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Van Gogh sketchbook publisher calls for public debate over authenticity

This file photo taken on November 15, 2016 shows a book of drawings from Vincent Van Gogh displayed during a press conference at the architecture academy in Paris.


The French publisher of a book of hitherto unseen drawings alleged to have been done by Vincent van Gogh in the two years preceding his July, 1890, suicide is calling for "a public debate between experts … to put an end to [the] controversy" over their authenticity.

Paris-based Éditions du Seuil, which presented the debate suggestion in a communiqué issued on Thursday, urges Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum to help organize such an event "within a reasonable time frame."

Earlier this week, the museum, the world's single largest repository of van Gogh art, declared the drawings in Vincent Van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook to be the work of an imitator – in short, fakes. The book, assembled over three years of research by Toronto-based van Gogh expert Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, was published internationally, including in Canada, on Nov. 15.

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A senior researcher at the museum said on Thursday that his institution is "absolutely open" to a debate, albeit with a condition.

The two-and-one-half page communiqué, which includes "technical answers" from Dr. Welsh-Ovcharov, was released to counter a published critique of the drawings by the Van Gogh Museum. It also says it sees the debate as "an opportunity to shed light on the conditions under which the Van Gogh Museum is claiming the de facto right to a monopoly of attribution."

Dr. Welsh-Ovcharov offers relatively short answers to the five concerns raised earlier by the museum. These concerns were presented under the headings "Characteristic style is not in evidence," "Brownish ink not typical," "Topographical errors," "Sketchbook's provenance raises many questions," and "Notebook seems unreliable."

With respect to the last topic, for example, the Welsh-Ovcharov book claims to include reproductions of all 26 of the remaining pages of a small notebook kept by a café in Arles frequented by van Gogh in the late 1880s and owned by a couple, Marie and Joseph Ginoux, who were both his friends and artist models. The notebook is important because it contains an entry, dated May 20, 1890, recording a visit by van Gogh's friend and physician, Félix Rey, to return what Dr. Welsh-Ovcharov claims is the "lost Arles sketchbook" to the care of the Giroux couple. (It's her view that they gave the sketchbook – in fact, an oversized, blank-page commercial ledger – to van Gogh in mid-1888)

The Van Gogh Museum says the owner of the notebook had sent four pages from it to its attention in 2012 – but two of those four pages are missing from the Welsh-Ovcharov book. The museum also says one of those missing pages, dated June 19, 1890, includes a statement about van Gogh that is "in exactly the same words" as the June 10, 1890, note reproduced in The Lost Arles Sketchbook.

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In her reply, Dr. Welsh-Ovcharov says the "two-sided page of the notebook dated June 19 was inadvertently kept by the [current anonymous owner] and therefore could not be reproduced in the book." Moreover, its content is "perfectly distinct and different from the page dated June 10 contained in the book."

Museum senior researcher Teio Meedendorp said his institution was "a little bit disappointed" with the Canadian scholar's answers. "We had quite a lot of questions and we didn't really see them answered in the way we would have expected. … [They] were a bit similar to what we already knew."

Thus, while the museum "welcomes" and would participate in a live public debate, "before that we'd like to have some more clear answers to our questions." In the book and now the communiqué, "we find too little argument," Mr. Meedendorp said. "There's not the problematization, you might say, if it it's true or false. The book is more or less written from the statement, 'We've found some new works by van Gogh. Hallelujah!' "

Mr. Meedendorp added that the museum was "a bit surprised" by "accusations" saying his employer "aimed at a monopolistic position in the authenticity debate."

"That's not something we aim at, absolutely not," he said. "We are a centre of research on van Gogh … so, of course, many people come to us with questions. We are always willing to listen to anybody else who has an opinion and we are allowed to disagree. As we do now."

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James More


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