A Found Van Gogh

What’s the opposite of an art heist?

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Herman Wouters for the New York Times

After being dismissed by art historians as a fake and spending sixty in an attic in Norway, “Sunset at Montmajour,” depicting a golden field in Arles, Provence, was declared an authentic van Gogh earlier this month by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The painting was part of the collection belonging to Vincent’s brother, Theo, until his death in 1901. Several years later, Theo’s widow sold the work to a Paris art dealer, who in turn sold it to a Norwegian collector. It was then that the painting was determined to be a fake. It stayed in an attic until the collector’s death in 1970, and was purchased by the current owners. (Are you keeping up?)

The current owners had previously tried to have “Sunset” re-authenticated by the museum in 1991, but to no avail. They tried again in 2011, and the museum has spent the last two years researching and examining the painting. Louis van Tilborgh, the museum’s senior researcher, said it was “painted on the same type of canvas with the same type of underpainting van Gogh used for at least one other painting of the same area.” The clincher: the canvas also has “180” painted on the back, “which corresponds to the number in [Theo van Gogh’s] collection inventory” from 1890.

The museum was further able to pinpoint the exact date van Gogh painted “Sunset at Montmajour” as July 4, 1888. In a letter dated the next day to his brother, he seems to describe the painting:

“Yesterday, at sunset, I was on a stony heath, where very small, twisted oaks grow, in the background a ruin on the hill, and wheat fields in the valley. It was romantic, it couldn’t be more so, à la Monticelli, the sun was pouring its very yellow rays over the bushes and the ground, absolutely a shower of gold. And all the lines were beautiful; the whole scene had charming nobility.”

Vincent, to his brother, Theo

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It’s obviously rare to have a painting from van Gogh’s mature period surface after so many years in obscurity, and dealers and art historians alike are venturing the painting, which is similar in size to his famous “Sunflowers,” could fetch “tens of millions” at auction. It’s unclear if the owners will sell it.

“Sunset at Montmajour” will be on display at the Van Gogh Museum for one year starting next Tuesday, September 24th.

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September 19, 2013 / art / photo / LEAVE A COMMENT / 13

13 comments

  • Imagine being the owner and waiting to hear whether it’s real or fake or not, surely a bit like winning the lottery?! Champagne all around! :)

    • I can’t even imagine! At least they had it at all, though. It’s beautiful regardless of if it’s authentic or not (I know that’s probably an unpopular opinion!) xo

  • It’s so incredible that this painting wasn’t authenticated for so long! I do love when treasures like these pop up after being hidden for so long. It’s like discovering new paintings by artists that are no longer working instead of no longer being alive :)

    • It makes me think there could be more out there! And not just van Gogh but countless others. Especially the artists that had long lives (Vincent’s was relatively short, and he sadly never saw any success while he was alive). I’m sure there are treasures hiding in tiny antique shops in remote towns in France, I’m just sure of it! xo

  • Much better than all the stolen / forged paintings. And if you like Van Gogh, you should watch the “Vincent and the Doctor” episode of Doctor Who

    • A much happier story, by far. I wish there were more of these! xo

  • so the new owners are the new owners because they bought a house and this was part of the package?! amazing! i guess that was a pretty good investment.

    now this may seems silly but van gogh is van gogh, his paintings sell for millions, one of the most famous painters ever in the entire world – how do you get this prestige and, yet, at some point the work is declared a fake? then it takes two years to authenticate. you know what i am saying?

    i will be very curious what they decide to do. i hope you will report back. i don’t know what i’d do?? i’d definitely want the money but, to have just found a van gogh, it would feel strange to sell it after that. wwyd?

    • I’m not sure, actually! Given that no one is being identified in the whole thing it’s hard to suss out exactly how the new owners got the painting. Did they buy it at an estate sale? Did they find it in a dumpster? So many questions!! I hope we get answers, soon, haha.

      Poor Vincent. He can’t catch a break! Mental illness, no relationships except with his brother, cut his own ear off, never sold a painting until after he died….and now people are see-sawing over whether a legitimate work of his is real?

      I can’t decide if I would sell it. I don’t think I would. I’d want to enjoy it and own such an important piece of art history. Pass it on for generations, stipulating in my will that it can never be sold. But if it could buy me a nice apartment in Paris, I could be swayed ;) xo

  • Stunning!

    • So I take it you like this more than the Jasper Johns piece? ;) xo

      • Duh…….

  • I read about this somewhere. a nice surprise, no? I love it when life does things like that :)

    • A lovely surprise! Truly the best kind. xo