into it: the stamps and postmarks, the torn scraps of personal letters and impersonal printed text, spoke of disjuncture and rupture. Not only did their style and mannerisms look plausible, but their content seemed to be gathering poignancy for me.

Armed with my increased knowledge, I made an appointment with the Impressionist department at Sotheby's, and took my pieces in one morning before Christmas. A crisp young woman came down to the foyer, took a look at them, and produced a deck of Polaroids of other pieces by Schwitters which Sotheby's had dealt with. The prices which these collages had fetched were written across the top of each: pounds 13,000, pounds 18,000, pounds 25,000.

She was looking somewhat askance at mine, noting that a piece of black paper looked perhaps "too recent", but made it clear that she did not have the expertise to make any final pronouncement. Since they had no provenance, they would need to be seen, she told me, by an expert in Germany, a Professor Schmalenbach. She would be pleased to supply his address - and, of course, if they were authenticated, Sotheby's would be delighted to deal on my behalf should I wish to dispose of them.

Feeling vaguely humiliated, I took the Professor's address and left. I again called Louisa Buck, who suggested that I take the collages to a friend of hers, Andrew Murray at the Mayor Gallery in Cork Street. The Mayor Gallery shows contemporary artists, but also houses a wonderful selection of modern art. I had time to admire photographs by Brancusi, a collage by Max Ernst and a Mir original before Andrew Murray appeared. Bearded and wearing a green checked three-piece suit and well-worn brown brogues, he had a somewhat Shavian appearance. His reaction to my collages was indecisive, though guarded. "A friend of mine bought one in a junk shop recently," he remarked, when I described how I had acquired them. "It turned out to be a fake."

He excused himself for a moment and reappeared with James Mayor, a dapper, dark-haired man. Mayor looked at the works and murmured, "Hmm. No bus tickets." It was a sceptical remark: Schwitters' collages, particularly those he created during the Twenties, often incorporated public transport tickets. Countering, I pointed to the stamps and franking marks, both features which regularly appear in genuine works by Schwitters. The pair retired to Mayor's office. I overheard fragments of their conversation. "Obviously stolen," Mayor said, adding something about Bermondsey Market's special dispensation to deal in goods of dubious provenance (which traditionally is why it is before daylight that all the bargains are to be had).

When Murray returned, he suggested that they hold on to my collages for a few weeks and show them to a couple of their own experts. That way it might not be necessary for me to send them off to Professor Schmalenbach who, Murray explained, demanded a substantial fee upfront before issuing a certificate of authenticity. Of course, if you had a fake - as Murray's friend had - then you were paying simply to receive bad news. Murray wrote out a receipt for me. "Four small collages for inspection. Kurt Schwitters (?)"

"I KNOW," wrote Schwitters in 1931, "that I am an important factor in the development of art and shall for ever remain so, but I fear I shall not experience this in my lifetime, so I collect together sketch upon sketch, picture upon picture, all carefully wrapped and signed, storing them in different places in case of fire and hiding them in case of theft. This is my legacy to a world with which I have no quarrel even though it does not yet understand me."

In the chaos of the Second World War, his careful precautions were useless. Much of Schwitters' work was either lost, destroyed, or dispersed. The turning point had come in 1937, when his work was held up to ridicule in the National Socialist exhibition of "Degenerate Art". Soon afterwards Schwitters left for Norway with his son Ernst, leaving behind him Helma, who died in 1944.

In Norway, he began work on a new Merzbau, but in April 1940, when the Germans invaded, he fled again, dodging the Gestapo by a matter of hours. He and Ernst travelled north and succeeded in boarding a refugee ship. On their arrival in England, they were interned as enemy aliens. Schwitters spent nearly 18 months in internment camps, first near Edinburgh and then on the Isle of Man. Eventually released in 1941, he joined Ernst in London.

For whatever reasons, the truth was that Schwitters was practically unknown. In 1944, Jack Bilbo put on a show of his work at his Modern Art Gallery, and the eminent critic Herbert Read wrote a preface for the catalogue, but nothing sold. Schwitters recalled sitting on a park bench in London during the war, thinking: "Life is sad. Why did the director of the National Gallery not even want to see me? He does not know that I belong to the avant-garde in art. That is my tragedy."

The Belgian Surrealist ELT Mesens used his influence at the London Gallery to put on a recital of Schwitters' "Merz poetry", the programme including "Furor of Sneezing" and "Small Poem for Big Stutterers". George Melly, the jazz musician and Schwitters expert, was working there at the time and relates the encounter in his memoirs, Don't Tell Sybil. Mesens had invited two gentlemen from the BBC Third Programme to the performance. They left halfway through.

After the war, Ernst moved back to Norway. His father, who had suffered a stroke in 1944, chose to remain: he had fallen in love with a woman named Edith Thomas, and together the couple moved to Ambleside in the Lake District. Despite his failing health, Schwitters made a meagre living selling naturalistic landscapes and painting portraits for tourists. But he continued with his own collage work whenever he could. The Merz-mischievousness survived - a 1947 piece is entitled: "This was before HRH the late Duke of Clarence & Avondale. Now it is a Merz Picture. Sorry!" - but Schwitters's wit was more often now tinged with a whimsical sadness. The words clipped from magazines and adverts which figure in his late collages echo his mood: "Not Fantastic", "Watt's the use of living?"

Then, out of the blue, he received a series of grants from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He set to work frantically in the construction of his last and only surviving Merzbau: the Merz-barn. This was a stout, slate-walled cowshed which a patron in the unlikely form of a local farmer, Harry Pierce, lent him. Covering most of one wall, the Elterwater Merzbarn is a relief sculpture in plaster and paint, with miniature grottos and found objects. Schwitters never completed it, but then, as he always said of his first Merzbau, "It is unfinished out of principle." To behold it is to sense what it must have been to stand inside the original Merzbau: the Merzbarn is like a Lady Chapel to the grand Cathedral of Erotic Misery.

Extraordinarily, the wall is now housed at Newcastle University's Hatton Gallery - a considerable feat of engineering, since the entire slate wall, weighing an estimated 25 tons, had to be stabilised and moved entire across the country. It was the artist Richard Hamilton, then lecturing at Newcastle, who undertook the rescue in the mid-Sixties when the condition of the Merzbarn was deteriorating rapidly. Hamilton's initial suggestion to the Arts Council that it be moved down to the Tate was rejected. He regrets this, feeling that the Merzbarn "is something that any international gallery would like to have". For him, this "greatest Merz piece by Schwitters" is ill-served in its regional home since so few people see it. But the Hatton Gallery, threatened with closure two years ago, is under new management, and later this month the Merzbarn will go on display as the centrepiece of a major Schwitters show, including nearly a score of works from the Sprengel Museum in Hanover and other loans from private collections.

IN DECEMBER 1947, Kurt Schwitters suffered a severe cardiac-asthmatic attack, and was admitted to Kendal hospital. He fell into a coma and died on 8 January 1948.

Reading of his death, more than half a century after the event, I felt sorrow for this quietly courageous, deeply engaging artist. Then a less altruistic emotion came over me: if Schwitters died on 8 January, after being gravely ill since the end of the previous year, how could he possibly have monikered the artwork I have which is signed and dated "Kurt Schwitters 1948"? I scanned the plates at the back of the books on my desk. Needless to say, there was nothing from later than 1947. Which left two possibilities. Either the collage was of inestimable value - Schwitters's last work, autographed from his deathbed. Or it was fake.

Meanwhile, the Mayor Gallery still had my "Schwitters (?)" collages. My consolation was that the Mayor's expert to whom Murray wished to show them was none other than George Melly, who had met Schwitters nearly half a century ago. We made an appointment, and Melly arrived in his customary fedora and a brilliant silk scarf. He looked cursorily at my collages. "Well, the first thing is they look too fresh," he said in his deliciously fruity smoker's voice. The red paper, evidently, would certainly have faded more if they were 50 or so years old. The signatures looked perfect to me, but he did not like them, nor their position. I mentioned the business of the date. Without anything definitive being said, a consensus was reached. Sending them off to Schmalenbach with a hefty Deutschmark draft would have been throwing good money after bad.

"Never mind," said Melly. "Hang them on your wall. They'll look fine."

I have, and at least I don't have to worry about the insurance. But I find myself curious about the motives of the forger, who took so much care in finding contemporaneous materials and mimicking the style of the original. Who would spend so much time on perfecting a signature before slipping up on a detail as elementary as the date of the artist's death? Perhaps an obscure art student, after all.

The Schwitters exhibition will run from 17 April to 22 May at the Hatton Gallery, University of Newcastle. For further details call 0191 222 6057

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