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"Previously Unknown" Van Gogh Painting Sparks Controversy


9 February 2003

Head of a Peasant Woman with White Cap TOKYO -- It's a story that fires the imagination and one that, in recent days, has received international media coverage. A "previously unknown" Van Gogh painting--valued just days ago only US$83--sold yesterday at an auction in Tokyo for US$550,000.

The problem, however, is that the whole story is based on a foundation of quicksand.

Two basic facts are irrefutable: Head of a Peasant Woman with White Cap was sold by the Shinwa Art Auction Co. Ltd. in Tokyo yesterday for 66 million yen (US$550,000). The painting was purchased by Toshio Nakamoto for the Wood One Museum of Art in Yoshiwa, Japan. But other than that the rest of the story is riddled with factual errors.

Reuters reported that the Shinwa Art Auction Co. received Head of a Peasant Woman with White Cap from a Japanese collector in a consignment of unremarkable art works. Shinwa subsequently appraised the work at a value of a mere 10,000 yen (US$83). Days later this "unknown" Van Gogh painting was confirmed authentic by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and a storm of media attention ensued.

The truth, however, is far less titillating. Head of a Peasant Woman with White Cap has, in fact, always been recognized as a Van Gogh painting. Its authenticity has never been challenged and it has appeared in Van Gogh catalogues for more than seventy years. The original Van Gogh catalogue raisonnÚ, compiled by Jacob Baart De la Faille and published in 1928, listed the painting as catalogue number F 131. It also appears in the updated De la Faille catalogue raisonnÚ published in 1970 as well as in both Jan Hulsker's catalogues raisonnÚs as JH 685 (1980 and 1996). In addition, it is also listed on the CD-ROM Vincent van Gogh: The Complete Works. For seventy-five years the painting's authenticity has never been questioned.

Furthermore, the "unknown" Head of a Peasant Woman with White Cap has been sold to private collectors at auction as a genuine Van Gogh painting at least twice before:

Why then, did the Shinwa Art Auction Co. fail to recognize a long accepted Van Gogh work as genuine? How could an accredited art house make such a glaring mistake? Some might suggest for the international publicity that the story created which, arguably, could have inflated the selling price at auction. The painting did sell for nearly eighteen times the price it brought in the last time it stood on the auction block twenty-four years ago.

Or was it merely sloppy research?

Whatever the case, the hype surrounding the recent sale of Head of a Peasant Woman with White Cap is unwarranted and an embarrassment for both the Shinwa Art Auction Company as well as the media. Van Gogh works sell at auction all the time (the drawing Pine Trees in Front of the Wall of the Asylum sold in London just three days ago). The sale of Head of a Peasant Woman with White Cap is only newsworthy, ironically, because of the unnecessary media attention it's generated.


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