Question of attribution
The Van Gogh fakes scandal: the tally one year later

Last July, Martin Bailey broke the news in The Art Newspaper that at least forty-five Van Gogh paintings were suspect. This is what has happened since.

LONDON. The Art Newspaper is naming eighteen "Van Goghs" in public collections that have been downgraded as fakes or are works of questionable authenticity. Most of them have been taken off display, including pictures in the Van Gogh Museum, the Kröller-Müller Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm.

Since The Art Newspaper's revelations on the Van Gogh problem a year ago, much of the debate in the international media has centred around claims by outside critics that paintings owned by museums are fakes. But our latest survey shows that museums themselves are tackling the issue. Many of the pictures in our latest survey have been recently been downgraded or questions, although others fell under suspicion many years ago. All, however are still listed as Van Goghs in Dr. Jan Hulsker's The New Complete Van Gogh: Revised and Enlarged Edition of the Catalogue Raisonné, published in 1996 by John Benjamins.

The Art Newspaper's survey makes it possible to draw some interesting conclusions about the origins of the downgraded and questioned Van Goghs. Of the eighteen works, no fewer than twelve are catalogued by Hulsker as dating from Van Gogh's stay in Paris, in 1886-88. This represents two-thirds of our sample, although only 16% of Van Gogh's oeuvre dates from these years. Much less is known about the artist's period in Paris because he was living with his brother Theo and very few letters survive. Fakers have found it easier to introduce works appearing to date from Van Gogh's less documented Paris years. None of the works in our survey are catalogued by Hulsker as dating from Van Gogh's early years in the Netherlands, although almost half his oeuvre dates from these years. The artist's Dutch works are much less valuable, making them less tempting targets.

Of the eighteen works in our survey, five are in the Van Gogh Museum. Nearly all its collection was given by the Van Gogh family and can be traced back to Jo Bonger-van Gogh. Fakes in the museum are likely to be misattributions: works assumed to be by Van Gogh, but actually done by other artists in his circle.

Of the thirteen works in other public collections, two are signed and eleven are unsigned (Van Gogh only signed a small proportion of his work). The signed works were presumably made to deceive, but it is unclear how many of the remainder are forgeries or misattributions. Six downgraded works come from the Kröller-Müller Museum, a reflection of the large size of its Van Gogh collection and the fact that it has been well researched.

Most of the works in our survey are old, and emerged long ago. In addition to the five works at the Van Gogh Museum, three became known between 1900 and 1910, seven emerged between 1910 and 1920, and three appeared later. This suggests that most of the "good" fakes, which deceived owners for a long period, were produced in the very early years of the century, when prices for Van Goghs were already rising steeply.

Our survey also raises the intriguing link with the Schuffenecker brothers, who have been accused of faking Van Gogh's work. Two paintings, "Still life with basket" and "Mountainous landscape near St-Rémy", were sold by the art dealer Amédée Schuffenecker around 1912. Both these pictures are at the Kröller-Müller Museum. The Schuffenecker brothers did own and handle authentic Van Gogh's, so the fact that a work passed through their hands does not mean it is a fake—but in the case of the two Kröller-Müller pictures, the finger of guilt points towards them. In the case of the two other works in our survey, the pictures could have been done by Amédée's older brother, the artist Emile, or someone in their circle. Professor Mark Roskill told The Art Newspaper that he believes that "Landscape near Auvers" (Rhode Island School of Design) may well have been painted in "the Schuffenecker workshop". According to the curator of Stockholm's Nationalmuseum, Görel Cavalli-Björkman, it has also been suggested that their "Wheatfield" could have been painted by the Schuffenecker brothers, although she herself does not have a view on this point.

Finally, a few technical comments on our survey. After the title of each work, the Hulsker (H) catalogue number is given. Each case is obviously different: some pictures have been downgraded; other works are regarded as not authentic by the curators, but have not yet been formally downgraded; and in a few cases serious questions have been raised by outside scholars, but the curators have not reached a final verdict. We thank the museum curators for their assistance with our survey.

The museums have been assisted by outside experts who have in the past raised questions and advised on their Van Goghs. Those who have helped the museums in the past on various works include Dr Roland Dorn, Walter Feilchenfeldt, Professor Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, Professor Mark Roskill, Professor Ronald Pickvance, Liesbeth Heenk and curators from the Van Gogh Museum.

Martin Bailey

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