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Vincent Van Gogh

We revealed that as many as forty-five well-known Van Goghs might be fakes. Now John Leighton, director of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, responds

"There is room for uncertainty around the edges"

Does it matter if some “Van Goghs” are fakes?

For us at the Van Gogh Museum it is extremely important to determine what is authentic. Van Gogh forms the core of our collection and research into his work is one of our central tasks. We welcome discussion about attribution. It is always healthy for museum curators and art historians not to take attributions for granted. It is always good practice to question one’s presumptions.

Around a hundred Van Goghs have recently been questioned by various experts. Do you believe that ultimately this number of works may be downgraded?

My instinct is that we are dealing with far fewer works than the numbers which are being bandied about. The main body of the artist’s work is secure, but as with any artist, there is room for uncertainty around the edges.

It is part of our job to set about the slow patient work of establishing the exact limits of the artist’s oeuvre. As a relative newcomer to Van Gogh studies, I find that the research into the artist’s work has been rather variable in quality. Here at the museum, we aim to set high standards and to work for the long term.

Why is the museum only willing to comment on the authenticity of paintings in its own collection?

Like many museums, we have a clear policy with regard to publicising our opinions on works that belong to other institutions or private owners. The rule is that, unless we have the owner’s permission to do otherwise, we keep our opinions to ourselves. This is partly to do with protecting the museum and its staff over legal matters, but it is also to do with professionalism and good manners.

The private owners who come to us have a right to expect that we will deal with them in confidence. We also respect the expertise of our colleagues in other museums and we recognise their right to catalogue the works in their care. But it is impossible to legislate for every circumstance, and in compiling a catalogue raisonné, for example, we have to be free to express our opinion. Where possible, we try to do this with the blessing of the owner.

What assistance can the Van Gogh Museum offer over authentication?

As a research centre, our facilities and expertise are available to anyone. We receive around five enquiries a week from members of the public who want us to provide an opinion on works which they believe to be by Van Gogh. We are keen to help and there is no fee. But in the end it is up to the curators to decide how much time to devote to a particular enquiry.

To what extent do modern scientific techniques help?

Late nineteenth-century artists generally used commercially produced materials, so technical analysis is most useful for excluding possibilities rather than providing definitive answers. With Van Gogh, the evidence provided by scientists or restorers can provide useful clues, but is usually part of a wider research that involves archival sources as well as connoisseurship. We should not be dismissive of the power of the experienced human eye.

Should there be the equivalent of the Rembrandt Research Project?

I don’t believe there should be a formal committee that attempts to reach a consensus on every disputed work by Van Gogh. Having said that, I think there is scope for the Vmuseum to provide more of a forum for debate about the artist. At the moment I am considering holding informal meetings of experts, including outside scholars, to discuss issues such as authenticity, without the pressure to reach definitive, collective decisions.

Will there eventually be a new catalogue raisonné?

Our curators are working to produce detailed catalogues of our own paintings and drawings. These publications are thoroughly researched and the expertise that will be accumulated will be invaluable for the revision of the catalogue raisonné. We also have a team working on a complete annotated edition of Van Gogh’s letters. This means that the revised catalogue raisonné is some years off.

Do you intend to become involved personally in issues of authenticity?

For the moment, no. My role is to facilitate the work of the curators and to encourage high standards of research. In the longer term... well, I imagine that the more I become involved in the details of these debates, the harder it will be to stay out of the fray.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as: Uncertainty at the edges