F Is for Forgery: Van Gogh's Lost Arles Sketchbook

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F Is for Forgery: Van Gogh's Lost Arles Sketchbook

Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most celebrated artists of the past two hundred years. It comes down to his uniquely known style. The way the paint builds on his canvasses to illuminates a body of water. Or the wicked curves of a cypress tree juxtaposed to the rigid lines of a church. And there’s something especially transfixing about the way Van Gogh rendered the human face, seeing some compelling thing no one else had captured before. So finding a notebook of 65 previously undiscovered sketches completed while the legendary artist was in an asylum could be a momentous occasion for the art world. Unless, of course, they are forgeries.


Two scholars recently brought to light such a discovery. Bogomila Welsh-Ovarchov and Ronald Pickvance verified the sketches as authentic before collecting them into a new book, Vincent Van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook. The book suggests that the 65 drawings found in an account ledger date from spring 1888 to 1890, during Van Gogh’s documented time in Arles and Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Welsh-Ovarchov and Pickvance are celebrated Van Gogh scholars who have long worked in concert with some of the most respected museums on major exhibitions, so it came as a surprise when the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam issued a formal statement insisting the Arles sketches are, in fact, fake.

The assertion of the museum is that not only is the provenance of the sketchbook questionable, but the style, technique, materials and iconography of the drawings are merely rote imitations of Van Gogh’s work. The most damning piece of evidence is the color of the ink used to create the landscapes, still lifes, and portraits within the ledger; none are typical of the artist’s authenticated works. Van Gogh preferred black or purple inks which turn brown over time from exposure to light. The Arles sketches were drawn solely in Sepia. This mimics the aged inks in color, certainly. But a notebook hidden away for over a century wouldn’t have been exposed to light. The original ink color should be unchanged. The Van Gogh Museum explains:

It is claimed in The Lost Arles Sketchbook that the ink of the drawings in the sketchbook has undergone the same discolouration; according to this reasoning, it must have originally been black. But that is impossible; the sepia shellac ink used for the drawings is inherently brown and was never black; it therefore has not discoloured. The paper is greenish-blue in colour and approximately 200 years old, and paper of that colour and age loses its original hue when exposed to light. Yet the paper is not discoloured either. This is because the sketchbook is an album and has therefore not been exposed to light. But considering that the ink and paper have not discoloured, the maker of the drawings in the sketchbook must have been deliberately striving for brownish effects.

Controversies between academics and institutions are not unusual in the authentication business: a recent Beethoven score proved to be unsalable at a Sotheby’s auction after being declared a fake. It was discovered that one of the two scholars who refused to authenticate the questionable Allegretto in B Minor later tried to persuade the owner to part with it for less than one percent of the Sotheby’s determined value. Welsh-Ovarchov and Pickvance knew of the Van Gogh Museum’s position on the authenticity of the journals yet The Lost Arles Sketchbook contains no mention of the museum’s doubts. The scholars should have included this information and refuted it.

There is a chance that the pieces might some day be authenticated after further analysis. New scientific developments in forgery identification allow some previously disputed works to be confirmed as fakes – or as the real deal. The Van Gogh Museum authenticated a painting by the troubled Dutch master in 2013; it was the first time a work was added to Van Gogh’s oeuvre since 1928. Axel Rüger, the museum’s director, called the large work “the culmination of his artistic achievement, his period in Arles in the south of France.” Rüger’s museum had declared the painting a fake two decades earlier.

@chrisjohngilson is not dead, he writes about music for Pancakes & Whiskey, and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Paste, Splitsider, and elsewhere.