Stefan Koldehoff – When myth seems stronger than scholarship: Van Gogh and the problem of authenticity

Whenever in the past months and years the name of Vincent van Gogh has been mentioned in the international press, the reason was not necessarily a large exhibition or a spectacular record sale at an auction. The biggest headlines have always been reserved for allegedly new revelations in the debate on the authenticity of the artist’s works.

Frequently, the theories proffered from various sides in this debate have indeed been closely bound up with precisely those events which in themselves have a strong public appeal, namely exhibitions and auctions. This article examines the authenticity debate both as an art-historical necessity and as a media-psychological phenomenon. It also seeks to determine the extent to which the Van Gogh myth, which was deliberately generated soon after his death, must be made responsible for the fakes that have cropped up again and again over the course of the past century.

For the last 15 or so years, in widening the scope of their research to include the sociological and commercial aspects of art, a number of art historians have examined the interaction between art, the art market, collectors and the public. In 1987, Nicholas Green identified those factors responsible for the changing strategies of the art market in the second half of the 19th century in France: ‘[…] the rapid rise in particular forms of modern art […]; the role of journalism and historical expertise in securing the cultural and investment value of art works; and, crucially, the strange alliances between speculative collectors, critics and dealers. In fact, though unnamed, the operations of the latter were ever-present throughout all this enthusiastic hype and precious connoisseurship.’ (1)

The following year, Robert Jensen likewise saw the shift of the art scene from the Salons and public exhibitions to private galleries at the beginning of the 20th century as the cause of fundamental changes to art marketing during its early development: ‘In our century, alliance with a private gallery became considerably more important for an artist’s career than membership in a Secession or graduating from one of the state art academies.’ (2) The strategies used by art dealers to promote the artists they represented as unique contemporary figures – and in such a way that they became firmly lodged in the awareness of potential collectors – were formulated by Jensen, again very pointedly, six years later: ‘To market modernism artists, their dealers, critics, and historians required above all to establish its historical legitimacy. The historiographic enterprise was as much a part of merchandising Impressionism as the increasingly refined practices of art dealers to promote not only individual paintings but whole careers, and to do so not only through conventional publicity, but through carefully constructed exhibitions and a mode of personal persuasions that variously appealed to the speculative and/or connoisseurship skills of the potential client, the amateur.’ (3)

The challenge, therefore, was to make one’s own artist stand out against the mass of other artists in the market, either by (prematurely) establishing him as a historical figure, or by promoting him as someone absolutely singular to his time. To this end, the biographical and sociological 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’Arlésienne (19) 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)

fig. 1 Portrait of Camille Pissarro, from sale Collection Coray Stoop, Lucerne (Theodor Fischer) and Amsterdam (A. Mak), 29 July 1925, lot 107

fig. 1 Portrait of Camille Pissarro, from sale Collection Coray Stoop, Lucerne (Theodor Fischer) and Amsterdam (A. Mak), 29 July 1925, lot 107

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

fig. 2a Still life with herrings and cheese

fig. 2a Still life with herrings and cheese

fig. 2b Expertise by Meier-Graefe on the back of 2a

fig. 2b Expertise by Meier-Graefe on the back of 2a

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 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 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 authentic 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 edition (42) 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.

fig. 3 Harvest in front of the Alpilles

fig. 3 Harvest in front of the Alpilles

fig. 4 Peasants in front of a fireplace

fig. 4 Peasants in front of a fireplace

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:

‘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 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)

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.

fig. 5 Girl in white walking in a forest clearing, from Georg Klusmann, Vincent van Gogh Unbekannte frühe Werke, Mainburg 1987, p 132

fig. 5 Girl in white walking in a forest clearing, from Georg Klusmann, Vincent van Gogh Unbekannte frühe Werke, Mainburg 1987, p 132

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 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’

fig. 6a Street in Les-Baux (from the so-called Album japonais)

fig. 6a Street in Les-Baux (from the so-called Album japonais)

fig. 6b Postcard showing the street seen in 6a

fig. 6b Postcard showing the street seen in 6a

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 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 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 1993 (59) 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.

fig. 7 Wheatfield with sheaves (JH 1478)

fig. 7 Wheatfield with sheaves (JH 1478)

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 Vienna (62) 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 Amsterdam (63) – 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 1996-97 (72) 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 retrospective 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 study (85) 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.

Positive consequences

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.

Parts of this article will be published in more comprehensive form in a book to appear in March 2003 (Dumont, Cologne).

(1) Nicholas Green, ‘Dealing in temperaments: economic transformation of the artistic field in France during the second half of the 19th century,’ Art History 10 (March 1987), p. 60.
(2) Robert Jensen, ‘The avant-garde and the trade in art,’ Art Journal (Winter 1988), p. 361.
(3) Idem, Marketing modernism in fin-de-siècle Europe, Princeton 1994, p. 3.
(4) Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, Vincent van Gogh Foundation, Theo van Gogh to his mother, c. July 1886, b 942 V/1962.
(5) See Ronald Pickvance (ed.), ‘A great artist is dead’: letters of condolence on Vincent van Gogh’s death, Zwolle & Amsterdam 1992.
(6) Roland Dorn and Walter Feilchenfeldt, ‘Genuine or fake? – On the history and problems of Van Gogh connoisseurship,’ in Tsukasa Kōdera and Yvette Rosenberg (eds.), The mythology of Vincent van Gogh, Tokyo, Amsterdam & Philadelphia 1993, pp. 263-307.
(7) See Chris Stolwijk and Han Veenenbos, The account book of Theo van Gogh and Jo van Gogh-Bonger, Leiden 2002.
(8) Of the 20 Van Gogh paintings still owned by German museums today, 11 were acquired between 1908-12: in 1908, the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt am Main acquired the painting Cottage and woman with goat (F 90 JH 823); and in 1910, the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, bought the Portrait of Armand Roulin (F 493 JH 1643) from the Marcel Goldschmidt gallery in Frankfurt. (This painting was not, as hitherto maintained, confiscated as ‘degenerate art’ by the Nazis, but given voluntarily by the municipal authority of Cologne in 1937 to Theodor Fischer in Lucerne in exchange for an Old Master picture, which was to be given as a present to Hermann Goering’s family; Fischer intended to include the painting in the notorious auction of works expropriated from German museums that took place in Lucerne on 30 June 1939; it is now owned by the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam). The Städtisches Museum Stettin purchased A lane near Arles (F 567 JH 1419) from Thannhauser in Munich in 1910 for the sum of 10,800 Reichsmark (now in Greifswald, Pommersches Landesmuseum). The Kunsthalle Bremen bought Field with poppies (F 581 1751) in 1911, the acquisition that triggered the infamous ‘protest of German artists.’ In the same year, the Wallraf-Richartz Museum added Le Pont de Langlois (F 570 JH 1421) to its Roulin portrait; the Städtische Kunsthalle Mannheim bought Bowl with sunflowers, roses and other flowers (F 250 JH 1166) from Cassirer; the Zurich patroness Emy Roth donated Orchard in blossom with view of Arles (F 516 JH 1685) to the Neue Pinakothek in Munich within the compass of the so-called ‘Tschudi donation,’ a foundation privately initiated and organised in memory of the museum director Hugo von Tschudi, who died in the same year; and city councillor Victor Mössinger donated the Portrait of Dr Gachet (F 753 JH 2007) to the Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt am Main (it was confiscated as ‘degenerate’ in 1937 and is now in a private collection). In 1912, the Düsseldorf art dealer Alfred Flechtheim sold the scenic self-portrait Painter on his way to work (F 448 JH 1491, probably destroyed during the Second World War) to the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum in Magdeburg, the Städtisches Kunstmuseum Essen purchased Quay with men unloading sand barges (F 449 JH 1558) from Druet in Paris; and the Neue Pinakothek in Munich added to its collection the painting Vase with twelve sunflowers (F 456 JH 1561), likewise privately financed within the compass of the ‘Tschudi donation,’ and the drawings The Rhône with boats and a bridge (F 1472 JH 1404), Canal with bridge and women washing (F 1473 JH 1405) and Enclosed field behind St Paul’s hospital (F 1552 JH 1863).
(9) Cf Kenneth Moffat, Meier-Graefe as art critic, Munich 1973.
(10) Cf. Christian Lenz, ‘Julius Meier-Graefe in seinem Verhältnis zu Vincent van Gogh,’ in Georg-W. Költzsch and Ronald de Leeuw (eds.), Vincent van Gogh und die Moderne. Frechen 1990, pp. 47-59. The author tends to defend Meier-Graefe quite vehemently at times, even against justified criticism.
(11) Julius Meier-Graefe, ‘Über Vincent van Gogh,’ Sozialistische Monatshefte (February 1906), p. 155: ‘Vincent van Goghs Anschauung wird von Anfang an von einem tiefgehenden Socialismus bestimmt.’
(12) Julius Meier-Graefe, Entwicklungsgeschichte der modernen Kunst, 2d ed., 3 vols., Munich 1927, vol. 3, pp. 603-04: ‘Ein rasendes Temperament hat sie auf die Leinwand geschleudert. Bäume schreien, Wolken jagen entsetzt. Sonnen gleißen glühenden Löchern gleich im Chaos. Die Bilder sind oft, man weiß es, in blindem Taumel gemalt. Cézanne hätte über den Bewußtlosen die Achsel gezuckt. [ ..] Als Künstler suchte er Ersatz für die Kirche, und deshalb kam es ihm nie in den Sinn, seine höchst persönliche Art auszuschlachten. Er wußte nichts davon. Wenn er sich begnügte, verehrte Meister auf seine einfache Art zu übertragen, wollte er sich bergen in ihrem Machtbereich, aber auch für sie predigen und wirken. […] Und eben weil er keusch und aufrichtig und von unerschütterlicher Einfalt war, weil er für Kirche nahm, was heute immer nur persönlich sein kann, deshalb entbehren seine Bilder der Tiefe, deshalb bedroht sie der Rationalismus Wir wissen, wer hinter ihnen stand. Auch zukünftige Geschlechter werden es wissen. Seine Geschichte rüttelt an jedem Schloß.’
(13) Cf. Charles Mattoon Brooks, Jr, Vincent van Gogh: a bibliography, New York 1942.
(14) Julius Meier-Graefe, Vincent, Munich 1921, p. 322: ‘Die Legendenbildung zu fördern, ist der Zweck des Buches Vincent. Denn nichts ist uns nötiger als neue Symbole, Legenden eines Menschentums aus unseren Lenden.’
(15) Elias Canetti, Die Fackel im Ohr: Lebensgeschichte 1921-1931, Frankfurt 2001, p. 348: ‘[…] nach dem Erscheinen des “Vincent” von Meier-Graefe van Gogh zum vornehmsten Gesprächsstoff der Pensionstafel wurde. […] Damals war es, dass die Religion um van Gogh begann, und Fräulein Kündig sagte einmal, jetzt erst, seit sie sein Leben kenne, sei ihr aufgegangen, was es mit Christus auf sich habe.’
(16) Ibid.
(17) Sjraar van Heugten, ‘Vincent van Gogh as a hero of fiction,’ in The mythology of Van Gogh, cit. (note 6), passim.
(18) Cf. Ron Manheim, ‘The “Germanic” Van Gogh: a case study of cultural annexation,’ Simiolus 19 (1989), no. 4, pp. 277-88.
(19) F 489 JH 1625 (Paris, Musée d’Orsay) was at that time owned by the writer Carl Sternheim
(20) F 519 JH 1687 (Winterthur, Sammlung Oskar Reinhart ‘Am Römerholz’).
(21) Julius Meier-Graefe, ‘Handel und Händler,’ Kunst & Künstler 11 (November 1913), p. 206.
(22) Roland Dorn, ‘Zur Malerei Van Goghs, 1884-1886,’ Georges-Bloch-Jahrbuch 7 (2000), pp. 156-77.
(23) Dorn and Feilchenfeldt, op. cit. (note 6)
(24) Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, Vincent van Gogh Foundation, Judith Gérard-Moline, ‘Le crime de Julien Leclerq,’ copy of an unpublished manuscript. Cf. also Gaston Poulain, ‘Une femme-peintre, Mme Judith Gérard, nous déclare être l’auteur du célèbre Van Gogh le “Portrait de l’artiste aux fleurs,”’ Comoedia 25 (10 December 1931), p. 1.
(25) See Théodore Duret, Van Gogh, Paris 1914.
(26) Sale Coray-Stoop Collection I, Lucerne (Theodor Fischer/A. Mak), 29 July 1925, lot 107. Coray’s biographer Rudolf Koella reports that the French art dealer Jean Lurçat initially offered the painting to the collector in or around 1920 as ‘a portrait of Pissarro with pipe, painted by Cézanne during his second stay in Paris’; see Rudolf Koella, Die Leben des Han Coray, Zurich, 2002, p. 165. When and how this painting later came to be attributed to Van Gogh is not known.
(27) J.-B de la Faille, Les faux Van Gogh, Paris & Brussels 1930. At least one of the works catalogued as a fake (FF 161) has meanwhile been recognised by the Van Gogh Museum as authentic. Cf. Sjraar van Heugten, Vincent van Gogh: drawings. Vol. 1: the early years, 1880-1883, Amsterdam & Bussum 1996, p. 230 (ill.).
(28) Cf Will Grohmann (ed.), Die Sammlung Ida Bienert, Dresden, Potsdam 1933, p. 20 (‘bei de la Faille (1930) irrtümlich als faux (nr. 108)’).
(29) J.-B. de la Faille: L’oeuvre de Vincent van Gogh, 4 vols., Paris & Brussels 1928.
(30) The Berlin branch of the Marcel Goldschmidt gallery in Frankfurt, for example, mounted a ‘Special Exhibition of Impressionists’ from February to March 1928. Of the nine Van Gogh works offered (cat. nos. 13-21), at least seven were Wacker forgeries: cat. no. 13 (F 539a); cat. no. 14 (F 705); cat. no. 15 (F 685); cat. no. 16 (F 577); cat no. 19 (F 823); cat. no. 20 (F 710a); and cat. no. 21 (F 741 a). Peter Kropmanns even assumes that all of the Van Gogh paintings offered were fakes; cf. Peter Kropmanns, ‘Kunstmarkt Berlin 1928. Beutekunst und Fälschungen aus der Galerie M. Goldschmidt & Co.,’ Museumsjournal 111 (July 1999), pp. 8-9.
(31) Cf. Olinto Lovaël [pseud.] and Joachim Versch, Gesellschaftstanz, Berlin 1955.
(32) Programme in the Deutsches Tanzarchiv, Cologne. I wish to thank Frank-Manuel Peter for this information.
(33) Cf. Nicole Roepers ‘De strijd der deskundigen: H.P. Bremmer en het Wackerproces,’ Jong Holland 93 (1993), no. 2, pp. 25-36.
(34) ‘Die Kunstexpertise vor Gericht,’ Der Abend (19 April 1932).
(35) ‘Hat die Expertise Wert und Zweck?,’ Berliner Börsen-Courier (17 April 1932).
(36) ‘Expertisenaberglaube,’ Das Kunstblatt 16 (May 1932), pp. 34-39.
(37) Vossische Zeitung (19 April 1932): ‘Meier-Graefe, der für 25 der falschen Bilder Echtheitszertifikate ausgestellt hatte, wurde gefragt: “Welchen Wert haben Expertisen überhaupt?” Er antwortete. “Einen ungeheuer geringen Wert! Leute, die auf Expertisen hin Bilder kaufen, sind auch nichts anderes wert, als auf sie hereinzufallen.” Nun aber hat Meier-Graefe selbst die Expertisen gegeben, auf die hin die Bilder zu hohen Summen verkauft wurden. Ist es da möglich, sich über die Leute lustig zu machen, die ihm grenzenloses Vertrauen bewiesen haben?’
(38) Berlin, Zentralarchiv der Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, I/NG 723: ‘Es freut mich sehr, dass Sie in dieser Sache gegen Meier-Graefe Stellung nehmen. Viele Kollegen haben mir zustimmend geschrieben, aber einige ihre Zustimmung öffentlich erscheinen lassen. Ich finde – wie Sie, – dass alle ernsten Wissenschaftler gegen die mit grossen Propagandamitteln und gewaltigem Anspruch auftretende Halbwissenschaft zusammenhalten müssen.’
(39) Grete Ring, ‘Der Fall Wacker,’ Kunst & Künstler 31 (May 1932), pp. 161-62. ‘Der Amateur, besonders der deutsche, kauft nicht ausschließlich nach optischen Gesichtspunkten: die Neigung zu einem Künstler geht bei ihm oft übers Gedankliche, das Literarische. In van Gogh sieht er nicht nur den Schöpfer farbenschöner Bilder, er verehrt in ihm die Persönlichkeit mit dem tragisch-genialischen Lebensschicksal, den Verfasser der erschütternden brieflichen Bekenntnisse: van Goghsche Bilder sind ihm – zugespitzt formuliert – gleichzeitig eine Art Dichterautogramme. Aus diesem Grund kann dem Sammler der Wunsch nach einem van Gogh nicht durch Lieferung eines anderen Kunstwerks befriedigt werden; aus dem gleichen Grund ist ihm gelegentlich auch das schwächere Bild seines Meisters noch begehrenswert.’
(40) M.M. van Dantzig, Vincent?, Amsterdam 1953.
(41) Quoted after Fritz Erpel, Die Selbstbildnisse Vincent van Goghs, Berlin 1963, p. 63, no. 37.
(42) J.-B. de la Faille, Vincent van Gogh: complete works, Amsterdam & New York 1970.
(43) Cf. Henk Tromp, ‘De Goetz-affaire: De strijd over Studie bij kaarslicht,’ Jong Holland 18 (2002), no. 1, pp. 34-40.
(44) There are many examples. Here are a few of the prominent ones: Marc Edo Tralbaut, Récolte de blé dans la plaine des Alpilles (in Bulletin II des Archives Internationales de Van Gogh, 1968), idem, Vincent van Gogh, Lausanne 1969, p. 205 (Flowers), p. 239 (Countryside around Arles) and p. 245 (Harvesting wheat in the Alpilles plain); exhib. cat. Les Impressionistes d’Auvers-sur-Oise, Auvers-sur-Oise (Salle des fêtes de la mairie) 1973, no. 52 (Les chaumes de gré); exhib. cat. Vincent van Gogh: Zeichnungen und Aquarelle, Frankfurt am Main (Frankfurter Kunstverein) 1970, no. 33 (F 1127a, Garden in winter), no 66 (F -, Two peasants with wheelbarrow) and no. 67 (F -, Study), A.J. Rehorst, De Hogeschoolrijdster: een onbekend werk van Vincent van Gogh, Utrecht 1976; and exhib. cat Autour du Docteur Gachet, Auvers-sur-Oise (Musée Daubigny) 1990 (Couple des paysans devant une cheminée, without catalogue number, ill. on title).
(45) A selection of contemporary press reports is kept in the archives of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
(46) I wish to thank David Brooks in Toronto for this information.
(47) Exhib. cat. Exposition des impressionistes français, Amsterdam (Jelle de Boer) 1966.
(48) See Benno J. Stokvis, Nasporingen omtrent Vincent van Gogh in Brabant, Amsterdam 1926 See also the essay by Martha Op de Coul in this volume of the Van Gogh Museum Journal.
(49) Ibid., p. 4.
(50) Ibid., p. 7
(51) See Georg Klusmann, Vincent van Gogh: Unbekannte frühe Werke, Mainburg 1987.
(52) Ibid., p. 20
(53) Hanspeter Born, ‘Auf Schatzsuche,’ Das Magazin 51 (22-28 December 2001), pp. 36-47
(54) Klusmann, op. cit. (note 51), p. 132 (ill.).
(55) François Chaigneau, ‘Les Van Gogh de Saint-Ouen,’ Paris Match (23 December 1993), pp. 96-102.
(56) See Valérie Niozet and Francesco Plateroti, Vincent van Gogh: L’album japonais Regard sur six dessins retrouvés, Paris 1993.
(57) Carlo Bertelli and Flavio Fiorentino, ‘Ma questi Girasoli non sono di Van Gogh,’ Corriere della Serra (27 January 1997).
(58) Martin Bailey, ‘At least forty-five Van Goghs may well be fakes,’ The Art Newspaper 7 (July-August 1997), p. 1.
(59) Cf. Dorn and Feilchenfeldt, op. cit. (note 6).
(60) At this point in time, the painting had already been publicly declared by the museum as a fake (cf. note 63).
(61) Jan Hulsker, The new complete Van Gogh: paintings, drawings, sketches, Amsterdam & Philadelphia 1996.
(62) Stephan Koja and Erhard Stöbe ‘Zu einem Selbstbildnis Vincent van Goghs in Wien: Eine Urheberschaft van Goghs ist kaum mehr zu halten,’ Mitteilungen der Österreichischen Galerie 34/35 (1990/91), pp. 110-29.
(63) Sjraar van Heugten, ‘Radiographic images of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum,’ Van Gogh Museum Journal (1995), p. 85.
(64) Cf. Stefan Koldehoff, ‘Warten auf Van Gogh – Von der Notwendigkeit eines grundlegend neuen Werkverzeichnisses,’ Weltkunst (1 March 1997), pp. 452-55
(65) Allegedly originating from Arles, this painting was first shown in 1977 in the exhibition Choix d’un amateur at the Galerie Schmit in Paris. The reference to its participation in an exhibition at the Galerie Druet cannot be verified the quoted number 14 is not illustrated in the catalogue and the title would match dozens of Van Gogh works. Authenticated not only by Jan Hulsker but also by A.M. Hammacher, who last confirmed his opinion in 1990, this painting changed owners several times during the 1980s and 90s. In the spring of 2002, the Amsterdam art dealer Frans Jacobs had to withdraw it from the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht owing to the doubts concerning it.
(66) The drawing catalogued by Hulsker under the number JH 721 is in fact the verso of the drawing F 1219: the thickly applied ink had come through on the back of the paper.
(67) Cf. Marc Edo Tralbaut, De Gebroeders Van Gogh, Zundert 1964, p. 186, fig 10.
(68) Cf. Van Gogh’s letters to Theo; also ‘A great artist is dead’, cit. (note 5); and Louis van Tilborgh, The potato eaters by Vincent van Gogh, Zwolle 1993.
(69) The first opportunity to examine the painting out of its frame was in the spring of 1987, when the former owners delivered it to Christie’s in London for auction. The auction house filmed the examination, carried out only by Christie’s own experts. A copy of the tape is in the author’s possession.
(70) Gérard-Moline, op. cit. (note 24).
(71) Cf Walter Ueberwasser, Le jardin de Daubigny: Das letzte Hauptwerk van Goghs, Basle 1936.
(72) Cf. Catherine Puget and Jill-Elyse Grossvogel, exhib. cat. Emile Schuffenecker: 1851-1934, Pont Aven (Musée de Pont-Aven) 1996 & Saint-Germain-en-Laye (Musée Départemental Maurice Denis Le Prieuré) 1996-97.
(73) Jill-Elyse Grossvogel, Claude-Emile Schuffenecker, San Francisco 2000.
(74) Inv. no. D737T/1974 (Grossvogel 254).
(75) Hanspeter Born, ‘Die seltsamen Strohhütten des Reader’s Digest,’ Tages-Anzeiger Zürich (9 November 1998).
(76) Idem, ‘Der Baron und der falsche Van Gogh,’ Das Magazin 24 (17-23 June 2000), pp. 10-13
(77) Cf. Vincent Noce, Descente aux enchères. les coulisses du marché de l’art, Paris 2001, pp. 295-316.
(78) Paris (Binoche et Godeau), 6 December 1992, lot 7.
(79) Importants meubles, objets d’art et tableaux modernes, Paris (Binoche et Godeau), 10 December 1996, lot 1.
(80) See Alain Franco and Michel Guerrin, ‘Jardin à Auvers, le roman tumultueux d’un tableau dans le siècle,’ Le Monde (27 September 1996), p 25
(81) Réunion des musées nationaux (ed.), Jardin à Auvers dit aussi Jardin avec parterre, Paris 1999.
(82) See Anne Distel and Susan Alyson Stein, exhib. cat. Cézanne to Van Gogh the collection of Dr Gachet, Paris (Galeries nationales du Grand Palais), New York (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) & Amsterdam (Van Gogh Museum) 1999.
(83) Louis van Tilborgh and Ella Hendricks, ‘Van Gogh’s The garden of St Paul’s hospital: genuine or fake?,’ The Burlington Magazine 143 (March 2001), pp. 145-58
(84) The third version for comparison, from the National Gallery in London, did not join the other two exhibits until the exhibition was shown in Amsterdam. The Yasuda Seiji Togo Memorial Yasuda Kasai Museum of Art has still not consented to a full physical and scientific examination of its painting.
(85) Louis van Tilborgh and Ella Hendricks, ‘The Tokyo Sunflowers: a genuine repetition by Van Gogh or a Schuffenecker forgery?,’ Van Gogh Museum Journal (2001), pp. 16-43.
(86) Martin Bailey, ‘Yasuda Sunflowers “authentic,”’ The Art Newspaper 13 (April 2002), p 1.
(87) Hanspeter Born, ‘Vincent van Goghs erste Sonnenblumen,’ Die Weltwoche 70 (7 March 2002), p. 35.
(88) Born, op cit. (note 53).
(89) See Bouwe Jans, Artquakes and Vincent van Gogh, Weybridge 2001.
(90) Martin Bailey, ‘Downgraded or questionable,’ The Art Newspaper 9 (July-August 1998), p. 15.
(91) See Evert van Uitert and Michael Hoyle (eds.), The Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam 1987 and Sjraar van Heugten and Marije Vellekoop, Vincent van Gogh: drawings. Vol. 3: Antwerp and Paris, 1885-1888, Amsterdam & Blaricum 2001.
(92) Label next to the painting in the museum: ‘Vincent van Gogh (zugeschrieben)’ (‘Attributed to Vincent van Gogh’).
(93) Per Hedström and Britta Nilsson, ‘Genuine and false Van Goghs in the Nationalmuseum,’ Art Bulletin of the Nationalmuseum Stockholm 7 (2000), pp. 98-101.
(94) See Koja and Stöbe, op. cit. (note 62).
(95) Impressionist and modern paintings and sculpture, part I, London (Sotheby’s), 26 June 1990, lot 18. The Japanese owner had likewise purchased the painting, the first reproduction of which did not make its appearance until 1921, from Sotheby’s on 26 June 1984.
(96) Impressionist paintings, drawings and sculpture, part I, New York (Sotheby’s), May 11, 1993, lot 36.
(97) Cf. Mechteld de Bois, Vincent van Gogh De Turfschuit, Zwolle 1999. De la Faille illustrated the work in 1939 without the addition, though he may have been using an even older photograph

Van Gogh Museum Journal,  2002, p. 8-25

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Stefan Koldehoff – When myth seems stronger than scholarship Van Gogh and the problem of authenticity, Van Gogh Museum Journal, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2002

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