On Tuesday night, the new Alliance members-only Gallery Book Club convened to discuss the book Provenance: How a Con Man and Forger Re-Wrote the History of Modern Art. In the tome, authors Laney Salisbury and Aly Sugo describe how John Drewe infiltrated the archives of the Tate Museum and Victoria & Albert to plant phoney records establishing a seemingly airtight chain of title (known by art professionals as “provenance”) for hundreds of fakes that forger John Myatt painted for him. With this in mind, then, the Van Gogh Museum rocked the art world earlier this month when it announced the discovery of a major new painting by the Father of Expressionism, Vincent van Gogh.
Along with Picasso, van Gogh is one of the iconic painters most frequently targeted by art forgers. Some experts estimate that there are as many as 200 fakes circulating around the world. Most of these are in private collections. And until a few weeks ago, Sunset at Montmajour was numbered among them.
Until 1901, it was in the family collection once owned by van Gogh’s brother, Theo, who served as the artist’s benefactor and exclusive art dealer. After Theo’s death, his widow, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, managed the collection. She sold the landscape to Paris art dealer Maurice Fabre, who in turn sold it to a neophyte Norwegian industrialist by the name of Christian Nicolai Mustad in 1908. But shortly after, Sunset at Montamjour was declared a fake and the embarrassed Norwegian collector banished the presumed prepostor to his attic, where it languished for six decades until the current owner purchased it from him.
Questions have been raised about a number of other van Goghs ostensibly painted by the artist during the two years he spent in Arles prior to his death on July 29, 1890 from a gunshot wound to the chest. For example, Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers' authenticity was challenged soon after its purchase by Japanese insurance magnate Yasuo Goto in the 1980s for a shade under $40 million.
A phalanx of independent researchers pointed to a laundry list of stylistic flaws, but the primary thrust of their concerns was that the painting had passed through the hands of artist and reputed forger Claude-Emile Schuffenecker. So notorious were Emile’s forgeries that when his brother and business partner Amadee died in 1936, a neighbor was heard to remark that the paintings stored in his warehouse contained several “newly made van Goghs.” On top of that, van Gogh failed to mention the Yasuda Sunflowers in any of the 27 letters he wrote to his brother Theo, nor did the picture appear on the inventory of paintings he shipped to Theo when he left Arles in 1889.
Of course, a battalion of eminent van Gogh scholars have resolutely defended the painting’s authenticity, but the debates rages on even today.
Schuffenecker wasn’t the only suspected forger from van Gogh’s Arles period. The infamous Dr. Gachet is thought to have painted as many as 20 van Gogh fakes. In fact, some think he’s the author of the Portrait of Dr. Gachet that hangs today in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. (This is the "other" Portrait of Dr. Gachet, not to be confused with the Gachet purchased by Ryoei Saito at Christie's New York on May 15, 1990 for the then-record price of $82.5 million (including the 10% buyer's premium).)
Three months before the painting was due to go up for auction, reports surfaced contending that the portrait, which also once belonged to Schuffenecker, was a fake. So grave were the doubts that not a single bid was received even though the curator of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam had publicly warranted the work’s authenticity and a laboratory associated with the French National Museums had declared the painting genuine after conducting an intensive technical, chemical and radiological analysis of the canvas.
Sunset at Montmajour was never one of the suspected Schuffenecker or Gachet frauds. Rather, it was originally thought to be a fake because of number of stylistic anomalies. Most of the paintings van Gogh painted during his Arles period are characterized by impasto (thick strokes using lots of paint) and multiple layers of paint. Not only are these trademarks absent from the landscape, but the painting was unsigned, some parts of the foreground were not “as well-observed as usual,” and part of the right side of the painting used a different style of brush strokes.
Ironically, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam refused to authenticate the painting in 1991, but when the museum took a fresh look at the work in 2011, they had the advantage of a newly-edited and published compendium of all Van Gogh’s letters, and were able for the first time to identify the exact location near Arles that the landscape depicts.
Van Gogh mentioned the painting in three of the letters he wrote Theo that summer. According to HuffPost Arts & Culture writer Toby Sterling, “the number 180 on the back of the canvas was an important clue” as well, “and new techniques of chemical analysis of the pigments show they are identical to others van Gogh used on his palette at Arles, including typical discolorations. Meanwhile, an X-ray examination of the canvas showed it was the same type van Gogh used on other paintings from the period, such as The Rocks, which hangs in Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts.”
And what did van Gogh say about Sunset at Montmajour in his letters to Theo? Well that’s part of the problem. Van Gogh himself regarded the painting as experimental and did not think it lived up to the standards he’d set with other paintings he rendered during his stay in Arles. Of course, van Gogh was sometimes his own worst critic. He notoriously made similar remarks about some of his most famous paintings, including the 1889 Starry Night that hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Even so, experts predict the painting would fetch no less than $10 million, and as much as $40-$50 million were it to be offered for sale through Christie’s or Sotheby’s now or in the future.
With so much money at stake, the endorsement of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam was crucial to acceptance of Sunset at Montmajour's authenticity. Not only does the museum maintain the largest collection of Van Gogh’s work anywhere in the world, it spearheaded a 15-year project that culminated in October 2009 that catalogued and indexed the artist’s extensive correspondence with his brother Theo. Known as the Van Gogh Letters Project, the letters function as an important source for establishing and proving the provenance of questionable works of art like Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers, Portrait of Dr. Gachet and, until recently, Sunset at Montmajour.
Teio Meedendorp was one of the experts who participated in the Van Gogh Letters Project, and he warns that even though the discovery of a major new van Gogh painting hasn’t occurred in 85 years, it is still possible that another heretofore-unknown or lost Van Gogh could be found someday. The artist destroyed some works himself when he wasn’t satisfied with the results, but others that are mentioned in his letters or early collection of his work have since disappeared. And when van Gogh moved to Paris in 1886, he abandoned his studio in Brussels. After the studio was emptied to make way for new tenants, hundreds of drawing and paintings were carted in wheelbarrows to a local swap meet, where they were purchased for wallpaper and other household uses. Like Sunset at Montmajour, some may have found their ways into attics, only to resurface one day in the not-too-distant future.
If so, the Alliance members-only Gallery Book Club may have a new book to add to its reading list.