Experts squabble over whether 'lost' Van Gogh notebook is real

Canadian art historian and Van Gogh specialist Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov poses with a copy of her book.
Canadian art historian and Van Gogh specialist Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov poses with a copy of her book.PHOTO: EPA

PARIS (AFP) - The discovery of 65 previously unknown drawings by Vincent Van Gogh - which had been hailed as one of the biggest art world finds in years - set off a bitter row about their authenticity on Tuesday (Nov 15), with Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum dismissing them as fakes.

In a damning statement, its experts claimed the contents of the "so-called lost sketchbook" were imitations and "could not be attributed to Vincent Van Gogh".

But the experts behind the discovery told AFP that the Van Gogh museum was wrong, "and it was not the first time Van Gogh museum has got it wrong".

The "lost" sketches come from the Dutch artist's time in the southern French city of Arles, when he produced some of his greatest paintings, including Bedroom In Arles, The Night Cafe and Still Life: Vase With Twelve Sunflowers.

Seven of Van Gogh's works are among the 30 most expensive paintings ever sold.

The museum's dramatic intervention came as the respected French publishing house Le Seuil was unveiling copies of the sketches to reporters in Paris. Its book reproducing the drawings - Vincent Van Gogh, The Fog Of Arles: The Rediscovered Sketchbook - is to be published across the world on Thursday (Nov 17).

Its editor Bernard Comment stood by their authenticity, claiming that the Van Gogh Museum had been wrong before and had dismissed work that was later proved to be his.

"They are the guardians of the temple, it is inevitable" that they would say that, he told AFP, but several other experts were convinced they were real, he said.

According to Comment, Van Gogh made the ink drawings in the accounts book of the famous Cafe de la Gare where he stayed at various times between 1888 and 1890, towards the end of his tormented life.

They include portraits of his friends the artist Paul Gauguin and Pierre and Marie Ginoux, who owned the cafe.

Van Gogh immortalised Marie - with whom he had a strong bond - in one of his most famous paintings, L'Arlesienne (The Arles Woman).

The Yellow House, where Van Gogh later lived and rowed with Gauguin, was her former home.

It was after a fight with Paul Gauguin on Dec 23, 1888, that Van Gogh cut off part of his ear.

Le Seuil described the sketches - which come from the most important period in the artist's life - as "a very impressive ensemble" and insisted that "their authenticity is well established".

It said that the ledger was found in the archives of the Cafe de la Gare.

Most of the sketches in the book are of the Provencal countryside around Arles where Van Gogh painted furiously over the period of his year-long stay there.

But in a lengthy and detailed demolition of the sketchbook, the Van Gogh Museum said its experts had long been aware of the notebook whose "provenance raises many questions".

Its statement said having seen high quality photographs of 56 of the 65 sketches, they concluded there were not by Van Gogh.

"After examining a number of the original drawings in 2013, our experts did not change their minds. Their opinion... is that these album drawings are imitations of Van Gogh's drawings.

"The experts examined its style, technique and iconography, and among their conclusions were that it contains distinctive topographical errors and that its maker based it on discoloured drawings by Van Gogh," the museum added.

Another clue debunking the authenticity of the notebook was that the drawings "are executed in brownish ink, and this type of ink has never been found in Van Gogh's drawings from the years 1888-1890."

The most expensive Van Gogh painting ever sold, the Portrait Of Dr Gachet, which dates from this period, sold for US$82.5 million in New York in 1990. Experts estimate that it would go for more than US$140 million (S$200 million) today if it came to auction.