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Van Gogh Letters

by Martin Bailey

Martin Bailey of The Art Newspaper has published details of "missing" Van Gogh letters which are being sought by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. A slightly shorter version was published in the April issue of The Art Newspaper, which regularly covers important news stories on Van Gogh ( Martin Bailey is also the author of "Van Gogh: Letters from Provence" (1990) and selected the "Van Gogh in England" exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery (1992).

AMSTERDAM   The search is on for Van Gogh's missing letters, and our readers are invited to join the hunt. The Van Gogh Museum, which is preparing the definitive edition of the artist's correspondence, wants to track down nearly a hundred letters which are known to have survived, but are now lost. Although these letters were published earlier (many by the 1930s), they are in unknown private collections and no longer accessible. The new edition is being prepared on a much more rigorous basis and the museum is therefore very keen to check the original correspondence. To be published in 2004, the definitive edition will include the Dutch or French texts of the letters, English translations and full scholarly annotations, and is likely to run to about 10,000 pages.

"It is very important for us to see the original correspondence," explains Leo Jansen, of the Van Gogh Letters Project. "It is only by examining the originals that it is possible to determine whether material was erased by Van Gogh, added by later hands, misread by the transcriber or suppressed by the editors." He points to the project's most recent major discovery, on the reverse of a Van Gogh ink sketch of "Starry Night on the Rhone", at the Amsterdam museum. To save money, the artist had reused the paper for the sketch, and on the back there are fifteen lines of text which were completely crossed out by the artist. This text had remained undeciphered, but after a painstaking examination, it has finally been read. This revealed that it was originally a letter to Gauguin which was never sent. In it, Vincent complained that his brother Theo, who was a dealer, was wanting to reduce the prices of Gauguin's paintings which he was selling. This crossed-out text is published in the latest issue of the "Van Gogh Museum Journal" and will be shown in a small display on Van Gogh's letters at the Amsterdam museum, from 6 July to 9 September.

The Van Gogh Museum, together with The Art Newspaper, has recorded details of the missing letters and provided clues which may make it possible to track down the correspondence, so that it can be examined by the specialists (see below). We are appealing to readers for assistance, and anyone who can help should contact Mr Jansen at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (tel 31 20 570 5200, information provided in confidence will be respected).

Saintly relics

Van Gogh's letters are probably the most important which survive for any artist and are certainly the most widely read. They have recently become extremely valuable, fetching prices which seem to have risen at an even faster rate than the paintings and drawings. Two letters came up at Sotheby's New York on 13 December 2000, one of which sold for $127,000 to an American dealer, an astonishing sum for a single sheet of paper with just a few paragraphs of text (the other letter remained unsold). The pair of letters were sent from Arles in 1888-9 to Van Gogh's Dutch artist friend, Arnold Koning, and had remained in his family.

Rising prices for Van Gogh letters and writings has sadly meant that a few have been dismembered in the most destructive manner. We can reveal one case which involved a friendship album belonging to Annie Slade Jones, wife of the Congregationalist minister for whom Van Gogh worked in Isleworth in 1876. When Van Gogh left England, he copied poems and religious writings in six pages of Annie's commonplace-book. In 1980 the album was sold by her descendants at Sotheby's for £550. It then changed hands again, and it seems that the Van Gogh pages were first removed, and then cut up into fragments (destroying the integrity of the text on the reverse). Eleven years ago one small fragment was offered for sale by a Massachusetts dealer, priced at $12,000. Since this tiny piece represented less than one twentieth of the Van Gogh writings in the Slade Jones album, the three double-sided sheets would theoretically have yielded around $250,000.

Worryingly, an unknown fragment of Van Gogh's writings cut out of another document has emerged much more recently, a piece which is hardly larger than a postage stamp. This had the name of the artist Millet with parts of just nine other words on one side, and a single sentence on the reverse. It sold at Sotheby's three years ago, fetching £3000. The Van Gogh Letters Project would not only like to see this fragment, but would be even keener on getting access to the remainder of the sheet, which has never been recorded. Tragically, Van Gogh's letters are now being subjected to marketing techniques that are reminiscent of those used to distribute the relics of saints in medieval times.

The lost letters:

   To Charles Angrand (French artist), 25 October 1886. The letter was probably sold in Paris in 1988 by a nephew, Pierre Angrand (it was then on offer for FF 112,000).

   To Emile Bernard (French artist), twenty one letters from summer 1887 to November 1889. This important group of letters was last seen in 1938, when they were published by Douglas Cooper (writing under the pseudonym Lord).

   To Egbert Borchers (friend in The Hague), 2 September 1885. Sold by Parisian bookdealer Marc Loliée in 1965. This letter has not yet been published in English.

   To Paul Gauguin (then working in Pont-Aven), 3 October 1888. Forwarded by Gauguin to artist Emile Schuffenecker in 1888 and published by the critic Claude Roger-Marx in 1939.

   To Joseph Ginoux (café owner in Arles), February and May 1890. The earlier letter was offered at Drouot in Paris on 22 March 1994, estimate FF 150,000. The later letter was in 1922 still in the possession of Ginoux's family.

   To Anthon van Rappard (Utrecht artist), 58 letters from October 1881 to September 1885. This large and very important collection was bequeathed to Van Rappard's friend Johan de Meester, who died in 1931. Shortly afterwards the letters were sold to a New York autograph collector, and they remained in the city until the 1950s. One letter, of 12 February 1883, was owned by Parisian dealer G. Morssen and was offered at Drouot in Paris on 10 June 1974, estimated at over FF 25,000.

   To Theo van Gogh (Vincent's brother), 28 June 1890. Sent shortly before his suicide, the letter included a large sketch of Margueritte Gachet playing the piano. It was given by Jo Bonger to Dr Paul Gachet in 1905, and in 1964 it was sold through Wildenstein to Parisian collector Otto Wertheimer.

   To Michiel Anthonie De Zwart (architect in Voorburg), 13 February and 14 March 1883. The owner of the first letter is believed to live in the province of Limburg. The second letter was for sale at the Librarie de L'Abbaye in Paris in 1964. Neither have been published in English.

   To the Reverend Thomas Slade Jones (Congregationalist minister in Isleworth), six pages of writings in an album, autumn 1876. This album was sold for £550 at Sotheby's on 29 April 1980 and bought by Oxford dealer John Wilson. By 1991 the Van Gogh writings had been acquired by Massachusetts dealer Diana Rendell, and dismemberment had begun. A 6 by 8 centimetres fragment, with four verses of the hymn "Tell Me The Old, Old Story" (with partial lines of a Dutch poem on the reverse), was offered for sale by Rendell for $12,000.

   Writing on Millet. This tiny fragment, just 3 by 6 centimetres, has a reference to Millet, one of Van Gogh's favourite artists, and on the reverse the word "Crépuscule" (twilight). It was included in the George Cosmatos sale at Sotheby's on 31 March 1998, selling for £3,000.

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