Archive
July 1998

The Van Gogh fakes scandal: the tally one year later

Last July, The Art Newspaper broke the news that at least 45 Van Gogh paintings were suspect. This is what has happened since

Plate with Rolls Van Gogh Museum

The Art Newspaper is naming 18 “Van Goghs” in public collections that have been downgraded as fakes or are works of questionable authenticity. Most of them have been taken off display, including pictures in the Van Gogh Museum, the Kröller-Müller Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm.

Since The Art Newspaper’s revelations on the Van Gogh problem a year ago, much of the debate in the international media has centred around claims by outside critics that paintings owned by museums are fakes. But our latest survey shows that museums themselves are tackling the issue. Many of the pictures in our latest survey have recently been downgraded or questioned, although others fell under suspicion many years ago. All, however, are still listed as Van Goghs in Dr Jan Hulsker’s The New Complete Van Gogh: Revised and Enlarged Edition of the Catalogue Raisonné, published in 1996 by John Benjamins.

The Art Newspaper’s survey makes it possible to draw some interesting conclusions about the origins of the downgraded and questioned Van Goghs. Of the eighteen works, no fewer than 12 are catalogued by Hulsker as dating from Van Gogh’s stay in Paris, from 1886 to 1888. This represents two-thirds of our sample, although only 16% of Van Gogh’s oeuvre dates from these years. Much less is known about the artist’s period in Paris because he was living with his brother Theo and very few letters survive. Fakers have found it easier to introduce works appearing to date from Van Gogh’s less documented Paris years. None of the works in our survey are catalogued by Hulsker as dating from Van Gogh’s early years in the Netherlands, although almost half his oeuvre dates from these years. The artist’s Dutch works are much less valuable, making them less tempting targets.

Of the 18 works in our survey, five are in the Van Gogh Museum. Nearly all its collection was given by the Van Gogh family and can be traced back to Jo Bonger-van Gogh. Fakes in the museum are likely to be misattributions: works assumed to be by Van Gogh, but actually done by other artists in his circle.

Of the 13 works in other public collections, two are signed and 11 are unsigned (Van Gogh only signed a small proportion of his work). The signed works were presumably made to deceive, but it is unclear how many of the remainder are forgeries or misattributions. Six downgraded works come from the Kröller-Müller Museum, a reflection of the large size of its Van Gogh collection and the fact that it has been well researched.

Most of the works in our survey are old, and emerged long ago. In addition to the five works at the Van Gogh Museum, three became known between 1900 and 1910, seven emerged between 1910 and 1920, and three appeared later. This suggests that most of the “good” fakes, which deceived owners for a long period, were produced in the very early years of the century, when prices for Van Goghs were already rising steeply.

Our survey also raises the intriguing link with the Schuffenecker brothers, who have been accused of faking Van Gogh’s work. Two paintings, Still life with basket and Mountainous landscape near St-Rémy, were sold by the art dealer Amédée Schuffenecker around 1912. Both these pictures are at the Kröller-Müller Museum. The Schuffenecker brothers did own and handle authentic Van Goghs, so the fact that a work passed through their hands does not mean it is a fake—but in the case of the two Kröller-Müller pictures, the finger of guilt points towards them.

In the case of two other works in our survey, the pictures could have been done by Amédée’s older brother, the artist Emile, or someone in their circle. Professor Mark Roskill told The Art Newspaper that he believes that Landscape near Auvers (Rhode Island School of Design) may well have been painted in “the Schuffenecker workshop”. According to the curator of Stockholm’s Nationalmuseum, Görel Cavalli-Björkman, it has also been suggested that their Wheatfield could have been painted by the Schuffenecker brothers, although she herself does not have a view on this point.

Finally, a few technical comments on our survey. After the title of each work, the Hulsker (H) catalogue number is given. Each case is obviously different: some pictures have been downgraded; other works are regarded as not authentic by the curators, but have not yet been formally downgraded; and in a few cases serious questions have been raised by outside scholars, but the curators have not reached a final verdict. We thank the museum curators for their assistance with our survey.

The museums have been assisted by outside experts who have in the past raised questions and advised on their Van Goghs. Those who have helped the museums in the past on various works include Dr Roland Dorn, Walter Feilchenfeldt, Professor Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, Professor Mark Roskill, Professor Ronald Pickvance, Liesbeth Heenk and curators from the Van Gogh Museum.

Under suspicion in 1998: the 18 works under the microscope

Still life with flowers, (H1103), oil on canvas, signed.

• Owner: Netherlands Ministry of Culture (on permanent loan to Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo). Acquired: Lent in 1974. Formerly in the collection of A. Philips-de Jongh, Eindhoven. Earliest provenance: L. Enthoven, Voorberg, Netherlands, 1910s. Problem: Style. Current status: Not on display. Curator Johannes van der Wolk says attribution is “questionable”.

Vase with Poppies, (H1104), oil on canvas, unsigned.

• Owner: Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut. Acquired: Bequeathed in 1957 by Anne Titzell, Connecticut. Earliest provenance: Ambroise Vollard Gallery, Paris, 1901. Problem: Style and handling of paint. Current status: Not on display. Director Peter Sutton admits that some outside scholars have serious doubts about the attribution. “The jury is out,” he explained. The still life is still formally attributed to Van Gogh, although its status will be reexamined when Curator Eric Zafran prepares his forthcoming catalogue on the Wadsworth’s French pictures.

Still life with basket, (H1117), oil on canvas, unsigned.

• Owner: Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. Acquired: Bought by Hélène Kröller-Müller in 1912. Later presented to her museum. Earliest provenance: Amédée Schuffenecker, Meudon, before 1912. Problem: Style. Current status: Not on display. Van der Wolk says attribution is “questionable”.

Still life with bottle of wine, (H1121), oil on canvas, unsigned.

• Owner: Van Gogh Foundation, Amsterdam (on permanent loan to museum). Acquired: Given in 1962 by Van Gogh family to Foundation. Earliest provenance: Jo van Gogh-Bonger. Problem: Style and composition. X-ray has recently revealed that it is painted above the portrait of a woman, not in Van Gogh’s style. Current status: Not on display. Not by Van Gogh, but possibly by one of his artist friends.

Jug with carnations, (H1126), oil on canvas, unsigned.

• Owner: Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. Acquired: bought in 1920 by Hélène Kröller-Müller at Enthoven sale. Later presented to her museum. Earliest provenance: L. Enthoven, Voorberg, Netherlands, c1910s. Problem: Style. Current status: Not on display. Curator Van der Wolk says attribution is “questionable”.

Still life with carnations, (H1129), oil on canvas, unsigned.

• Owner: Detroit Institute of Arts. Acquired: Bequeathed in 1990 by Catherine Kresge Dewey. Earliest provenance: Mrs H. Ullmann, Frankfurt, by 1930s. Problem: Style and flaccid brushwork. Current status: Not on display. Never formally accessioned into the collection. Curator George Keyes says that although the painting is clearly old, he does not believe that it is by Van Gogh.

Vase with carnations, (H1133), oil on canvas, signed.

• Owner: Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. Acquired: Bought in 1913 by Hélène Kröller-Müller. Later presented to her museum. Earliest provenance: Eugène Blot Gallery, Paris, by 1913. Problem: Style. Current status: Not on display. Van der Wolk says attribution is “questionable”.

Seated female nude, (H1163), drawing, unsigned.

• Owner: Van Gogh Foundation, Amsterdam (on permanent loan to museum). Acquired: Given in 1962 by Van Gogh family to Foundation. Earliest provenance: Jo van Gogh-Bonger. Problem: weak execution. Current status: Not by Van Gogh, but possibly by one of his artist friends.

Hill of Montmartre with quarry, (H1180), oil on canvas, unsigned.

• Owner: Van Gogh Foundation, Amsterdam (on permanent loan to museum). Acquired: Given in 1962 by Van Gogh family to Foundation. Earliest provenance: Jo van Gogh-Bonger. Problem: Style. Current status: Not on display. Not by Van Gogh, but possibly by one of his artist friends.

View in Paris, (H1187), watercolour, unsigned.

• Owner: Van Gogh Foundation, Amsterdam (on permanent loan to museum). Acquired: Given in 1962 by Van Gogh family to Foundation. Earliest provenance: Jo van Gogh-Bonger. Problem: Watercolour technique lacks firmness of control. Current status: Not by Van Gogh, but possibly by one of his artist friends.

Plate with rolls, (H1232), oil on canvas, unsigned.

• Owner: Van Gogh Foundation, Amsterdam (on permanent loan to museum). Acquired: Given in 1962 by Van Gogh family to Foundation. Earliest provenance: Jo van Gogh-Bonger. Problem: Brushstrokes not in Van Gogh’s style. Current status: Not on display. Not by Van Gogh, but possibly by one of his artist friends (perhaps the painter responsible for “Still life with bottle of wine”).

Self-portrait, (H1344), oil on canvas, unsigned.

• Owner: Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna. Acquired: Bought in 1964 by the Kunsthist-orisches Museum and transferred to the Österreichische Galerie in 1986. Earliest provenance: Family von Steiger, Zurich, early 1900s. Problem: Weak execution and facial expression. Current status: Not exhibited. Curator Dr Stephan Koja believes it is a fake.

Wheatfield, (H1482), oil on paper, unsigned.

• Owner: Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. Acquired: Given in 1914 by Friends Association of the Nationalmuseum, after acquired by them in 1912. Records suggest that the price was “sensationally low”. Earliest provenance: Paul Rosenberg Gallery, Paris, by 1912. Problem: The work is on paper, a support never used by Van Gogh. Appears to be a crude copy, probably based on an authentic picture at the Toledo Museum of Art. Some critics believe it may have been painted by Amédée or Emile Schuffenecker. Current status: Not on display. Formally still attributed to Van Gogh, although not personally accepted by Chief Curator Görel Cavalli-Björkman.

Mountainous landscape near St-Rémy, (H1745), oil on canvas, unsigned.

• Owner: Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. Acquired: Bought in 1912 by Hélène Kröller-Müller from Monsieur Leonard, Paris. Later presented to her museum. Earliest provenance: Amédée Schuffenecker, Clamart, before 1912. Problem: Style. Current status: Not on display. Van der Wolk says attribution is “questionable”.

This self-portrait from Oslo was confirmed as authentic in 2020 Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo

Self-portrait, (H1780), oil on canvas, unsigned.

• Owner: Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo. Acquired: Bought in 1910 from Eugène Blot Gallery, Paris. Earliest provenance: Ambroise Vollard Gallery, Paris, in c1900 (possibly before that Monsieur Clouet). Problem: Weak execution and facial expression. Current status: Painting is still displayed as a Van Gogh, but Senior Curator Ernst Haverkamp admits there have been “recent doubts” about the picture. “More work is necessary before we can give a definitive answer,” he says.

Three trees and houses, (H2000), oil on canvas, unsigned.

• Owner: Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. Acquired: Bought in 1913 by Hélène Kröller-Müller at Manzi-Joyant sale, Paris. Later presented to her museum. Earliest provenance: Marczell von Nemes, Budapest, before 1913. Problem: Style. Current status: Not on display. Van der Wolk says attribution is “questionable”.

Landscape with houses, (H2078), drawing, unsigned.

• Owner: Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Acquired: Bequeathed in 1975 by Ruth Lilienthal, Burlingame, California. Earliest provenance: Comtesse de Cumont, Avignon. Problem: Style. Current status: Outside experts have differing opinions. Curator Robert Johnson has some personal doubts about its authenticity. The drawing is not exhibited, but it has not been formally downgraded. Its status is unresolved.

Landscape near Auvers-sur-Oise, (H2122), oil on canvas, unsigned.

Owner: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence. Acquired: Donated in 1935. Earliest provenance: Ambroise Vollard Gallery, Paris, c1900. Problem: Paint handling and colour not typical of Van Gogh. Possibly based on an authentic painting in a Swiss private collection. Some outside specialists suggest that the painting may have been executed by Amédée or Emile Schuffenecker. Current status: Not exhibited, and rejected as a Van Gogh. Curator Maureen O’Brien believes it is a pastiche.

Update: a 2020 vision

The Art Newspaper’s investigative reports on Van Gogh fakes in the 1990s drew attention to a major problem that had been largely ignored for decades. Our articles played a key role in encouraging an advance in scholarship —one that still has an impact today, thanks largely to sustained research at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum.

Our original 8,000-word article in the July 1997 issue drew attention to Jan Hulsker’s revised Van Gogh catalogue, in which he questioned the authenticity of 45 works that had been published in his first edition in 1977 (the works were still included, but had question marks against them). Reporting on the views of other scholars, we suggested that altogether up to 100 catalogued Van Goghs could be fakes.

A year later, we returned to the story, revealing that 18 works in public collections were then questioned by their own curators. In January 2005, I published a more detailed and up-to-date analysis in Apollo, which recorded that 38 paintings and drawings in museums had either been downgraded or were then being seriously doubted.

The positive effect was that most museums with questionable works launched research efforts in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In some cases, paintings and drawings were duly downgraded and in others, evidence was found to confirm their authenticity.

The latest work to be accepted, earlier this year, was the Self-portrait at Oslo’s National Museum (pictured below). Altogether, eight other Van Goghs have been brought back into the oeuvre in the past decade, partly because of advances in technical examination. These include five of the 18 works in our 1998 study: Still life with Flowers, Vase with Poppies, Vase with Carnations, Landscape near Auvers-sur-Oise and the Oslo Self-portrait. --Martin Bailey