Vincent van Gogh was thirty-seven on July 27, 1890, when he shot himself in the chest on a quiet country footpath and dragged himself home to die in the attic room of a small auberge in Auvers-sur-Oise. It was only in the last two years of his life that he had found himself as an artist, first in the picturesque Provençal town of Arles, then in nearby St.-Rémy-de-Provence, and finally in the northern village of Auvers just outside Paris. It was in these years that he worked with passionate speed, using the thick impasto we now associate with his name. But his entire working life as an artist had only spanned nine years. In that time, according to the complete catalog of his work published in 1970, he ex-ecuted 879 paintings, 1,245 drawings, and one etching. It has now been suggested that several dozen of the paintings, as well as the only known etching, are fakes executed by various of his contemporaries. That Van Gogh’s paintings are currently more expensive than those of any other artist gives the situation a special piquancy.
A fake is an imitation of an artist’s work which is passed off as genuine. Some of the paintings now thought to be masquerading under Van Gogh’s name may have been innocent imitations made by other artists who admired his style. Others, particularly the Paris period still lifes, may look like Van Goghs because Vincent himself discovered and adopted a variant of Impressionism that was used by many other painters in Paris at the time. Such paintings only became fakes when passed off as Van Goghs—the signature “Vincent” was added to many Paris still lifes painted by other artists. But there are also out-and-out fakes, painted with the purpose of deception.
How do we know? The time-honored method of recognizing fakes is to use one’s eyes. The sweep of an artist’s hand as he paints is highly individual. His brushstrokes are like handwriting and, just as forged documents can be recognized by a handwriting expert, forged paintings can be recognized by connoisseurs. In theory, at least.
In fact, Van Gogh was a highly experimental artist who was constantly trying out different styles. And his mental illness meant that his power to control the brush varied. Those who consider themselves experts on his work argue vigorously about what he painted and what he did not. They are broadly agreed, however, in branding as fakes a group of variants on genuine St.-Rémy landscapes, owned at one time by Amédée Schuffenecker and probably painted by his artist brother Emile. They are also agreed that Paul Gachet Jr., the son of the doctor who looked after Vincent in Auvers, passed off several imitations as genuine Van Goghs. And they agree as well that several of the Paris period still lifes are not by Van Gogh.
Once a painting is suspected on visual grounds, one looks for further evidence. Documentation of a painting’s early history is extremely important—though such odd things happen to paintings that it can rarely provide definitive proof. And there is scientific evidence, based, for example, on X-ray and chemical analysis. So far few of the disputed Van Goghs have been scientifically studied and it is unclear how much that could help. Since the disputed pictures were painted within a few years of Van Gogh’s death, other artists could have used the same canvas and paint suppliers.
That Vincent made many copies and versions of his own paintings further complicates the questions about his work. In the case of portraits, he would often make a copy for the sitter; when he was ill he would copy his own work for lack of other motifs; if he was dissatisfied with his rendering of a subject, he might try again. Many of the paintings over which disputes are currently raging are copies or variants of wholly accepted works. Good copies are very hard to detect—there are still arguments over many Old Master copies. A faker with a genuine painting in front of him is likely to be inspired by the spirit of the original and leave few traces of his own characteristic quirks of style.
Several of Van Gogh’s contemporaries are now suspected of knowingly passing off fakes as genuine. Attention has so far concentrated particularly on Emile Schuffenecker, who worked in the same stockbroking firm as Gauguin and left with him to become a painter, and Dr. Paul Gachet, the Auvers physician who watched over Vincent’s mental illness for the last two months of his life. Gachet’s son gave eight Van Goghs to the Louvre, probably including some fakes. But several other people may have had a hand in producing or selling fraudulent imitations: Emile Schuffenecker’s brother Amédée and their close friend Emile Bernard, the artist who worked in Brittany with Gauguin and helped launch Cloissonism; Ambroise Vollard, the famous Paris dealer in avant-garde art; Théodore Duret, the art critic friend of Manet; and several other, more obscure, figures.
Contrary to the general assumption, money is not the principal reason for creating fakes. The characteristic motivation that drives an artist to make them—and only artists are capable of it—is to prove to himself that he is as good as the artist he imitates. They are usually made by artists embittered by their own lack of recognition—as were Schuffenecker, Bernard, and Gachet. But the bohemian world of struggling artists is also inhabited by dealers and amateurs—such as Vollard and Duret—who know that art is not fundamentally about names and would not take the passing off of fakes too seriously. Vollard and Duret probably needed the money—but they also loved art.
There have been mounting allegations, denials, and counter-allegations over Van Gogh fakes in the world press, most especially the French press, during the last eighteen months. It all began when an undistinguished late landscape, Le Jardin à Auvers, was put up for auction in Paris in December 1996, unleashing a fierce debate over its authenticity—still unresolved. Then, in June 1997, the Journal des Arts published an investigation by Martin Bailey, an English journalist, suggesting that there might be as many as one hundred fakes in circulation. This was most frustrating for me personally since I had begun to do research on the Van Gogh fakes for a television program a year before—and my program was not due to be aired in Britain until October. As it turned out, however, the story is so complex and intriguing that there was plenty of information to be discussed.
The television program concentrated on presenting the evidence that the painting Sunflowers sold by Christie’s in 1987 to the Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance Company of Japan for å£24.75 million—then a world record price for any painting—was a copy made around 1900 by Emile Schuffenecker. The original, the program concluded, is the painting Sunflowers now in the London National Gallery. Van Gogh made a copy of it himself which he intended to give to Gauguin, but his copy never left the family collection and hangs today in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The composition—though not the execution—of all three paintings is identical, and in November 1997 the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, reacting perhaps to my television program, announced the intention of gathering all three paintings of Sunflowers under one roof—probably at the National Gallery in London—to make a thorough scientific study of the Yasuda version. The Amsterdam museum, which was given $37.5 million by Yasuda to build a new wing in the early 1990s, loyally supports the authenticity of the Yasuda painting. The curator of paintings, Louis van Tilborgh, has told me that they have no doubt about it and are sponsoring a scientific study merely in order to demonstrate to the public that the painting is genuine.
The Musée d’Orsay in Paris has also announced a new investigation. There is to be an exhibition in late 1998 of all the donations by Paul Gachet Jr. to French museums, after every painting has been scientifically tested and researched. The catalog of the show will give the official French response to the suggestion that Paul Gachet Jr. gave away fakes.
This is a welcome beginning but it is probably going to take decades to sort the problem out. At present the views of those who have made a special study of Van Gogh’s work are wildly conflicting. The voices that carry the most weight are those of the British art historian Ronald Pickvance, who organized the big Van Gogh shows at the Metropolitan Museum in the 1980s, and the Zurich-based experts Walter Feilchenfeldt and Roland Dorn. Feil-chenfeldt is an art dealer—the son of one of the great dealers of pre-war Berlin—while Dorn previously worked as a museum curator in Mannheim. Dorn and Feilchenfeldt are preparing their own catalogue raisonné.
The opinions of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam are also given much weight, though the museum’s curators of paintings and drawings, Louis van Tilborgh and Sjraar van Heugten, are comparatively junior in the pecking order of experts. Then there are Professor Mark Roskill of Amherst, Massachusetts, who published an important book, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and the Impressionist Circle,in 1970; Professor Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov of Toronto, who organized the recent Paris period show at the Musée d’Orsay; and Annet Tellegen, now eighty-five, who collected the information on which the 1970 catalogue raisonné—the authoritative source on Van Gogh—is based. She fought bitterly with the editorial committee appointed by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Arts, and Sciences, whose views on authenticity are reflected in it. The committee’s task was to revise and reissue Baart de la Faille’s Van Gogh catalog, first published in 1928; Tellegen wanted it to incorporate more new research than the committee did. The failings of the 1970 catalog are among the causes of the present muddle.
Dorn and Feilchenfeldt published an important article on fakes in 1993 identifying a group of copies which they attributed to Emile Schuffenecker. They discussed the proliferation of Paris still lifes and pointed to doubtful self-portraits. Bogomila Welsh, the art historian from Toronto, is working on a new study of Emile Schuffenecker. But the most provocative contribution to the investigation is being made by two outsiders, Benoît Landais and Antonio de Robertis. Both enthusiastically welcome opportunities to publicize their views.
Benoît Landais is the son of Hubert Landais, formerly director in chief of the Musées de France. Benoît’s previous careers included full-time revolutionary, round-the-world yachtsman, and writer. He now lives in a village outside Amsterdam and works on the Van Gogh Museum archives. Antonio de Robertis is a Milanese geometer—an Italian profession that lies somewhere between architect and quantity surveyor. In 1990 he won 100 million lire in a television quiz game, Lascia o Raddoppia(“Double or Quit”), by answering questions on Van Gogh and was able to spend his winnings on further research.