What’s the opposite of an art heist?
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
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.