Scholars have new doubts about some multimillion-dollar paintings. But they hope nobody’s listening.
Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) didn’t stay unknown for long, and that’s the beginning of the trouble. Within 20 years of his suicide, prices for his paintings skyrocketed.
By the 1920s his work was setting records - and still is. His “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” sold in 1990 for $82.5 million, holds the record for the highest price ever paid at auction for an art work. A month ago a mere watercolor sold at Sotheby’s in London for $14.7 million, setting a record for a work on paper.
That kind of money, plus the fact that van Gogh’s style is not only instantly recognizable but easy to imitate, has made him a gold mine for forgers. Since he sold almost nothing during his lifetime and there’s no trail of sales records or receipts, the early provenance of his pictures can be shaky. Van Gogh also worked fast - he completed one version of “L’Arlesienne” (“Woman From Arles”) in 45 minutes. In a 10-year career, he created 2,500 works of art. Or did he?
According to an article by Martin Bailey in the July issue of London’s The Art Newspaper, as many as 100 van Goghs may be no Goghs.
Bailey, author of three books on van Gogh, reports that the leading authority on the artist, Jan Hulsker, whose “The New Complete Van Gogh” was published last August, questions 45 paintings. The team of dealer Walter Feilchenfeldt and scholar Dr. Roland Dorn has serious doubts about 19 more.
Dr. Liesbeth Heenk, who curated a van Gogh drawing show in the Netherlands, isn’t sure about 11 drawings.
Among the questionable art works are several in the United States, including still lifes in the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., and Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, and a self-portrait and one version of “L’Arlesienne” in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
In Paris, the Musee d’Orsay is re-examining its “St. Paul’s Asylum Garden.” The Hague’s Gemeentemuseum is taking a second look at its van Gogh self-portrait, and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has been prodded to research eight of its 206 paintings.
Now that the impasto has hit the fan, the high end of the art world is closing ranks.
A Christie’s spokesman says with a sniff, “Stories like this surface from time to time about major artists.” The Musee d’Orsay’s publicist says, “Of course the paintings we have are true.” Even the debunkers are hedging. Feilchenfeldt says, “We don’t like this controversy at all. And the press is not tackling it in a way we would like.”
And what would suit the scholars? Hulsker, 90, noted, “I never said that 45 paintings were not authentic, (just) that the authenticity has to be checked carefully. It isn’t easy.” But, as UCLA art historian Albert Boime says, “How did they think that this would remain private? Van Gogh belongs to the public domain.”
You can’t get more public than the Met. Hulsker questions its “L’Arlesienne” because there’s a second version in the Musee d’Orsay, and only one is documented in van Gogh’s letters. Also, the Met’s picture may have been owned by Emile Schuffenecker, who was implicated in a van Gogh faking scandal.
It would be simple if van Gogh disputes could be resolved by X-rays or other exotic curatorial forensics. Unfortunately, they can’t. Because van Gogh painted relatively recently, techniques that work on old masters usually don’t reveal much. So the only way to authenticate a van Gogh is through stylistic analysis, which is always a bit subjective.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.