New research on the provenance of the contested Van Gogh “Sunflowers” bought by the Japanese insurance company Yasuda suggests that the picture is authentic. Professor Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov of the University of Toronto has traced back its early history, showing that it was once owned by Vincent’s sister-in-law, Jo Bonger. Until now its first definite appearance was a 1901 exhibition at the Bernheim Jeune gallery in Paris.
Writing in the March issue of the Burlington magazine, Professor Welsh-Ovcharov reveals that a version of “Sunflowers” was sold in 1894 through the shop of Père Tanguy, which had supplied paint to Van Gogh. The buyer was Emile Schuffenecker, the artist friend of Gauguin and Van Gogh. Evidence for the sale are a letter from Tanguy’s widow to Bonger’s brother Andries, referring to a price of 600 francs for Van Gogh’s “Le soleil”, and Schuffenecker’s reply, offering “300 francs pour les fleurs.” The sale is confirmed in a third letter. This correspondence is in the archives of the Van Gogh Museum.
A further letter to Jo Bonger in 1901 confirms that one of the three lenders of different versions of “Sunflowers” to the Bernheim Jeune exhibition was Emile Schuffenecker. Soon afterwards conservation problems emerged with paint flaking off the canvas, and it was Schuffenecker who restored it—but he did not fake the entire picture, as claimed in Geraldine Norman’s television film on Van Gogh fakes last October.
The other discovery is that Gauguin was once the owner of another “Sunflowers”, the version now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Professor Welsh-Ovcharov has traced an entry in the account books of the Parisian dealer Vollard, showing that in 1896 a “Sunflowers” belonging to Gauguin was sold to Comte Antoine de la Rochefoucauld and this was the picture which ended up in Philadelphia.
Professor Welsh-Ovcharov points out that scholars have long agreed on the provenance of five of the seven Arles versions of “Sunflowers.” She has shown which version Gauguin acquired, and the Yasuda picture must therefore be the one sold through Père Tanguy’s shop in 1894. Since it belonged to Jo Bonger, it is presumed to be authentic. But in the world of Van Gogh scholarship, arguments over fakes are not easily resolved, and no doubt the debate will continue.
London’s National Gallery is to hold a symposium on Van gogh on 15 May, and among the issues to be considered will be the problem of fakes. For tickets, telephone +44 (0)171 747 2888.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '“Sunflowers” back in bloom'