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Authenticity of Australian Van Gogh painting is questioned

6 August 2006

Portrait of a Man A number of fine arts specialists have raised doubts about the authenticity of Vincent van Gogh's Portrait of a Man, on loan from the National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne), Australia for an exhibition at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Frank Whitford, an art critic for The Sunday Times, denounced the authenticity of the painting based on stylistic reasons, in particular its lacking a certain "crazy intensity." Tim Hilton, an author working on a new biography of Van Gogh and Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, which investigates art forgeries, also questioned the work.

In the art world, and certainly in the vast and complex scope of Vincent van Gogh's oeuvre, maintaining a healthy skepticism can be beneficial. Over the years a number of highly regarded museums, including the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, The Netherlands and the Nasjonalgalleriet in Oslo, Norway, have questioned the authenticity of their own Van Gogh works and, after careful study and evaluation, rescinded their status as genuine.

The concern about the recent spate of publicity surrounding the Australian painting is both the motivation behind the accusations as well as the reasoning backing them up. Some might argue that unfounded and rash statements may be a means of attracting global media attention. A number of years ago the Raelian cult group claimed to have created a human clone. This made headlines around the world. Eventually when no proof was ever produced, the claim was exposed as false. Similarly, it's short sighted and reckless to condemn an art work's authenticity without a thorough and proper evaluation. Especially when the doubts are based on stylistic concerns. And even more importantly when even these stylistic doubts are inconsistent among those condemning the work (Hilton claims the work is fashioned after Frans Hals or Eugene Delacroix while Daley claims that the painting is a fake, but clearly based on Van Gogh's own style).

Worse still is the consequences of these sorts of declarations. In 2000 Benoit Landais, an arts scholar, visited a Van Gogh exhibition in Martigny, Switzerland. Afterward he went to the press (in, what some have argued, was a quest for media attention) and condemned six of the 85 works in the exhibition as fakes. Not surprisingly, this attracted a good deal of publicity, much to the dismay of the exhibition's organizers as well as the owners of the works in question. In the end, none of the accused works was ever proven to be fake, but there has been speculation that private owners and museums may, in the years to come, become more reluctant to lend out works to various exhibitions if the result is that media-starved attention seekers cast a shadow of doubt upon their works. Ultimately, everyone loses.

Is Portrait of a Man a genuine Van Gogh or isn't it? It's true that this work is unusual in that it's the artist's only horizontal portrait (although there is some evidence to suggest that the work has been cropped and may not have been horizontal originally). It's also true that Van Gogh never mentioned the painting in his many letters, although this in itself isn't unusual in that many of Van Gogh's finest works (Farmhouse in Provence and Olive Grove, for example) were never mentioned in his letters. Furthermore, the curator of the Edinburgh exhibition, Martin Bailey, a Van Gogh specialist for decades, has defended the painting as genuine.

In the end, a balanced and reasonable exploration of this painting's authenticity cannot be undertaken until a proper study takes place. X-ray analyses (both diffraction and energy dispersive), laser-microspectral analysis as well as thin-layer chromatography are only a few of the methods of exploring the origins of an art work. Until such studies are undertaken any stylistic opinions, along with the accompanying condemnation and media frenzy, are misguided and irresponsible.

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