AUTHENTICITY/True or false? The 65 Van Gogh drawings authenticated by Franck Baille, co-founder of Monte-Carlo Auction House, and published by Seuil, continue to be controversial in the art world. The affair is becoming a thriller. And it might well pop up on the big screen.
15 November 2016. Place des Vosges in Paris, with a fanfare Seuil presented “Le Brouillard d’Arles, Carnet retrouvé” (1) (Vincent van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook). A 228 page book, published in several languages, containing 65 unpublished ink drawings by Vincent Van Gogh, found in an accounting book (known as a brouillard or register) of an Arles hotel where the Dutch painter used to stay. A sensational discovery in the art world, where it was thought that all the impressionist’s works had been dissected. That same day, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam pulled out a surprise offensive. The experts of the institution, a real moral authority in the field as it owns around 200 of the artist’s paintings, nearly 500 of his drawings and almost all his correspondence, declared that these drawings are only imitations, dating from the second half of the 20th century.
Since this “Sketchbook” came out, nothing has gone well between Seuil publishers and the Van Gogh Museum. A battle of communiqués to prove, or to the contrary contest, the authenticity of the drawings, the publisher’s proposal of a public debate between experts immediately declined by the Dutch institution, etc. Franck Baille, the art expert representing the (anonymous) owner of the drawings, and who initiated the authenticity investigation, does not understand this “crusade”. “We conducted a real investigation, it’s not a quack job! The museum’s assertion presenting these drawings as the work of a forger is very serious.” Indeed, two scholars, the art historian Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov and Ronald Pickvance, curator of the 1984 Metropolitan Museum in New York exhibition on Van Gogh at Arles, support the hypothesis that they are autograph drawings. “Together, these specialists have nearly 100 years of studies on Van Gogh!”
The battle is not about to stop there. The affair could shift from the purely historical and artistic field to the scientific field. The Van Gogh Museum is questioning “the brownish ink of the drawings” never found in Van Gogh drawings from 1888 to 1890. No problem: Franck Baille, president of Monte-Carlo Auction House, is now working with a specialist laboratory, used in particular by the Uffizi in Florence, to conduct an analysis of the ink. What’s more, the Monegasque auction house expert is searching for the painter’s DNA on the 65 drawings and the binding. “The forensics team have confirmed that DNA does not disappear after manipulation. It’s enough to locate a trace of Van Gogh’s DNA and compare it, for example, to DNA extracted from his correspondence or stuck stamps. If Van Gogh coughed or bled onto these drawings, we’ll be set!” stresses Franck Baille. The expert rules out no leads for this DNA search. “There is currently an Auvers-sur-Oise town hall fundraising effort for restoration of the tombs of Vincent and his brother Theo Van Gogh. If there is an exhumation tomorrow, comparison will be able to be made with a DNA extract from the drawings or the binding.” A new technique, to say the least. “As far as I can remember, this method has never been tested for works of art,” Louis Van Tilborgh, chief curator of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam told Le Figaro. “Museum curators are very cautious with this approach because this scientific angle could tip many pictures into greyness, with a negative effect,” says Franck Baille, smiling.
Soon to be a film?
Van Gogh’s DNA is certainly popular! In 2014, the Dutch artist Diemut Strebe recreated the painter’s famous left ear, cut off in a fit of madness. To make this replica, exhibited at the Centre for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany, she used DNA from an envelope Van Gogh had supposedly used. The genetic material remaining in the flap of the envelope and the stamp glue were taken in a forensic medicine centre in Lausanne, Switzerland. That was when part of Van Gogh’s mitochondrial DNA was cloned and then re-injected into living cartilage cells donated by Lieuwe van Gogh, the great-great-grandson of Theo van Gogh, for a 3D effect.
History will tell us if one day these famous drawings will be authenticated by a DNA comparison. Meanwhile, they will likely continue to fuel editorial and cinematographic production this year. “History within history is being written,” says Franck Baille. He also whispers that a film is under preparation. “A great US director was interested in our affair. It will be a reference film.” Which goes to show that, one way or another, we haven’t heard the last of this Van Gogh sketchbook!