Exhibition of 'lost' Van Goghs reignites row over authenticity

Mystery over pictures supposedly abandoned by the artist
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The Independent Online

Forty pictures reputed to be "lost" Van Goghs are to go on public display this week in an exhibition that will throw open one of the longest-running and most acrimonious controversies in the art world.

A museum in the Dutch town of Breda will unveil chalk drawings, sketches and paintings their owners believe were among hundreds of pictures abandoned by the artist when he left his family home five years before his death.

The exhibition's launch coincides with the publication of a two-year study by the museum into their provenance. While stopping short of declaring them all bona fide, it is expected to raise the probability that a large number are, indeed, authentic.

The findings will be fiercely contested by the artist's family and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, both of which consistently refuse to countenance the idea that a large number of works presumed destroyed or lost still exist in private hands.

Among the pictures to be included in the exhibition is The Diggers, an oil painting bought 10 years ago by Bouwe Jans, an Eton-based collector and gallery owner, at a local auction in Groningen.

Mr Jans, who divides his time between England and Holland, has published two books about the saga of the "lost" Van Goghs. In them, he attempts to trace the history of 400 or more pictures the artist is widely believed to have left behind when he moved out of his family home in the village of Nuenen in 1885 after a row with the local priest over his use of female models.

Art historians broadly agree that Van Gogh gave hundreds of his early works to his mother for safe keeping. However, opinion is fiercely divided over what happened to them after this - and most are assumed to have been lost or destroyed.

However, Mr Jans remains convinced that his 47cm-by-61cm canvas, which bears the vaguely legible signature "Vincent" in the bottom right corner, is an original Van Gogh. He says he has a certificate of authentication signed by one of the world's leading authorities on the artist, the late Jan Hulsker.

"It's not just a story or a myth, but a fact, that Van Gogh left behind hundreds of pictures in Holland, where he painted for longer than anywhere else," Mr Jans said.

"My painting was personally authenticated by Jan Hulsker, and I also had it dated in London on the advice of the National Gallery, and ... there was no reason to doubt its being attributed to Van Gogh."

Though there is wide disagreement about the present whereabouts of the pictures jettisoned by Van Gogh, certain facts about their dispersal are beyond dispute.

Four months after Van Gogh left his family home, his recently widowed mother is known to have moved to nearby Breda. In so doing, she loaded all her furniture and a wooden chest containing her son's pictures on to a cart, and they were subsequently taken into storage by a family friend, Adrianus Schrauwen.

By the time the Van Goghs tried to reclaim the chest in 1902, Mr Schrauwen, little realising their future value, had already given them away - throwing them in for free with two guilders of copperware he sold to a second-hand goods merchant.

Of the hundreds of drawings the merchant acquired, he discarded many, while selling much of the canvas to a local rag shop. However, even at this stage, he is widely believed to have been left with about 150 loose canvases, 60 paintings on stretchers, 80 pen-and-ink drawings and 150 chalk drawings.

Many of the paintings were eventually nailed to the merchant's cart and sold in dribs and drabs, along with the various drawings, for about 5 cents apiece.

However, it is only the final batch whose fate can be traced with any confidence. A Breda tailor, Kees Mouwen, bought several hundred works from the merchant - just as, posthumously, the name Van Gogh was starting to mean something.

Between 1904 and 1936, Mouwen sold much of his collection through galleries and auction houses in Rotterdam, The Hague, Brussels and Amsterdam. Though most are now recognised as Van Goghs even by his own estate, a further 200 or more pictures sold by Mouwen at flea markets vanished without trace.

The 40 images to be unveiled by Breda Museum this week are believed by their owners to represent a fraction of the Van Goghs that have hitherto been missing, presumed destroyed, for more than a century.

It will take more than an academic report, however, to convince the Van Gogh Museum that so many of the dispersed pictures have survived. A spokeswoman said: "Our collection department has looked at this and they do not think these are Van Goghs. But we are independent from the Breda Museum, and if they say they think they are, that's up to them."