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…

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