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Why we are happy with our four oil paintings: The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam responds to leading scholar’s doubt

The Van Gogh fakes controversy continues

The Van Gogh Museum has rebutted claims made in the latest edition of Jan Hulsker’s catalogue that some of its key works are fakes. In The new complete Van Gogh, Hulsker put question marks against forty-five Van Goghs, indicating that he has “strong doubts” about their authenticity. Of these, sixteen are in the Van Gogh Museum (The Art Newspaper, No. 72, July-August 1997, pp.21-24).

All but one of the museum’s sixteen questioned works are still considered authentic, according to Chief Curator Louis van Tilborgh. “It is unfortunate that the paintings and drawings have been questioned by Hulsker without reasons being given as to why they might be fakes,” he added.

“Head of a peasant man”, dates from Nuenen in 1885. It belonged to Jo Bonger, Theo’s wife, and has an impeccable provenance. On the reverse is a self-portrait (Van Gogh did several self-portraits on the back of Nuenen canvasses), and Mr Hulsker does not question the 1887 self-portrait. “Why then should a genuine self-portrait have a fake Nuenen picture on the back, considering that the earlier works are much less valuable in financial terms?” asked Mr Van Tilborgh.

“Stuffed kalong bat” is a curious picture, depicting an Indonesian bat. Traditionally dated to the artist’s period in Paris, Mr Van Tilborgh now believes it is more likely to have been done earlier, in Nuenen. Its provenance can be traced back to Rotterdam’s Oldenzeel Art Gallery in the early 1900s, and although it was not in the two early editions of de la Faille, it was accepted in the 1970 catalogue raisonné. In 1973 “Stuffed kalong bat” was bought by the Van Gogh Museum, which still accepts it as being stylistically correct.

“Kingfisher”. Dating from Paris in 1886, it too is right stylistically. What is more, the stuffed bird from which the painting was made survived in the family and is now in the vaults of the museum and has never been exhibited. A faker would not have had access to it for copying. “The picture has a red painted border, which Van Gogh made on a few works. These borders are normally hidden by frames, and this detail would have been very unlikely to have been included by a faker,” Mr Van Tilborgh explained. “Kingfisher” is signed and belonged to Jo Bonger, giving it the best provenance.

“The garden at St-Rémy” was given to the Van Gogh Foundation by Dr Paul Gachet Jr in 1957. At the time its authenticity was rejected by the Theo’s son, the engineer Vincent van Gogh. But despite his personal rejection, it has always been accepted by the museum. Mr Van Tilborgh believes it is a more refined version of a sketchier oil painting now at the Folkwang Museum in Essen. He says the Essen picture was made after nature, and this was then used as a basis for the painting in the Van Gogh Museum, which is of higher quality. “It would have been impossible for a forger to have translated the Essen picture into the our version, which has all the trademarks of Van Gogh’s St-Rémy style.”

Of the twelve drawings which are questioned by Mr Hulsker, the Van Gogh Museum is likely to downgrade only one, “Seated female nude”. Drawings curator Sjraar van Heugten showed us the sketch, and pointed to its “weak and extremely hesitant execution”. Scribbled on the back is a short note by Arnold Koning, a Dutch artist who stayed briefly with Theo, referring to practical details relating to the cleaning of the flat. Mr Van Heugten admits that the drawing does not appear to be by Koning, so the identity of the artist remains a mystery.

Mr Van Tilborgh stresses that some of the museum’s comments on the questioned works might eventually be revised, because the curators are in the early stages of producing a set of detailed scholarly catalogues of the entire collection. The second volume by Sjraar van Heugten is published in English this month, Vincent van Gogh drawings: Nuenen 1883-85. The museum is currently showing its collection of drawings from Nuenen (until 12 October).