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A Real Van Gogh

A Real Van Gogh: How the Art World Struggles with Truth

Henk Tromp
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    A Real Van Gogh
    Book Description:

    Vincent van Gogh's paintings and drawings are fabulously expensive. Millions of people admire his work, but are those masterpieces all genuine? To this day, the international art world struggles to separate the real Van Goghs from the fake ones, and the key question addressed in this book is what may happen to art experts when they publicly voice their opinions on a particular Van Gogh (or not). The story starts with art expert J.B. de la Faille who discovered to his own bewilderment that he had included dozens of fake Van Goghs in his 1928 catalogue raisonné. He wanted to set the record straight, but met with strong resistance from art dealers, collectors, critics, politicians and others, marking the beginning of a fierce clash of interests that had seized the art world for many decades of the twentieth century. In his fascinating account of the struggle for the genuine Vincent van Gogh, Tromp shows the less attractive side of the art world. His reconstruction of many such confrontations yields a host of intriguing and sometimes bewildering insights into the fates of art experts when they bring unwelcome news.

    eISBN: 978-90-485-1141-9
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Dramatis personae in order of appearance
    (pp. 9-12)
  2. Introduction
    (pp. 13-24)

    In 1897, the French painter Judith Gérard copied a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh owned by Paul Gauguin. She signed the painting withd’après(after)Vincent Judith, fully in accordance with the rules governing the copying of works of art, and sold it for a small amount of money to the art dealer Amédée Schuffenecker. Many years later, in 1911, she attended a Van Gogh exhibition at the Eugène Druet gallery in Paris. Included among the paintings by the master she saw her own copy, but much to her surprise it had been altered. The green background, which she had...

  3. 1 An eye for an eye
    (pp. 25-56)

    Vincent van Gogh died on 29 July 1890, leaving behind an oeuvre of uncharted proportions. His brother Theo may have been aware of its size, since the two men had been so close and Theo had supported Vincent in a number of ways. But within just a few months Theo followed Vincent to the grave, and he took his knowledge of Vincent’s work with him. A few decades later, Jacob Baart de la Faille assumed the task of documenting the work of Vincent van Gogh in text and picture. In 1928 he published his Van Gogh catalogue raisonné comprising 1,716...

  4. 2 True colors
    (pp. 57-84)

    At the time of writing – the beginning of the twenty-first century – there isn’t a single expert who is willing to speak out in defense of art dealer Otto Wacker’s Van Gogh paintings. The generally accepted opinion is that they are all fakes and that most of them were made by the same person, most probably Otto’s brother, the painter and restorer Leonhard Heinrich Wacker (born 1895). For a good part of the twentieth century, however, some of these paintings managed to pass for works by Vincent van Gogh, much to the astonishment of chroniclers of the Wacker affair....

  5. 3 Hushing up
    (pp. 85-106)

    In the first decades of the twentieth century, Martin de Wild (1899-1969) belonged to a select circle of restorers with a lively interest in scientific investigation. He was trained by his father, Derix de Wild († 1932), but eventually came to regard his more practical approach as inadequate. In De Wild Junior’s opinion, the métier needed to be professionalized. He believed restorers needed to have knowledge of chemistry, the science most suited to understanding the material properties of paintings: which chemical and physical processes occur in pigments and mediums, in panels and canvas? De Wild thus decided to take a...

  6. 4 For art’s sake
    (pp. 107-128)

    By November 1929, De la Faille had a year of turmoil behind him, all of it having to do with Otto Wacker’s Van Goghs. The distribution of theSupplémenthad not been greatly appreciated, although his published works and letters do not suggest that this caused him undue suffering. On the contrary, they reveal a certain intransigence quite in keeping with a man who is sure of what he is doing and is seeking to redress the fraud of which he has been such an unwilling instrument. His behavior was consistent with the basic attitude he had shown earlier in...

  7. 5 The expert tamed
    (pp. 129-170)

    Despite all the setbacks, De la Faille’s faith in his own convictions remained unshaken, at least in the eyes of the world. At the end of 1930 he smugly stated that no one, except for Bremmer and his circle, still believed in the authenticity of art dealer Otto Wacker’s Van Goghs – neither in the Netherlands nor in Germany. “J. Meier-Graefe and the other German experts have also come over to my side,” he wrote in theNRC.¹ Meier-Graefe had told him in a letter that he had retracted his certificates of authenticity – at least that is what De...

  8. 6 Retaliation
    (pp. 171-190)

    “The walking wounded” is what the critic Albert Plasschaert called Bremmer and De la Faille after their performance in Berlin. According to Plasschaert, Bremmer had been toppled from his pedestal. He had unreservedly sided with a dealer who came to admit that some of his goods were fakes, had ignored the vague provenance of the disputed canvases, and had based his assessment on aesthetics alone. It was a game with high stakes, and even after all those years he had been forced to defend himself to the hilt. But his performance had been less than convincing. For Plasschaert it was...

  9. 7 An uneasy legacy
    (pp. 191-202)

    Far away in America, Chester Dale kept abreast of what the German and Dutch press were writing about the Wacker trial. The outcome must have put his mind at ease. He may have recognized his ownSelf-Portrait at the Easelin the verdict of the Berlin judges, who spoke of the “high quality” Wacker Van Goghs outside Germany. He hung the picture in the dining room of his New York apartment. It was no longer controversial, and illustrations in French and English publications saw to it that the message – that it was indeed a genuine Van Gogh – reached...

  10. 8 Between a rock and a hard place
    (pp. 203-230)

    The Vincent van Gogh “global authentication monopoly” was in the hands of four Dutchmen, wrote the editors ofConnaissance des Artsin 1952: J. Baart de la Faille, A.M. Hammacher, “Engineer” V.W. van Gogh, and W. Sandberg, since “without the signature of any one of them, no certificate of authenticity is of value.”¹ It was a bare bones list, to be sure. Bremmer’s certificates were also a surefire way of putting drawings by Van Gogh into the hands of buyers, and so were those signed by the Flemish Van Gogh expert Marc Edot Tralbaut. The list contained a mistake as...

  11. 9 Among art experts
    (pp. 231-254)

    “The government is not a judge of science or art.” These legendary words spoken by the Dutch statesman Johan Rudolf Thorbecke in 1862 have become the touchstone for the relationship between art and government in the Netherlands.¹ They eliminate any possibility of Dutch politicians deciding on questions of authenticity. Rulers of states whose art is inextricably linked to national identity may very well feel called to pass judgment on such questions. An example is Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was also king of Prussia. In 1909 Wilhelm Bode, chairman of the Royal Museums in Berlin, bought a sculpture – Leonardo da...

  12. 10 The gift
    (pp. 255-272)

    The prices of paintings and drawings by Vincent van Gogh increased steadily over the twentieth century, so owners, dealers, and auction houses could expect to earn a great deal of money by selling them. This price rise explains why conflicts over authenticity could become so heated. The buyer would convert money into an object under the assumption that in due course it would bring in even more money. It was an investment. If he should find himself in financial straits, the work of art could be offered as security. He could use it as a tax write-off by donating it...

  13. 11 The unfinished Vincent
    (pp. 273-300)

    After World War II, De la Faille learned that his catalogues of 1928 (L’OEuvre de Vincent van Gogh) and 1939 (Vincent van Gogh) were out of print. He began work on a revised edition, and his hope of getting it on the market looked promising. He managed to find a publisher, Librex, and in 1952 he had galley proofs printed of the two planned volumes,PaintingsandDrawings. Before going any further, the publisher wrote to the director of the Stedelijk Museum to discuss the project. In his letter he told Sandberg that he valued his opinion highly and was...