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Forty chalk drawings, sketches and paintings signed Vincent, on display in the Breda Museum, in southern Holland, until February 1, have the potential to touch off a furious argument among art experts around the world: are they genuine Van Goghs, or worthless fakes?

Vincent Van Gogh committed suicide in 1890, when he was only 37, after a career of less than 10 years. He produced hundreds of paintings, but sold only one, to his brother. Today, some of his paintings, especially his later work, are worth millions of dollars.

Christie's London sold a Van Gogh Sunflowers in March 1987 for a then auction record of $US39,921,750. The buyer, Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Company of Tokyo, displayed it in their art gallery. Surprisingly, some art "experts" suggested it was a fake.

Later that year, Australian tycoon Alan Bond, winner of the 1983 America's Cup (which American yachtsmen had held for 132 years) successfully bid $53,900,000 at Sotheby's in New York for another Van Gogh, Irises. He failed to repay a loan Sotheby's had given him to buy the painting, and the Getty Museum later bought it from the auction house for an undisclosed sum.

[In 1996 Bond was sentenced to three years' jail for a $15m swindle involving the Edouard Manet painting La Promenade. In 1997, he was jailed for a further four years after pleading guilty to deceptively siphoning off $1.2bn from Bell Resources, to prop up his ailing Bond Corp. It was Australia's biggest corporate fraud. He was released on parole in March 2000.]

Christie's sold a third Van Gogh, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, in 1990, for the amazing sum of $82,500,000 ($75 million, plus a 10 percent buyer's commission), to an agent acting for Japanese industrialist Ryoei Saito. "In less than three minutes, Vincent van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet became the world's most visible work of art, only to vanish from view ­ its whereabouts still a mystery", Caroline Kleiner wrote in US News and World Report in July 2000.

Saito spent a few hours admiring the portrait, then locked it in a climate-controlled vault, where it remained for seven years. In 1993 he was charged with trying to bribe officials to allow him to develop a Vincent Golf Course. Like Australia's Alan Bond, Saito pleaded guilty. Given a three-year suspended sentence, he declared that when he died, he wanted Van Gogh's masterpiece cremated or buried with him. (Later, he said he was joking.)

Saito died in 1996. According to Kleiner, "it wasn't clear who owned Gachet ­ Saito's heirs, his company, or his creditors ­ or even where it was. Museum curators and auction houses tried to locate it. But while representatives of Saito's company assured the world that it was still around, a veil of secrecy shrouded all future transactions. Gachet simply seemed to vanish into the murky waters of the international art market."

In a recent edition of The Art Newspaper, Martin Bailey wrote that back in November 1885, Van Gogh suddenly left his family home in the village of Nuenen, after a row with the village priest over his use of female models. The artist abandoned hundreds of paintings and drawings in a house where he rented a room as his studio.

His mother Anna moved to nearby Breda in March 1886, packing her son's art work into several wooden chests, which were taken to Breda, where they were stored by Adrianus Schrauwen, a carpenter who had helped with the removal.

In 1902 Schrauwen sold some copperware to Jan Couvreur, a Breda second-hand merchant, and threw in the chests for free. Couvreur paid two guilders for three cartloads of material. He discarded many of the drawings and sold much of the canvas to a rag shop, but kept 60 paintings on stretchers, 150 loose canvases and two portfolios with 80 pen-and-ink and about 150 chalk drawings.

"He later nailed several paintings to his cart, filled it with the remaining drawings and sold them, initially going from house to house and then taking them to the local flea market," said Bailey. "The Van Goghs sold for around five cents each."

English-speakers' habit of calling him Van Go is entirely weird and un-Dutch. The V in Van Gogh is pronounced as an F, and both the Gs are guttural, as in the KH combination you find in the transliterations of place names from Egypt, India and Russia.
- Mike Oettle (pronounced OOT-lee)

It's the Yanks who say Van Go. We English say Van Goch, like Loch Ness; to my hearing the Dutch say v/fan Khoch but the KH sound is hardly guttural, I'd a thought.
- Hugh de Glanville

In the London Independent, arts and media correspondent James Morrison predicted that the Breda Museum's exhibition would throw open "one of the longest-running and most acrimonious controversies in the art world." He said the artist's family and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam had consistently refused to countenance the idea that a large number of works presumed destroyed or lost still existed in private hands.

One of the paintings is of a row of cottages at The Hague, almost certainly genuine, particularly as it is painted over an earlier study of a woman knitting, a known subject for Vincent. To admit that, however, may be difficult for the Museum's senior curator, who has gone out on a limb, stating categorically "The time for finding new Van Goghs is over: there are no more to be found."

Another of the pictures on display is an oil painting, The Diggers, which Bouwe Jans, a collector and gallery owner in Eton (UK), bought in Groningen (Holland) 10 years ago.

Jans believes his 47cm-by-61cm canvas, which bears the vaguely legible signature Vincent in the bottom right corner, is an original Van Gogh. He says he has a certificate of authentication signed by a world authority, the late Jan Hulsker. "It's not just a story or a myth, but a fact, that Van Gogh left behind hundreds of pictures in Holland, where he painted for longer than anywhere else," said Jans.

In a long-running and at times bitter dispute with the Dutch art "establishment," he has published two books, Artquakes and Vincent van Gogh and the recent sequel, Artquakes Aftershocks.

Eleven years ago, Australian documentary film producer and artist Michael Rubbo wrote and directed a fictional feature film called Vincent and Me, a fable about a young girl obsessed with Van Gogh. It won him an Emmy award.

"For this film, I needed 20 Van Gogh copies," he recalls on his website. "I decided to do them myself as a test of my right to do this story about Vincent. If the copies turned out well, I superstitiously convinced myself it meant he wanted me to do the film.

"I did feel a ghostly presence at my shoulder as I painted late into the night in the basement of a house owned by my friend, Dorothy Henaut.

"Doing copies has become a sleazy business, as unscrupulous artists feed fakes into the art auction market. Few painters would now admit to having done copies. This is sad because it is a wonderful way to learn, and can be a very reverential business. Vincent himself did many copies of painters he admired."

We emailed Rubbo, seeking his views on the Breda exhibition. He replied:

"This is all very interesting stuff. Vincent was so unused to have any interest shown in his art, that it is quite possible he forgot the many paintings he had stashed or given away. He managed to sell only one canvas in his lifetime to the sister of a fellow painter, and always felt he was burdening his brother Theo by pushing canvases on him for sale. Theo was an art dealer and tried his best to promote his brother, but without success.

"The paintings and drawing turning up in Breda would be of course from Vincent's early creative life, when he was influenced by Dutch tonal painters and was doing dark and heavy works. One finds none of the vibrant color and joy of the later paintings in these works. Still, if authentic, they are interesting in tracing the evolution of the mainly self taught artist.

"The Breda museum will have a tough time with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam who, as official custodians of the reputation, are not at all open to new discoveries. Vincent, who loved art debate, as we see from his letters, would be horrified to see how closed minded they are.

"Yet it is understandable since in his life time his works were worth nothing, were freely given, and now of course are worth millions. This means that many of the pieces which are brought to Amsterdam are not brought by art lovers or those interested in Vincent's story, but by shysters with shonky fakes. So the gallery is continually beating back these hordes and fighting to keep the catalogue raisonée clean.

"On the other hand, the folks at the Van Gogh do seem overly arrogant and uninterested. I took them a blurred copy of a photograph a couple of years ago which could have been the only known photo of Vincent as an adult. I was not trying to sell it; it was not mine to sell. If authentic this was surely an amazing discovery."



Copyright © 2004

Eric Shackle

Story first posted January 2004

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