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The Production of Fake Works Bearing Vincent’s Name

by VanGoghology

At the turn of the 20th century, Van Gogh was becoming increasingly popular in Europe, and as a result, the production of fake works bearing Vincent’s name began sprouting up in an attempt to dupe the unwary art world, and none more so than in Germany where Van Gogh was highly sought after.

The leader of the Third Reich might have considered Vincent’s work “degenerate”, but the majority of art enthusiasts and dealers in Berlin, and indeed Germany, valued his paintings not only for their thick swathing brushstrokes, expressive palette, and emotionally charged subject but through the touching prose of his literary contributions.

On March 15, 1901, the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris held the Exposition d’oeuvres de Vincent van Gogh, a two-week exhibition showcasing 65 paintings and 6 drawings by Vincent van Gogh. Gallery owner Paul Cassirer of Berlin was among the thousands who saw the first major exhibition of paintings by Van Gogh in Paris and was adamant that he too would reveal the artist’s work to the masses, in Germany.

Nineteen of Vincent’s pieces were revealed in Cassirer’s exhibition in December of the same year. Paul Cassirer went on to establish himself not only as the premier contemporary art dealer in Berlin and indeed Europe, for the likes of Manet, Monet, Corot, Degas, Gauguin, Cezanne, and Van Gogh but also became an important confidant to Johanna van Gogh-Bonger who sold him paintings directly.

Sonderbund-van-Gogh

In 1905 and 1908, two Van Gogh exhibitions were held in Dresden by the Brücke group and another by the Kunstsalon Paul Cassirer in April 1905, where Johanna had loaned 30 paintings, ten of which were purchased by Cassirer.

However, no exhibition was of greater significance than the one that took place in 1912, when Germany saw the largest and most influential exhibition of Van Gogh works held at the “Internationale Kunstausstellung des Sonderbundes Westdeutscher Kunstfreunde und Künstler in Cologne.” This major event, conveniently known as the ‘Sonderbund’, brought together a drooling array of avant-garde groups of artists and art movements in Europe and helped catapult several obscure artists to worldwide recognition.

More than 650 works by 170 artists were presented to visitors in 25 rooms. Van Gogh was honored with five of those rooms displaying 125 of his works: Still Life. Basket with Apples and Meat, 1885 – Still Life. Apples in the Basket – Orchard, 1887 – Iris in a Pot, on a Yellow Ground – The Painter’s House in Arles, to name a few.

An accompanying catalog listed the title of the paintings together with the owner of the work, i.e.: Blühender Obftgarten (Blooming Orchard) Befitzer A. Bonger (Andries Bonger – Jo’s brother). Pietà nach Delacroix.  Mrs. J. Cohen-Gosfchalk-Bonger (Johanna, who at the time of catalog printing was married to Dutch artist Johan Cohen Gosschalk) Johan had passed away one week prior to the opening.

The primary lenders of Vincent’s artwork for this astronomical event were Frau A. G. Kröller (Helene Kröller-Müller) and her husband Anton who contributed 25 paintings and 13 drawings. 40 came from Dutch collections, and 16 came from Jo, where she was able to sell Young Man in a Cap (F536), and Portrait of Milliet, Second Lieutenant of the Zouaves (F473).

Sonderbund-exhibition layout / Van Gogh 1-5Several prominent galleries such as The Thannhauser, Matthiesen, and Goldschmidt galleries went on to purchase and exhibit fake Van Goghs, and is ‘believed’ that such paintings are currently on display at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and other prominent museums across the globe.

German art historian Roland Dorn had claimed that Still Life with mackerels, lemons and tomatoes (F 285/JH1118) is one of the first of these forgeries – French Post-Impressionist artist, Claude-Emile Schuffenecker, a friend of Gauguin, was accused of copying Van Gogh works (including Sunflowers), and most certainly touched up a few – although was never proven or sent to trial unlike German art dealer Otto Wacker of Düsseldorf who was sentenced to nineteen months in prison for forgery, and fined 30,000 Reichsmark.

The Wacker affair is one of the most notorious art fraud cases in history involving a total of 33 fake Van Gogh paintings forged by Wacker in the late 1920s – Some of these paintings were so deceptive, that renowned art experts Hendrik P. Bremmer, Julius Meier-Graefe, Hans Rosenhagen and author of Van Gogh’s first catalog raisonnée, Jacob-Baart de la Faille, declared the works as authentic, going as far as to issue certificates.

1928 Paul Cassirer Berlin

It is important to note that in the mid-1920s, Otto Wacker was a respected art dealer in his own right, and therefore fellow dealers and experts didn’t feel the need to question his illicit practices.

As a trusted art dealer, Otto Wacker was able to not only blur the line between authenticity and forgery but also provide a believable narrative for how he obtained the never-before-seen Van Gogh paintings; The artworks, according to Wacker, were purchased by a Russian aristocrat and then secretly relocated to Switzerland, where he commissioned an illegal agent to sell them. Experts and dealers recognized the significance of concealing the elusive Russians’ identity in order to prevent reprisals from relatives still remaining in the Soviet Union.

Some of Wacker’s forgeries may have originally surfaced on the Berlin art scene in 1922, but it wasn’t until 1928 that the Cassirer Gallery caught wind of the scrupulous activities.

In January 1926, much like the fate of Van Gogh, Cassirer shot himself. The Kunstsalon Paul Cassirer (Gallery) was taken over by Grete Ring and Walter Feilchenfeldt who were serving as partner and managing director. 

Ring and Feilchenfeldt organized a Van Gogh exhibition of paintings supplied by Wacker to coincide with the publication of De la Faille’s catalog raisonné of Van Gogh. In the days leading up to the exhibition, all but four of the paintings—which Wacker had not yet delivered—were hung eagerly awaiting opening day. When the final four arrived, and assumed their assigned positions waiting to be hung, Grete Ring noticed something not quite right.

Leonhard-Wacker Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie

“Reaper in the Cornfield” Leonhard-Wacker / Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. Van Gogh forgery confiscated by the police in 1928 from the workshop of Leonhard Wacker, Düsseldorf, and transferred to the Nationalgalerie.

“Reaper in the Cornfield” Leonhard-Wacker / Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. Van Gogh forgery confiscated by the police in 1928 from the workshop of Leonhard Wacker, Düsseldorf, and transferred to the Nationalgalerie.

These last four paintings were said to be copies of The Sower (after Millet F 689 JH 1836), Boats at Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (F 1430 JH 1505 ), Self-portrait with a Bandaged Ear and Pipe (F 527 JH 1657 – 529 JH 1658),  Landscape with Wheat Sheaves and Rising Moon (F 735 JH 1761). All four were removed from the exhibition, and for the months that followed investigations were carried out on other paintings in the exhibition. It was determined that 33, all of them supplied by Wacker, were fake.

The Matthiesen Gallery, which had unknowingly sold Wacker forgeries to customers, sued him in December 1928, with the help of the Federation of German Art and Antique Dealers. Police had also raided Wacker’s studio, as well as the home of his brother Leonhard, who was suspected of creating the forgeries, where they confiscated twelve paintings. The paintings were deposited in the National Gallery of Berlin for investigation, and after chemical analysis was carried out, the confiscated paintings were declared fakes.

Paul Cassirer

Paul Cassirer

It was not until April 1932 that the forger was brought to trial, Vincent Willem van Gogh, testified first during the trial, stating that family records did not identify any Russian who would have acquired any paintings. De la Faille. H. P. (Henricus Petrus) Bremmer an authority on genuine and fake Van Gogh’s. Chemist A.M. De Wild, Director of the National Gallery in Germany, Ludwig Justi, and Meier-Graefe were called as witnesses and experts. It is important to note, however, that these so-called experts were at loggerheads with one another over authenticity disputes, and each with skin in the game. There was a necessity to protect not only their distinguished clientele, and their institutions, but also their reputations. 

H.P. Bremmer, who was instrumental in securing the Kröller-Müller Van Gogh collection early on, believed there were genuine Van Goghs among the Wacker forgeries. This compelled him to convince art dealer W. Scherjon, and Kröller-Müller to buy the works that De la Faille had concluded were fake. Scherjon bought Two Poplars (F 639) and Kröller-Müller The Sea at Saintes-Maries (F 418). Bremmer purchased Haystacks directly from Otto Wacker.

During the chemical analysis at the Nationalgalerie, it was determined that a drying resin was applied by Wacker therefore rendering them fake.  The court, ultimately declared some of the disputed paintings to be genuine, largely due to the fact that all of those involved were threatening one another with blackmail. The trial lasted nine days and Wacker received his sentence. 

Once considered authentic by the Van Gogh Museum, Dr Roland Dorn overturns their decision.

Once considered authentic by the Van Gogh Museum, Dr Roland Dorn overturns their decision.

Once considered authentic by the Van Gogh Museum, Dr Roland Dorn overturns their 

Dr. Dorn and scholar Walter Feilchenfeldt believed that one of Vincent’s three students in Eindhoven is responsible for the Gemeentemuseum self-portrait.

In the late ’90s, both of these experts questioned the authenticity of at least 21 other works in the Hulsker catalog stemming from provenance to stylistic features and materials implemented. These paintings were exhibited in some of the most celebrated museums in the world, including the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, the Musée d’Orsay, the MET, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Van Gogh Museum to name a few – Consequently, many of these museums were forced to remove the alleged fake works and banished them into storage. 

Dutch scholar Liesbeth Heenk felt that 11 works in Hulsker’s catalog were fake. Man carrying branches (H515), Houses with two women (H1997), Head of a peasant woman (H747), and Path between garden walls (H2078).

Self Portrait1

It wasn’t long before other specialists and self-proclaimed experts began questioning the authenticity of Vincent’s hand prompting many museums and galleries to conduct scientific analysis of Van Gogh paintings in their collection – Some of those deemed questionable were re-authenticated over time by the Van Gogh Museum.

Vase with Carnations at the Detroit Institute of Arts was re-evaluated by the Van Gogh Museum and reconfirmed as authentic.  – Still Life with Meadow Flowers and Roses at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, was re-authenticated in 2012, after being downgraded in their 2003 collection catalog as “formerly attributed to Van Gogh”. 

The Neo-Impressionist technical style of Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat exhibited at the NY Metropolitan is far removed from the Dutch school style Gemeentemuseum self-portrait, so it is understandable why Roland Dorn and Walter Feilchenfeldt felt that so many of Vincent’s paintings listed in his oeuvre were debatable.

The argument surrounding the veracity of Vincent’s paintings, watercolors, sketches, and drawings purportedly created by his hand has persisted for over a century and will no doubt continue to for decades to come.

This article concludes by noting that a bare minimum of Van Gogh fakes were covered. To be continued… 

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