Stems of division in the provenance of "Sunflowers"

The provenance of the Yasuda "Sunflowers" is a key issue in the controversy over its authenticity. If the picture can be reasonably convincingly traced back to the artist, this is obviously a strong argument that the painting is authentic. But in the case of the Yasuda picture, there is an added complication. It was once owned by Amédée Schuffenecker, and before that it probably belonged to his brother Emile. The Schuffeneckers have been accused of taking Van Gogh's work, and this has fuelled suspicions that the Tokyo picture could be a fake.

The arguments about the provenance of the Yasuda picture are particularly complex because of the existence of a number of versions of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers", making it difficult to distinguish them in early records and catalogues. The Art Newspaper has therefore set out to pinpoint the crucial areas of dispute. All those who accept the Yasuda "Sunflowers" as authentic agree on its early provenance. It was painted by Vincent van Gogh in Arles in late January 1889, as a copy of his original version done in August 1888 (now in the National Gallery, London). On 2 May 1889, just before Vincent entered the asylum at St-Rémy, the Yasuda version was sent to his brother Theo, in Paris. Following Theo's death on 25 January 1891, the painting was among hundreds which passed to his widow Jo Bonger-van Gogh.

It is here that the differences arise. The 1970 van Gogh catalogue raisonné by Bart de la Faille states that the January 1889 version of "Sunflowers" was acquired by Emile Schuffeneckers around 1901. De la Faille's evidence was that the picture was apparently loaned by Emile Schuffenecker to an exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim Jeune in Paris in March 1901.

When Christie's auctioned "Sunflowers" in 1987, its sale catalogue put forward a new theory by Dr Roland Dorn. Based on the brief descriptions of two versions of "Sunflowers" in the Bernheim Jeune catalogue, he argued that the de la Faille had confused the Christie's version of "Sunflowers" with the one now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Dr Dorn proposed that in 1901 the Christie's picture had been lent by another owner, the Parisian collector Comte de La Rochefoucauld. He argued that de La Rochefoucauld acquired the picture from Jo Bonger in the early 1890s and had sold it to Amédée Schuffenecker by 1907.

Soon after the 1987 auction, Professor Ronald Pickvance rebutted Dr Dorn's argument in an essay published in Christie's Review of the Year. Professor Pickvance produced evidence that it was indeed the Philadelphia version which had been owned by de La Rochefoucauld. The Yasuda version must therefore have belonged to Emile Schuffenecker. Dr Dorn then accepted this interpretation. This year the debate was taken further when Professor Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov published an article in the March issue of the "Burlington" magazine, arguing that early correspondence at the Van Gogh Museum showed that Emile Schuffenecker had bought the Yasuda "Sunflowers" from Jo Bonger in March 1894, through the widow of the colour merchant Père Tanguy. She also claimed that the Philadelphia "Sunflowers" had belonged to Gauguin.

The final theory, propounded by Ben Landais and Antonio de Robertis, is that the Yasuda "Sunflowers" is a fake. In a booklet published in May, Mr Landais claims that the Tokyo picture is not by Van Gogh, but is the creation of Emile Schuffenecker, who then exhibited it at Bernheim Jeune in 1901.

However acquired by Emile Schuffenecker, there is no disagreement about the Yasuda picture's later history. By 1907 (and possibly a few years earlier) "Sunflowers" had passed to his younger brother, the dealer Amédée Schuffenecker, who sold it to the Galerie Druet in Paris. By 1910 it had been bought by Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, a Berlin collector. In the early 1930s he sold the picture to the Galerie Paul Rosenberg in Paris. Edith Beatty bought the "Sunflowers" in 1934. It later passed to their son and his wife. On 30 March 1987 Helen Beatty sold the painting at Christie's, when it was bought by Yasuda for a record of £24.75 million.

The different theories on the provenance of the various versions of "Sunflowers" were hotly debated at the 15 May symposium on Van Gogh held at the National Gallery in London, but the experts failed to reach a consensus. Louis van Tilborgh, Chief curator at the Van Gogh Museum, admitted that he had heard five or six theories. He concluded: "We need to take time, and to look much more closely at the arguments."

Where did the Yasuda "Sunflowers" come from?



Those who believe the picture to authentic agree on its early provenance:

May 1889 Painted by Vincent van Gogh, Arles
June 1889 Theo van Gogh, Paris
Jan 1891 Jo Bonger-van Gogh, Paris


After this, differences arise

Early 1890s
Comte Antoine de la Rochefoucauld, Paris
(Roland Dorn Christie's sale catlogue, 1987)
Around 1901
Emile Schuffenecker, Paris
(Bart de la Faille catalogue raisonné, 1970)
By 1901
Emile Schuffenecker, Paris
(Ronald Pickvance, Christie's Review of the Year, 1987)
1894 (via Tanguy)
Emile Schuffenecker, Paris
(Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, Burlington Magazine, 1998)



There is no disagreement on the subsequent provenance:

1907 Amédée Schuffenecker, Meudon
1908 Galerie Druet, Paris
1910 Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Berlin
1930s Galerie Paul Rosenberg, Paris
1934 Edith and Alfred Beatty, London
1968 Chester and Helen Beatty, London
1987 Yasuda, Tokyo

Martin Bailey

Reprinted with permission.

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