A Van Gogh or no?

A little break from Paris…. but here’s some local Van Gogh content.

Recently, we went to an art fair in Toronto. These are becoming popular around the globe with the most famous being the one held in Venice. The Toronto fair saw most of the major local galleries exhibiting along with a few from Europe and a notable one from Korea.

Like any trade show, this fair had a number of big booths down the centre with smaller ones relegated to the farther corners. We were nearly finished when I realized I hadn’t been down the furthest aisle.

I was glad I took the time. In the small booth of the de Jong Gallery, I was confronted with this:

A painting that looks like one of Van Gogh's cypresses, but also potentially a fake by Wacker.

The gallery owners, Monica and Michael de Jong, had a story about this painting. It's been much written about and debated.

Hanging in the middle of the booth was a “Van Gogh Cypress painting”. Or so it seemed. I stared at it. What was a Van Gogh doing here? This wasn’t the kind of fair that would feature a painting that would be worth many millions of dollars. So what was it? Sure looked like a Van Gogh.

I started talking to a woman who I take it was Monica de Jong, and she quickly referred me to the gentleman in the booth who I assume was her husband Michael.

I just asked, “What is this?”

The painting of the cypresses is known as H614, from the catalogue number it was assigned when it was originally included in a complete overview catalogue of Van Gogh’s paintings in the 1920s. But soon after publication, it was caught up in the “Wacker affair”. Leonhard Wacker, the brother of a German art dealer Otto Wacker was turning out bogus Van Gogh’s. At first only a few were identified, but after further investigation, many more were declared fakes, and in December 1932 Wacker was found guilty of fraud and the falsification of documents.

Even today, there is speculation that some “Van Gogh” paintings hanging in prestigious museums are not the genuine article. However, at the same time, we recently had a “fake Van Gogh” declared real. Until a few years ago it was hidden in a Norwegian attic, so you never know.

Scroll down on the Wacker affair article to see the the provenance of H614.

If there is any chance that this painting is real, it must be one that Van Gogh copied from others he was making in June of 1889 in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. On Tuesday, June 25, 1889, in what is now known as letter 783, Vincent wrote to Theo:

“I think that of the two canvases of cypresses, the one I’m making the croquis [sketch] of will be the best. The trees in it are very tall and massive. The foreground very low, brambles and undergrowth. Behind, violet hills, a green and pink sky with a crescent moon. The foreground, above all, is thickly impasted, tufts of bramble with yellow, violet, green highlights. I’ll send you drawings of them with two other drawings that I’ve also done.”

The two paintings he refers to are accounted for, so this would have to be a third. Van Gogh often made multiple copies of paintings (sunflowers, the Arlesienne, etc), and he didn’t write about everything he painted, so references to letters are inconclusive at best.

However, it would seem that de Jong commissioned all the proof he needed that this was a fake when he had it X-rayed in Ottawa. Here’s the article on the results of the X-ray of H614.

Interestingly, when I talked to de Jong, he seemed to indicate that he was 90% sure it was authentic, and claimed that the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam was willing to pay him what he’d paid for it so they could further examine it. Turns out he inherited it. Maybe in the art world, you can’t believe everything you hear. Or see, for that matter.

Anyway, it was a thrill to see it, real or not.

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