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Sunset at Montmajour: 'Sensational' Van Gogh work discovered 20 years after experts rejected it as a fake

First full-sized Van Gogh canvas discovered since 1928  was hidden in Norwegian attic

A “sensational” lost painting by Vincent van Gogh has been discovered after more than a century, a major find that for many years sat in a Norwegian attic gathering dust.

The Van Gogh Museum unveiled Sunset at Montmajour today, saying a find “of this magnitude” had not happened in the institution’s 40-year history.

It is the first full-sized Van Gogh canvas discovered since 1928, while the last record of what is believed to be this work was made in 1908. One of the experts called it a “once-in-a-lifetime discovery”.

The work had actually been rejected by the Van Gogh Museum two decades ago, an admission the researchers who authenticated it in recent weeks called “painful”. 

Yet, after X-rays, computer analysis, chemical tests and microscopic research, the Van Gogh Museum said yesterday that “everything supports the conclusion: this work is by Van Gogh”.

Axel Ruger, director of the museum, said it was “already a rarity” that a new painting could be added to the body of Van Gogh’s work.

Van Gogh painted it during his time in Arles in the south of France in 1888 - the period he produced the iconic Sunflowers paintings, The Yellow House and The Bedroom. The 93.3cm by 73.3cm canvas shows a landscape with the ruins of an abbey done in his trademark broad brushstroke style.

“What makes this even more exceptional is that this is a transition work in his oeuvre,” Mr Ruger said, adding it was a “large painting from a period that is considered by many to be the culmination of his artistic achievement”.

Martin Bailey, an expert on the artist and author of The Sunflowers are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece, said: “It is an important discovery, the most important since the Van Gogh Museum was established 40 years ago.

“My initial impression is that it must be authentic; the provenance and history, the inventory number on the reverse, the brushwork, the colours – some have faded – the reference in a letter. It is from Van Gogh’s greatest period, Arles. A great addition to the oeuvre.”

Yet the artist, pressed for time as the sun set, was not entirely happy with the results, writing in a letter that it was “well below what I’d wished to do”. Yet, he did not destroy the work that Spring along with others he felt were below par.

The painting had been in the collection of his brother Theo and was sold by his widow Jo van Gogh-Bonger in 1901 in an undocumented transaction to a French dealer. The museum found two letters from the artist that had been thought to refer to another work, but now are believed to describe Sunset at Montmajour.

Art historian Ben Street called the discovery “amazing. This kind of thing almost never happens. Scholars will be very keen to see how this fits into the story of Van Gogh. ”

Scrutiny of the work was carried out by two senior researchers at the Van Gogh Museum, Louis van Tilborgh and Teio Meedendorp and in an article for The Burlington Magazine, they called the discovery “absolutely sensational”.

They say that evidence clearly pointed to it being a work by the artist from the use of materials, to style and context, adding there were “plenty of parallels with other paintings by Van Gogh from that summer of 1888”.

The pigments used “correspond with those of Van Gogh’s palette from Arles” the researchers said, while the canvas and its pinning mimics that of another work from the time.

The work had for decades been in collection of Norwegian industrialist Nicolai Mustad, who died in 1970, but family legend had it that the work was banished to the attic after the French ambassador to Sweden suggested it was a fake or misattributed.

After Mustad’s death the painting was sold several times, but the museum could not reveal who brought it back for attribution. Mr Meedendorp said they had not known about the picture, that it had “never been photographed or published” before adding: “The last time people saw it displayed was before 1908.”