[Van Gogh 150]
Portrait of Camille Pissarro, from sale Collection Coray Stoop, Lucerne (Theodor Fischer) and Amsterdam (A. Mak), 29 July 1925, lot 107
When myth seems stronger than scholarship: Van Gogh and the problem of authenticity
cal aspects of the artist's life were made increasingly important, to such an extent that in some cases the artist's biography was considered just as significant as his work - provided, of course, it was able to set him apart from the rest. This certainly applied to Van Gogh in the years following his death, perhaps more so than to any other artist of classic modernism. His biography rapidly became a sales-promoting myth, touting him as the lone wolf whose art nobody understood and who, for this reason, (allegedly) sold only one painting during his lifetime. Whilst reliable research has meanwhile succeeded in disproving most such legends, the art world and the art market have refused to be robbed of their illusions without putting up a fight. What they have sought to preserve is the aura of the most expensive painter of all times, one whose name still guarantees high circulation figures in media. The outcome of the discussion is, in the final analysis, reminiscent of the quintessential message of Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's pendulum: one has only to believe strongly enough in one's theory and one will always find the matching proof - not to mention the means of making it public.
Anyone who has paid close attention to the relevant specialist literature knows that time and again careful corrections have been made to Vincent van Gogh's oeuvre. The acceptance or rejection of works have in the past been based on painstaking examinations of style and analyses of material, on a reconstruction of the respective picture's provenance, and on comparison with works of unquestionable authenticity. During the past ten years, however, the discussion on the authenticity of certain Van Gogh works has clearly been gathering momentum, not least through the active participation of the press, radio and television.
In order to comprehend the media-psychological mechanisms and continuities of the authenticity debate it is essential to take a look into the past, for it is the past that furnishes the prerequisites for our present understanding of this phenomenon.
The Van Gogh myth and the problem of authenticity prior to the Second World War
One of the countless myths surrounding Vincent van Gogh that has stubbornly persisted since his death, passing from one generation of authors to the next without even the slightest attempt at verification, is that of the artist's enduring lack of success. That this legend - like so many others - at best only touches on historical fact has long been beyond dispute. Only a short time after his brother's arrival in Paris, Theo van Gogh (1857-1891) wrote to his mother in June 1886: ‘He is also much more cheerful than in the past and people like him here. To give you proof: hardly a day passes or he is asked to come to the studios of well known painters, or they come to see him.’4 While in the French capital Van Gogh made the acquaintance of Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and he worked together with Paul Signac and Camille Pissarro. The letters of condolence received by the Van Gogh family after the artist's demise testify to the high esteem he already enjoyed among his contemporaries.5
Moreover, the essay by Roland Dorn and Walter Feilchenfeldt on the history of early Van Gogh forgeries shows how soon after his death his works were considered worth faking.6 This circumstance, too, testifies to Van Gogh's popularity and his market value.
Meier-Graefe and the origins of the Van Gogh myth
This development was decisively influenced by two virtually simultaneous phenomena. Firstly, the strategy adopted by his sister-in-law, Jo van Gogh-Bonger (1862-1925), Theo's widow and executor of his estate, for exhibiting and selling Van Gogh's works was so clever and methodical that soon after the turn of the century the artist already counted among the most sought-after and expensive painters on the German art market.7 Once private collectors had become dedicated buyers of Van Gogh's pictures, numerous museums followed suit, and in so doing sent out unmistakable signals as to Van Gogh's significance and acceptance as an important artist.8
Secondly, there was the enormous legend-making influence of the books on Van Gogh that appeared in Germany prior to the Second World War, especially those published in very large editions by the publicist and art historian Julius Meier-Graefe,9 which transformed Van Gogh into one of the most celebrated artists of the modern movement.10 In these pre-war years, Van Gogh's supposedly tragic fate and its alleged impact on his art became familiar even in those strata of society that until then had taken little or no interest in art and artists. It was precisely during this period that the still-popular notion of the artist as a misunderstood genius hovering on the brink of madness was born.
In 1906 Meier-Graefe still described Van Gogh as first and foremost an impassioned socialist,11 but he later came to present a maniacal picture of the artist and his works: ‘A raging temperament has thrown them onto the canvas. Trees shriek, clouds scud in horror across the sky. Suns blaze like glowing holes, in chaos. The pictures are, we know, often painted in a blind frenzy. Cézanne would have shrugged his shoulders at this lapse of consciousness. [...] As an artist, he sought a substitute for the Church, and so it never occurred to him to make capital out of his most personal manner. Indeed, he was unaware of it. If he contented himself with transforming revered masters in his own simple way, it was because he wished to seek refuge in their sphere of influence, and also to preach and act on their behalf. [...] And precisely because he was pure and upright and of an unshakeable simplicity, and because he took for gospel that which is in fact only personal, his paintings lack depth and are threatened by the rational. We know who was behind them. Future generations will know, too. His history will rattle at every door.’12
Thus Van Gogh, known from his letters to be quite capable of astute reflection both on his situation and on his art, was metamorphosed into a man of ‘raging temperament,’ ‘blind frenzy’ and ‘unshakeable simplicity.’ The legend of the supposedly deranged artistic genius that has remained popular to this day was born here - as was the basis for all the religious hype about the painter Meier-Graefe was
to pursue in the following years, repeatedly recycling, varying and extending his Van Gogh texts in a variety of books.13
An initial hagiographic climax was reached after the First World War with Meier-Graefe's novel Vincent, first published in 1921. Its subsequent editions were all subtitled, significantly, Roman eines Gottsuchers (‘The story of a god-seeker’). ‘The purpose of the novel Vincent,’ wrote Meier-Graefe in the book's programmatic conclusion, ‘is to further the creation of legend. For there is nothing we need more than new symbols, legends of the humanity that comes from our own loins.’14 In his memoirs of the years 1921-24, Elias Canetti recalls that ‘following the publication of Meier-Graefe's Vincent, Van Gogh became the most prevailing topic of conversation around the boarding house dining table. [...] That was the time when all the sacralization of Van Gogh was beginning, and Miss Kündig once said that only now, after learning about his [Van Gogh's] life, did she realise what Christ was about.’15 This mythologizing reduction of Van Gogh's complex personality to the simple polarity of genius and madness did not fail to have its effect on Canetti's mother, either, even though, as the author himself wrote, ‘painting had never meant much to her.’ When Canetti, then still in his late teens, asked her about Van Gogh in the wake of Meier-Graefe's book, he received a description that in all probability corresponded to the general perception of the artist at that time: ‘A madman who painted straw chairs and sunflowers, always in yellow, he didn't like any other colours, until he got sunstroke and blew his brains out.’16 Thanks to Meier-Graefe's arbitrary, pathos-filled interpretation, a complex life and an oeuvre comprising a good 2,100 works could at the time be summarised in just one sentence. He presents Van Gogh as the prototype of the romantic, unrecognised artistic genius whose disregard by society nevertheless redounds to his greater honour.
Sjraar van Heugten has shown that many of Meier-Graefe's ‘inventions,’ some of which were first formulated in the novel, have to this day shaped the general public's perception of Vincent van Gogh.17 They also account for the fact that immediately after the First World War Van Gogh came to symbolise the solitary Nordic artist, the lone wolf, as distinct from the French Bohemian.18
The art trade's need for fakes
Naturally, the Van Gogh myth did much to increase the artist's market value. In an essay written in 1913, Meier-Graefe noted: ‘Van Gogh's current ranking in the market is virtually the same as that of Cézanne and has during the last ten years risen a good 20 to 40 times, and since his death, that is to say, within barely two decades, between 400 and 600 times. Such works as Sternheim's L'Arlésienne19 or The courtyard of the hospital at Arles, belonging to Theodor Behrens in Hamburg,20 which had cost 100 francs in 1890 and between 1,000 and 2,000 francs in 1900, would at present very probably sell for even more than Cézanne's most expensive works.’21
The supply of fresh paintings was regulated quite strictly. Jo van Gogh sold works from the estate primarily through only a few dealers, with whom she collaborated closely. What the collectors' market in its dire need to give concrete form to the Van Gogh myth was unable to obtain from these conventional sources was sought and
found elsewhere. Works obviously deliberately forged and falsely signed appeared in various galleries and exhibitions already early on. Roland Dorn has suggested that Still life with mackerels, lemons and tomatoes (F 285 JH 1118) is one of the first of these intentional forgeries - intentional because it is clearly signed Vincent - and that it may have been executed as early as 1899.22 He and his co-author Walter Feilchenfeldt have at any rate been able to demonstrate that the first clearly forged Van Goghs appeared in an exhibition held at Bernheim-Jeune in Paris in 1901 and at the Berlin Sezession in 1903.23 Shortly afterwards, the painter Judith Gérard-Moline discovered that a copy she had done of an authentic Self-portrait (F 476 JH 1581), given by Van Gogh to Gauguin as a present, had been offered for sale (with a changed background) as an original Van Gogh (F 530 JH - ), evidently through the mediation of the painter Claude-Emile Schuffenecker, a friend of Gauguin, and his brother Amédée.24 Théodore Duret's Van Gogh monograph, first published in 1916, already contained five dubious drawings and six dubious paintings.25 Works wrongly ascribed to Van Gogh appeared repeatedly at exhibitions and auctions during the years that followed, one of the most amusing ones being, in 1925, a Portrait of the painter Camille Pissarro (fig. 1) owned by the Swiss art dealer Han Coray.26 The two auctioneers commissioned to sell the work were evidently already aware that they were faced with a fundamental problem of authenticity, for in the auction catalogue entry they explicitly stated: ‘Dr de la Faille believes he is unable to recognise the hand of the master in this painting.’ Finally, in 1930, the author of the first Van Gogh catalogue raisonné, the Dutch lawyer J.-B. de la Faille (1886-1959), felt obliged to publish his own compilation of Van Gogh fakes.27 Already comprising as many as 174 works, it was not unreservedly accepted in the years following its publication, and certainly not by the collectors whose pictures it concerned.28
This catalogue of fakes had become necessary following the publication of De la Faille's four-volume catalogue raisonné,29 for the latter had been accompanied by a forgery scandal on a scale never before encountered. In the spring of 1928, in the run-up to an exhibition at Paul Cassirer's gallery, initially three and, later, as many as 30 paintings turned out to be fakes. They had all come from a certain Otto Wacker, an art dealer who shortly before had moved his business from Düsseldorf to Berlin. Wacker claimed to have taken the paintings in commission from a Russian aristocrat and then, from the mid-1920s, to have offered them for sale through other art dealers, chiefly in Berlin.30 Wacker was charged with fraud and forgery and eventually sentenced to one year's imprisonment for repeated fraud. X-ray photographs, never before used for this purpose, proved to the court beyond all doubt that the works were forgeries; materials found in the Düsseldorf studio of Wacker's brother constituted further evidence. The court of appeal to which Wacker's solicitor, Iwan Goldschmidt, then took case increased the sentence to one year and seven months plus a fine of 30,000 Reichsmark or, alternatively, 300 additional days in prison. Following the Second World War, Otto Wacker worked in the Soviet occupied zone and then in the GDR as a dancer and dancing teacher under the stage name of Olinto Lovaël.31 As early
as 1946, he performed a piece entitled Zouave (An Vincent van Gogh) at the Theater des Tanzes in Weimar.32
De la Faille's role
The Wacker scandal revolved not just around the question of the authenticity of these particular works of art. Very soon after the trial began, the focal point of interest in the newspapers and journals of the period became the enormous embarrassment the scandal had caused for many of the most renowned art historians of the time.33 The paintings now under suspicion had all been declared genuine by one or several experts of note and duly furnished with certificates of authenticity (figs. 2a and 2b). The Berlin newspaper Der Abend headlined one of its reports ‘Art Experts on Trial,’34 while the Berliner Börsen-Courier posed the question: ‘Are experts' opinions worth the paper they're written on?’35 Das Kunstblatt, published by Paul Westheim, titled its report on the case even more succinctly: ‘The Expert Myth.’36
De la Faille himself had contributed to the formation of this lowly view of the art expert, for once the Wacker scandal had broken he changed his opinions several times and on a variety of works. The fact that he operated occasionally as an art dealer, obtained money in return for his expert opinion, had a financial interest in the Dutch auction house A. Mak, and had himself been involved in the sale of the Wacker works threw an additional dubious light on his conduct and person.
Julius Meier-Graefe likewise changed his mind in the course of the trial - so drastically that his volte-face triggered the following response from the Vossische Zeitung: ‘Meier-Graefe, who has issued certificates of authenticity for 25 of the fakes, was asked: “What value do experts' opinions have at all?” He replied: “Terribly little! People who purchase paintings on the strength of experts' opinions deserve nothing else but to be taken in by them.” Now
Still life with herrings and cheese
Meier-Graefe himself has given his expert opinion on paintings and it is on the strength of his opinion that these paintings have been sold for large sums of money. Is it conceivable that someone should make fun of precisely those people who have placed their unlimited trust in him?’37
Meier-Graefe's reputation sustained permanent damage in consequence of the Wacker scandal. Like many
Expertise by Meier-Graefe on the back of 2a
of his colleagues, he had become so fascinated with the Van Gogh myth that he was no longer able to make proper judgments. In June 1929, Ludwig Justi, the then- director of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, wrote to his colleague Heinrich Alfred Schmidt in Basle: ‘I am indeed very pleased that you have taken a stand in this case against Meier-Graefe. Many colleagues have written to me expressing their approval, and some have even stated it publicly. I think - like you - that all serious scholars should join forces against the kind of superficial scholarship that thrives on enormous propaganda and gross assertiveness.’38
In 1932, Grete Ring summed up the quintessence of the Wacker scandal as follows: ‘The art lover, and especially the German art lover, does not make his choices based purely on the visual aspect: his preference for a particular artist often stems from an intellectual, literary approach. He sees in Van Gogh not only the creator of beautifully colourful paintings but also reveres him as the tragically fated genius, the writer of distressing confessions: for him, Van Gogh's paintings are - to put it rather pointedly - a kind of author's autograph. And this is why a collector's wish for a Van Gogh cannot be satisfied by the work of any other artist; and, by the same token, even a relatively poor example of the master's art is still desirable at times.’39
Thus the decisive criterion by which Van Gogh had now come to be judged was no longer the quality of his paintings but rather the supposed story behind them. The debate on the authenticity of Van Gogh's works had become, even at this early stage, a matter of faith, and the Van Gogh myth the gospel of the faithful. And Van Gogh forgers have exploited this fact right up to the present day.
Post-war attempts at establishing Van Gogh fakes
The debate on the authenticity of many paintings, drawings and watercolours supposedly originating from Van Gogh's hand has remained an issue of creed to this day. During the last ten years, however, it has assumed a new quality, insofar as since 1994 it has been concerned not merely with hitherto unknown works that have come up for sale on the market. The discussion concerning the authenticity of a version of the Sunflowers (F 457 JH 1666) and the Garden at Auvers (F 814 JH 2107) represented the first large-scale investigation into the authenticity of works that had previously been indisputably accepted as genuine. Whereas before the Van Gogh myth had served to legitimise fakes, the assertion that works earlier considered au-
thentic were also forgeries now gave rise to a new set of legends.
Perpetuating the myth
During the post-war years, too, works of dubious quality cropped up time and time again, their alleged authenticity being substantiated more by Vincent van Gogh's chequered biography than by anything else. Helping to disseminate and perpetuate the Van Gogh myth at the time were, among other things, the novel Lust for life by the American author Irving Stone, which sold over a million copies worldwide, and, in 1956, Vincente Minelli's film version, starring Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Gauguin. The number of fakes appearing in these years increased to such an extent that in 1953 M.M. van Dantzig could even publish a whole book about them; entitled Vincent? it promised ‘a new method of identifying the artist and his work and of unmasking the forger and his products.’40
Among the most spectacular ‘discoveries’ of the immediate post-war period was the so-called Self-portrait: study by candlelight (F 476a). The American film magnate William Goetz, who had purchased this large-format painting in 1948, first exhibited it a year later. Its authenticity, which had been highly disputed from the very beginning, was said to be proven by the inscriptions on the back of the canvas. These, too, were in keeping with the Van Gogh myth and the legend of the countless works the artist was supposed to have given away: ‘Portrait par V. Gogh échangé contre 9 dessins japonais - Arles, 8 déc. 1888. // Peinture représentant le portrait du peintre Van Gogh par lui-même. Achetée le 7 décembre 1917 en même temps qu'une autre sur bois du même peintre (et représentant des fleurs, un livre et une pipe) à un vieux pensionnaire du restaurant de la rue des Petits-Carreaux. Provient de chez son oncle à qui un Pasteur nommé Salles l'avait offerte vers 1893. // P 25.’41 The editorial commission of the revised De la Faille edition42 did not have the courage to pronounce a definitive judgment on the painting, not least on account of the diplomatic complications the matter had already been causing between the Netherlands and the United States and also the owner's own threat to institute legal proceedings.43 Significantly, the editors even cite the novelist Irving Stone as one of their witnesses to the painting's authenticity. Consequently, this more than dubious work has to this day not been officially written out of Vincent van Gogh's oeuvre.
Besides a great many other individual pictures, some of which received extensive publicity (figs. 3 and 4),44 the alleged new discoveries not infrequently comprised - as in the Otto Wacker case - whole bundles of works, proof of their authenticity likewise being based on myths and legends that had long since been discredited.
The Jelle de Boer Collection
When the Amsterdam art dealer Jelle de Boer announced an Exposition des impressionistes français to be held at his Rozengracht gallery in June 1966, the art world was electrified, for de Boer promised to show ‘paintings and drawings by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Manet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Matisse hitherto unknown and never before exhibited.’ The Dutch press celebrated the show as an art-historical sensation.45 Only a few days after the opening however, the astonishment of the experts gave way to general disillusionment: not one of the 173 exhibited works was able to stand up to even the most cursory scrutiny. When de Boer exhibited his collection at the Hofgalerie in Lucerne in the summer of 1967, offering it for sale at a total price of 8.3 million Swiss francs, the local authorities seized the works on suspicion of forgery and fraud. In 1971, a year after the art dealer's death, most of them were returned to his widow. The present owners are now endeavouring to rehabilitate the collection by way of an itinerant exhibition. The show is scheduled to open in 2003.46
Once again, it was not the quality of the paintings, drawings and watercolours (which is, in fact, very poor) that had served as the criterion of identification, but the legend. The myth that the Van Gogh family, considering them to be worthless, had already given away a great many works during Van Gogh's lifetime - especially those dating from his Dutch period - also served Jelle de Boer as proof of authenticity:
Harvest in front of the Alpilles
‘In 1903 the Van Goghs were being peddled at Breda for 5 and 10 cents. From that time I have a good many pictures, which have wandered about for years. In Paris they were sold in parcels of 10 together for one or half a franc, from the household effects of the Café du Tambourin; Van Gogh had given them all to the landlady. They were not worth a penny.’47
De Boer is here referring in part to an episode the Dutch Van Gogh researcher Benno Stokvis had reconstructed in 1926, a good 40 years after the event, and which has ever since served as a source of numerous alleged Van Goghs.48 According to Stokvis, when Vincent van Gogh's mother, Anna Cornelia Carbentus (1819-1907), and his sister Willemina (Wil) Jacoba (1862-1941) moved from Nuenen in 1886, the
Peasants in front of a fireplace
work her son had left behind when he went to Antwerp was packed into crates and deposited with a Breda carpenter whom he calls Schrauer, along with some furniture. Stokvis mentions ‘portfolios containing drawings, sketches and watercolours, and also canvases which had not yet been stretched on frames.’49 Although Mother Van Gogh later recuperated her furniture, Van Gogh's works remained with Schrauer - who was in fact one Adrianus Schrauwen (1834-1920) - and ultimately found their way into the hands of a junk dealer named Couvreur in 1903. In reply to Stokvis's question concerning the quantity of works he had acquired, Couvreur replied: ‘Sixty framed paintings, 150 loose canvases, two portfolios containing approximately 80 pen-and-ink drawings and between 100 and 200 crayon drawings.’50
Girl in white walking in a forest clearing, from Georg Klusmann, Vincent van Gogh: Unbekannte frühe Werke, Mainburg 1987, p 132
The Klusmann/Marijnissen Collection
If all the newly discovered works that have been ascribed to Vincent van Gogh did in fact originate from this group, Schrauwen and Couvreur must have been in possession of a far greater number, as sundry other owners likewise cite them as their source. In 1987, the German physician Georg Klusmann published a book entitled Vincent van Gogh: Unbekannte frühe Werke. It contains a selection of 95 works on paper, canvas and wood - including alleged portraits of Van Gogh's brother Theo and their father Theodorus - which were also supposed to have come from studio in Nuenen.51 Klusmann claims to have found these works, 260 in all, in the attic of an old people's home in Breda: ‘Examining them more closely, I noticed that some of the canvases were signed “Vincent.” As both the technique and the subject matter were reminiscent of Van Gogh, I believed I had found something special. I was able to purchase the whole box and its contents for a negligible sum.’52 His story, however, was called into question at the end of 2001: a Swiss journalist ascribed the ‘discovery’ of the collection to a Dutchman named Marijnissen, with whom Klusmann, he wrote, had not been in contact until the 1980s.53
The works now belong to diverse owners.
Klusmann's first published painting - Girl in white walking in a forest clearing (fig. 5)54 - is said to have been sold to a private collector in Israel for over 500,000 Swiss francs, while various other works are back in Breda. None of them, however, is listed in either of the two recognised Van Gogh oeuvre catalogues (De la Faille and Hulsker). And although many, even the most marginal, are signed with conspicuous clarity, none of the acknowledged Van Gogh scholars or experts have testified to their authenticity. For there is one problem that not even the best provenance story can help resolve: the paintings are quite simply of abysmal quality, and would never stand up to a critical examination of their style and execution.
The Raynal-Bey Collection
There is also a collector in France who has been waiting in vain for a positive expert opinion for the past nine years: in December 1993, Paris Match published the story of the Paris art historian Jacques Raynal-Bey, who had come into possession of an unknown quantity of Van Goghs. Raynal-Bey claimed he had purchased them from a junk dealer at the flea market in Saint-Ouen - some of them originating from a suitcase belonging to Gauguin, others from a box belonging to Emile Bernard. The dealer had purchased them ‘autour des années 30 [...] - à l'époque où ils ne valaient rien.’55 However, neither the mediocre quality of the works themselves nor Raynal-Bey's romantic story of their provenance correspond to historical reality: by the 1930s, Van Gogh's works had long since counted
Street in Les-Baux (from the so-called Album japonais)
among the best known and most expensive on the art market; they were no longer the kind of thing one bought at the puces for next to nothing.
The ‘Album japonais’
It was also through a junk dealer that the French-Italian couple Valérie Noizet and Francesco Plateroti claimed to have made their supposedly sensational discovery. At a press conference in Paris on 17 November 1992, they maintained to have purchased an album containing six large-format Van Gogh drawings three years previously in Arles in the south of France - for 400 francs.56 Not until they arrived home did the couple notice the signature ‘Vincent.’ Once again, these drawings - which include
Postcard showing the street seen in 6a
views of Tarascon Castle, the harbour of Martique, the municipal park of Arles and a street in Les-Baux-de-Provence (fig. 6a), the latter having obviously been copied from a postcard printed after Van Gogh's death (fig. 6b) - are of breathtakingly amateurish quality, and, once again, all the acknowledged authorities have refused to testify to their authenticity. Nonetheless, Plateroti continues to tour the world with an exhibition of what he claims to be genuine Van Goghs - and Van Goghs enriched with extras, too: concealed in the six drawings, Plateroti claims, are portraits of Camille Roulin, Leonardo da Vinci, Eugène Boch, Félix Fénéon, Diego Velazquez, Rembrandt, Petrarch, Paul Gauguin and, last but not least, Van Gogh himself.
However, he writes, these hidden references reveal themselves
Wheatfield with sheaves (JH 1478)
only if one turns the drawings to an angle of between 45 and 180 degrees. Thus Van Gogh the great romantic is transformed into Van Gogh the great mystic!
With the inception of the Internet, the number of Van Gogh fakes on the market has increased beyond control. eBay alone - one of the world's leading online auctioneers - offers dozens of works ascribed to Van Gogh, including an additional version of the ever-popular Sunflowers. Very often, not even the slightest attempt is made at equipping these works with a plausible provenance.
Genuine works in the authenticity debate - a media phenomenon
The day the Van Gogh authenticity debate took on an entirely new aspect can be indicated precisely. On 27 January 1994, the Italian daily Corriere della Sera published an article on the land surveyor Antonio de Robertis.57 De Robertis, an amateur Van Gogh enthusiast, here maintained that the version of the Sunflowers now in Tokyo, which had hitherto been acknowledged as a genuine Van Gogh beyond any shadow of a doubt, was not authentic. He put forward the theory that this painting, which is unsigned and is not mentioned in the artist's letters, was in fact a copy made by Claude-Emile Schuffenecker. What had triggered De Robertis' doubts was his suspicion that various labels on the reverse side of the canvas and the frame had been either faked or swapped.
Public and private theories
In 1997, Benoît Landais, a French amateur researcher living in the Netherlands, likewise expressed his doubts about the Sunflowers and other Van Gogh works. In
the same year, the British journalist Martin Bailey, writing in the monthly magazine The Art Newspaper, reported that at least 45 Van Goghs might well be fakes, including such prominent works as the aforementioned Sunflowers and the repetitions of the Portrait of Dr Gachet (F 754 JH 2014) and L'Arlésienne (F 488 JH 1624).58
Many of the works named in Bailey's article had already been questioned by other experts. Bailey cited, in addition to Landais, the still unpublished research of Roland Dorn and Walter Feilchenfeldt. This team had already expressed their doubts in 199359 concerning the authenticity of Van Gogh works at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague (F 178 JH 528; F 178v JH 1198; F 286 JH 1127); the Villa Flora Museum in Winterthur (F 222 JH 1108); the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam (F 237 JH 1131); the Detroit Institute of Art (F 243 JH 1129); the Van Gogh Museum (F 253 JH 1121, F 253a JH 1232); the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford (F 268 JH 1299, F 279 JH 1104); the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo (F 278 JH 1103); the Von der Heydt Museum in Wuppertal (F 287 JH 1128); the Fogg Art Museum (F 332 JH 1234); The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (F 365v 1354); the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid (F 438 JH 1571); the Nasjonalgalleriet in Oslo (F 528 JH 1780); the Nationalmuseet in Stockholm (F 560 JH 1482); the Musée d'Orsay in Paris (F 653 JH 1840); the Österreichische Galerie in Vienna (F 1672a JH 1344)60 and in private collections (F 235a JH 1136; F 286a JH 1128; F 725 JH 1744; F 796 JH 2110; F - JH 1478). Dorn and Feilchenfeldt have fully substantiated their claims.
The revised edition of Jan Hulsker's oeuvre catalogue,61 which was published shortly before Bailey's article, has only added to the confusion. Hulsker places question marks against the catalogue entries of 45 works, but left the issue open as to whether he was querying the authenticity of the respective pictures or merely casting doubt on their hitherto accepted dates. Conversely, various works that have meanwhile been definitively identified as fakes and eliminated from Van Gogh's oeuvre - such as the Self-portrait in Vienna62 or the Still-life with bottle of wine, two glasses and a plate with bread and cheese (F 253 JH 1121) at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam63 - are still listed as authentic.64 Highly dubious pictures, such as Wheatfield with sheaves (fig. 7), which first appeared on the scene in 1977,65 are accepted by Hulsker as genuine without question or hesitation. At least one of the works he catalogues does not even exist.66
The media did their bit to ensure that the fakes debate quickly gathered momentum. In Germany, the art historian Matthias Arnold immediately followed up Landais's contentions; in the United Kingdom, the journalist Geraldine Norman succeeded in publicising the debate on a national scale. Suddenly, the Van Gogh myth was drawing its sustenance from a completely new source. Art-historical research had apparently exhausted the Van Gogh theme in all its aspects, and in so doing had altogether demystified it: the legend that he had been able to sell just that one famous painting during his lifetime had lost its magic,67 as had the story of the severed ear and the long-held romantic notion that his lack of success was voluntary, even desired.68 Now Van Gogh had a new secret: evidently, judging by the massive media onslaught of the forgery theorists, many of the works ascribed to him had not been painted by him at all. A new Van Gogh myth was born.
A media matter
Thus it was that the debate triggered by De Robertis and Landais was not just an art-historical one. It had a media-sociological component, too. What was essential in this regard was that the roles should be clearly defined: a few
Davids in the form of supposedly impartial amateur researchers fighting against the seemingly all-powerful Goliath represented by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which spoke out regularly in defence of the authenticity of the Sunflowers. The fact that the museum had allowed a new exhibition wing, the cost of which ran into the millions, to be financed by the owner of the painting, the Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Company Ltd, completed the conspiracy scenario. Hardly a single journalist has since omitted to insinuate, discreetly or otherwise, that the museum has lost its integrity and impartiality - journalists, as we know, love the kind of story that can be told entirely in terms of black and white.
That the media soon focussed its attention solely on the Sunflowers controversy and, moreover, unquestioningly accepted the theories put forward by De Robertis, Landais and Arnold, is quite astonishing, inasmuch as not a single item of proof has been furnished in the course of the debate so far. De Robertis and Landais have, from the very outset, based their theories purely on circumstantial evidence. Neither has had an opportunity to view the painting in the original. From 1934 until its sale at auction in March 1987, the painting was in the possession of the family of the British mining engineer Chester Beatty. During this period it was loaned to the National Gallery in London on two occasions, from 1955-59 and from 1983-87. While the painting was at the National Gallery, hanging next to the museum's own version of the Sunflowers (F 454 JH 1562), no material or stylistic examinations were undertaken by any outside researchers.69 The painting was immediately shipped to Tokyo following its purchase by Yasuda.
The theory that numerous Van Gogh paintings are actually the work of Claude-Emile Schuffenecker - a theory that has likewise been all too willingly endorsed by the media - is still awaiting proof. Two facts alone are indisputable: the Schuffenecker brothers had access to a variety of pictures, and they also made what they considered to be ‘improvements’ to a great many of the paintings that passed through their hands. Judith Gérard-Moline states, for example, that both were responsible for painting out the ‘intrusive’ cat in the foreground of Daubigny's garden (F 776 JH 2104) and adding grey clouds to Houses at Auvers (F 802 JH 2001).70 When Ludwig Justi purchased the former for the Nationalgalerie in Berlin in 1929 for over 200,000 Reichsmark, he triggered not only a political controversy but also one of the earliest debates on the authenticity of Van Gogh's works.71 Schuffenecker was evidently also responsible for enlarging the canvas of the Tokyo Sunflowers.
However, anyone who saw the Schuffenecker exhibition in Pont-Aven in the autumn of 1996-9772 and has since worked his way through the oeuvre catalogue published by Jill-Elyse Grossvogel four years later will realise that, despite the more than scanty information and the poor quality of reproduction in the second publication,73 Schuffenecker did not even have the ability to produce a fake of the quality found in the version of the Sunflowers under discussion. This observation is further borne out by Schuffenecker's copy of Van Gogh's Self-portrait with bandaged ear and pipe (F 529 JH 1658) which is kept at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.74 Artistically, the original and the copy are worlds apart.
The fact that almost all accusations of forgery have been made at times when the works concerned were widely publicised, mostly through sensational auctions or exhibitions, has meant that the media has been able to draw attention to the fakes debate again and again. When the Reader's Digest Collection came up for auction in November 1998, doubts were expressed concerning the authenticity of the painting Thatched cottages in Jorgus (F 758 JH 2016),75 while on the occasion of the Van Gogh retro-
spective in Martigny in 2000, curated by Ronald Pickvance, journalists raised questions on several of the exhibited works.76
One of the biggest stirs was created by a report on the Garden at Auvers,77 a work that had once before been the focus of public interest. When its owner, Jacques Walter, put it up for auction in Paris in December 1992,78 the French government declared it a ‘monument classique’ and forbade its export, although it did not assert its right of first refusal. The banker Jean-Marc Vernes thereupon purchased the painting for the relatively small sum of 55 million francs. The French Supreme Court ordered the government to pay Walter's heirs compensation amounting to 145 million francs.
When four years later it became known that Vernes's heirs intended to offer the painting for sale,79 the French press expressed some scepticism - a good two and half months prior to the auction - regarding this unusual painting's authenticity.80 Here, too, subjective judgment won out over objective, provable argument, whereupon the painting failed to find a buyer. The owners and the auctioneer have been engaged in a legal battle ever since - notwithstanding the fact that in 1999 experts from the Réunion des Musées nationaux confirmed the painting's authenticity beyond a shadow of a doubt.81
Museums must react
As the ongoing fakes debate showed no signs of subsiding, by the end of the 1990s several museums felt obliged to react to the various forgery accusations.
In 1999, within the compass of an exhibition on the collection of Dr Gachet held at the Grand Palais, the Musée d'Orsay responded to the charge that Dr Gachet, too, had copied Van Gogh's works - or had had them copied by his pupil Blanche Derousse - and then passed them off as originals. Between 1949 and 1954, Gachet's heirs had donated nine paintings, six drawings and an etching by Van Gogh, as well as numerous memorabilia, to the Louvre. This donation included such famous paintings as Self-portrait (F 627 JH 1772) and Church at Auvers (F 789 JH 2006). Doubts were expressed, among others, about Cows (after Jordaens) (F 822 JH 2095), which was originally owned by Gachet, and the repetition of the Portrait of Dr Gachet (F 754 JH 2014). However, the Paris show (which later travelled to New York and Amsterdam) and the results of the concomitant examination of the material and style of the exhibited works gave no reason to doubt the authenticity of those works with a Gachet provenance.82
Positive, too, was the outcome of the examinations undertaken on The garden of St Paul's hospital (F 659 JH 1850), which Gachet's son had donated to the Van Gogh Museum in 1954. Even Theo's son, Vincent-Willem van Gogh, had expressed his doubts about the picture's authenticity. However, Louis van Tilborgh was able to prove that it is a genuine variant of the original painting in the Folkwang Museum in Essen (F 660 JH 1849).83
Although the Sunflowers controversy had in the meantime quietened down, it was revived again when in the run-up to the exhibition Van Gogh and Gauguin: the studio of the south experts from The Art Institute of Chicago and the Van Gogh Museum were afforded the unique opportunity of examining the Tokyo Sunflowers and its Amsterdam counterpart in detail.84 The results of this examination were presented by Ella Hendricks and Louis van Tilborgh in a comprehensive study85 and also presented at a symposium held at the Rijksmuseum in March 2002. The media largely accepted the authors' conclusions, according to which there was nothing that spoke against, but plenty that spoke in favour of, the authenticity of the Yasuda version. Even Martin Bailey, who had previously allocated a
great deal of space to the forgery arguments, now wrote: ‘Yasuda Sunflowers “authentic.”’86
However, at the same symposium Benoît Landais joined forces with Hanspeter Born in attempting to establish a clumsily executed watercolour as ‘Vincent van Gogh's first sunflowers.’87 No acknowledged Van Gogh expert has hitherto considered this work to be authentic. In addition, Landais has also contributed to efforts at authenticating - and hence rendering marketable - works from the aforementioned Klusmann/Marijnssen collection.88 He is, moreover, the author of a certificate testifying to the authenticity of Two diggers in the afternoon, a painting which, despite its having been attributed to Van Gogh, is generally not recognised as genuine. This work, which the UK-based art dealer Bouwe Jans claims to have discovered at an auction in Groningen on 17 May 1993,89 and which Hulsker likewise considers to be by Van Gogh's hand, is said to be of Schrauwen/Couvreur provenance. So far nobody has been able to explain why the conspicuous signature ‘Vincent’ had previously gone unnoticed.
Whilst De Robertis, too, was not unimpressed by the results of the Hendricks and Tilborgh study, he still sticks to his opinion, expressed over the past years with equal vehemence and frequency, that the picture cannot possibly have been painted by Van Gogh; however, during the Amsterdam symposium in March 2002 he did have a change of heart: he now no longer attributes it to Schuffenecker, but rather to Paul Gauguin.
Still, the fakes debate has not been without positive consequences: no matter how unfounded and absurd all the many forgery theories may have seemed, numerous museums have in fact begun to subject their Van Gogh works to critical examination - and with interesting results. In July 1998, The Art Newspaper published a preliminary report according to which ‘eighteen “Van Goghs” in public collections [...] have been downgraded as fakes or are works of questionable authenticity. Most of them have been taken off display [...].’90 The published list tallies largely with the list of works considered dubious five years earlier by Dorn and Feilchenfeldt. The museums named include the Kröller-Müller Museum (F 219 JH 1117; F 246 JH 1133; F 278 JH 1103; F 327 JH 1126; F 724 JH 1745; F 815 JH 2000); the Detroit Institute of Art (F 243 JH 1129); the Wadsworth Atheneum (F 279 JH 1104); the Nasjonalgalleriet in Oslo (F 528 JH 1780); and the Museum of Art in Providence (F 800 JH 2122). Some of the museums cited have themselves in recent years publicised the fact that works originally attributed to Van Gogh may no longer be considered genuine. These are, among others, the Van Gogh Museum (F 114 JH 945; F 215a JH -; F 215b JH 1205; F 215c JH -; F 215d JH -; F 233 JH 1180; F 253 JH 1121; F 253a JH 1232; F 1363e JH 1049; F 1364c JH 1084; F 1368 JH 1015; F 1398 JH 1174; F 1405 JH 1187; F 1716v JH 1074; F 1717 JH 1163);91 the Von der Heydt Museum (F 287 JH 1231);92 the Nationalmuseet in Stockholm (F 560 1482);93 and the Österreichische Galerie in Schloss Belvedere in Vienna (F 1672a JH 1344).94 The museums are indeed tackling the issue and it would certainly be wrong to say that they are keeping quiet about it.
In 1990, Sotheby's withdrew the painting Street and stairs with five figures (F 796 JH 2110) prior to a planned auction on account of its dubious authenticity.95 However, three years later, precisely the same auctioneers sold a doubtful Van Gogh - Landscape with church and farms (F 185a JH 761) - the first known owner of which was himself a painter.96
Thus the debate on the authenticity of Van Gogh's works as conducted in the public sphere during the past ten years is not first and foremost an art-historical one. Indeed, it has meanwhile become a media-psychological phenomenon in which amateur researchers, scholars and the press have formed an alliance for their mutual benefit: whilst authors use the media as a means of spreading their own fame, the latter uses the ever-new Van Gogh theories put forward by these authors as a way of attracting new readers and viewers.
Correspondingly, little attention has been paid in the past to the results of the academic treatments of the theme - they are evidently too dry and uninteresting. Whereas the press could not get its fill of reports on the suspicions surrounding the Sunflowers, the Garden at Auvers and The garden of St Paul's hospital, the experts' reports testifying to the authenticity of these same works barely received a mention.
Questions yet to be answered
This phenomenon can hardly be expected to change very much in the future, either, for Van Gogh's oeuvre will continue to give rise to questions - those concerning the
posthumous changes to his works, for example. Various Van Gogh paintings were altered or retouched after the artist's death - by whom and for what reason is unknown. Typical examples are Peat boat with two figures (F 21 JH 415), to which a small fence was added at some point;97 and Cottage with peasant coming home (F 170 JH 824), which since being illustrated in De la Faille in 1939 has undergone changes to the cottage roof and to the branches of the tree standing next to it. These changes possibly became necessary after the sky had been retouched.
Other paintings that might also be examined under this aspect are Peasant woman digging up potatoes (F 147 JH 891) and The Nuenen vicarage by moonlight, seen from the garden (F 183 JH 952). There are early photographs of both paintings showing skies that seem to be different than those featured by the paintings today. Clarification is easier in the case of some of the later paintings that have evidently been altered. Claude-Emile Schuffenecker, for example, is clearly responsible for enlarging the format of the Tokyo Sunflowers and for overpainting the cat in Daubigny's garden. The apples in Still life with apples, pears, lemons and grapes (F 382 JH 1337) may have been added by Edgar Degas, who was one of the very earliest owners of the painting. The still life Vase with peonies (F 666a JH 1107), which is untypical of Van Gogh anyway, bears not only a dubious signature but also the year ‘1889,’ while in no way matching a work allegedly produced in Paris; hence, it likewise awaits clarification.
Van Gogh and the questions concerning the origin and authenticity of his works will thus continue to occupy us in the future. The position he holds in the history of art, both as an artist and as a human being, is unique - not least on account of the extraordinarily rapid development of the myth surrounding him.
It is precisely for this reason that the meticulous and scholarly approach of museums and academic institutions will always be called for. Of course - and one does not need to have the gift of prophecy to forecast this - we can also expect to be confronted by even more theories based on circumstantial evidence, assumptions and the seemingly indestructible Van Gogh legend. And the media, too, will continue to spread and celebrate forgery theories, no matter how absurd and unfounded they may be: Van Gogh is always good for a headline, and Van Gogh fakes every time.