By Louis van Tilborgh and Ella Hendriks
In recent years considerable publicity has been given to the idea that Van Gogh's officially accepted oeuvre might include more forgeries or erroneous attributions than had previously been suspected. Doubts were cast on the authenticity of several paintings. Among them is the work acquired in 1987 at Christie's of London by the Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Company of Tokyo for a then record-breaking sum, a still life with sunflowers, which traditionally had been dated to the beginning of 1889.
The debate surrounding this work was initiated in 1997 by Benoît Landais, who declared in Le Journal des Arts that he regarded the authorship to be highly dubious. He contended that the work was a later copy, based on one of two other, authentic versions.
"Des incompréhensions manifestes, présentes dans cette toile très faible, témoignent d'un travail de copiste”, he claimed.
Landais further supported his contention by noting that the work was not mentioned in Vincent's correspondence, nor had it come from the Van Gogh family collection. This was a daring standpoint, which provoked an immediate response from experts and journalists alike.
It was not, however, without precedent. The Paris art dealer Alain Tarica claimed to have doubted the painting's authenticity immediately after seeing the auction catalogue in 1987, but his view was not published at the time. He believed the still life was “not Van Gogh at all but a fine example of the work of [Emile] Schuffenecker “
In 1994 Antonio De Robertis took a similar stance. Although unlike Tarica he did seek publicity, his suspicions, which were published in the Corriere della Sera, provoked less of an immediate response than Landais's article three years later -- probably because they involved such a sensationalist scenario (according to him, fakes were produced in order to take the place of authentic works).
On 26 October 1997 the parties challenging the authenticity of the Tokyo Still life with sunflowers received a boost from The fake Van Goghs, a documentary by the British journalist Geraldine Norman for Channel 4 in England. In the programme the work was described as “inferior” and its provenance as “unclear.” Tarica, like Landais, now pointed to errors of interpretation that he claimed were evident when the work was compared with its original, and to what he regarded as the clumsy brushwork that he alleged was inconsistent with Van Gogh's masterly hand.
This view was also supported by Thomas Hoving, former director of The Metropolitan Museum and author of False impressions: the hunt for big time art fakes (1996), who at the end of the programme laconically summed up the objections to the work: ‘It is a very funny, muddy picture, and Van Gogh was not muddy. [...] It does not have that snap.'
Although Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov and Roland Dorn both came to the defence of the traditional attribution -- in 1998 and 2000 respectively -- their contributions failed to put an end to the debate. Welsh-Ovcharov's arguments, which mainly concerned the work's provenance, were immediately contested by Landais. Dorn produced a more comprehensive rejoinder, which considered all the versions of the sunflowers, but like Welsh-Ovcharov he did not deal with the opposition's main arguments concerning perceived errors of interpretation and the anomalous brushwork. Thus opponents and supporters of the work partly talked at cross-purposes, and outsiders came to have the impression that the question of the Tokyo still life's authenticity was a matter of faith rather than of evidence.
This article presents the authors' own research into the Tokyo painting's provenance, style and technique, at the same time considering the arguments of opponents and supporters alike. Unfortunately, it was necessarily restricted by the owner's refusal to allow the painting to be subjected to further physical and scientific testing. However, permission was granted for an extensive visual examination in situ, while an x-ray of the work was also made available for study. Moreover, direct comparison with other versions of the Sunflowers was made possible when the painting was lent to the exhibition Van Gogh and Gauguin: the studio of the south in Chicago, where we were able to examine the Amsterdam and Tokyo works side by side.
Prior to this exhibition Van Gogh's Arles ‘Sunflower' paintings were subjected to individual technical examination in a joint campaign of undertaken by The Art Institute of Chicago and the Van Gogh Museum, carried out by Kristin Hoermann Lister, Inge Fiedler and Cornelia Peres. Some of their findings concerning the Tokyo version were published in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, and our own research builds upon their pioneering work. We also drew great profit from our consultation of their examination reports of the different versions.