The van Gogh sketchbook dispute: Why it's so hard to verify art
'Unless you were there and actually saw Vincent drawing those pictures, you don't know'
A dispute this week over whether drawings in a recently found sketchbook were really by Vincent van Gogh underlines the emotionally charged and often uncertain nature of art authentication, say some experts.
"Unless you were there and actually saw Vincent [van Gogh] drawing those pictures, you don't know," said Noah Kupferman, director of the art, law and business program at Christie's Education, which is owned by Christie's Auction House, in New York.
Canadian art historian Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, considered to be one of the world's top authorities on the post-impressionist master, has launched Vincent van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook, featuring 65 drawings found in a business ledger.
Welsh-Ovcharov is locked in a public, back-and-forth exchange with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which has published a statement calling the sketches "imitations."
Determining authenticity in the art world is about finding "evidence to prove one side or the other," Kupferman said, emphasizing he can't speculate on who might be right or wrong in the van Gogh controversy.
Proving whether a work of art was drawn or painted by a certain artist is a time-consuming and painstaking task.
The authentication process can involve several tests, including examining the style of the artwork and checking the paint, ink, or canvas to ensure they are consistent with other pieces known to have been completed by that artist.
Experts also look for proof that the work was done during the time period in which the artist in question worked.
"Art auctioneers and antique dealers, we like dirt," said Doug Levis, owner of Levis Fine Art Auction and Appraisals in Calgary. For example, residue thrown into the air from heating, lighting and cooking with oil often ends up on paintings that date back to past centuries.
"It's playing detective," Levis said.
'We just don't know'
In addition to examining the painting or drawing itself, art experts also try to account for where it has been and who has had it in their possession from the moment it came off the easel — a process known as determining provenance, Kupferman said.
"Usually, there are huge gaps in time, because we just don't know," he said. "The older the work, the harder it is [to verify]. With a work of contemporary art, well, we can just go and ask the artist if he or she did it."
But when artists and those who knew them are dead — as in the van Gogh case — verifying their work becomes much more complicated.
"When it's something that old … records disappear, you know, the people who were there at the time are all gone now," said Jonathan Sommer, a lawyer who has spent years representing owners questioning the authenticity of their paintings by renowned Canadian Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau.
None of the allegations about the Morrisseau paintings have been proven in court.
The reality, Kupferman, Sommer and Levis all agree, is that decisions about whether an artist actually created a painting or drawing comes down to opinions, as well-researched and informed as they might be.
"Experts in the world of art authentication — and I mean real experts, not, you know, fly-by-night type of people — ... it is possible that they're wrong," said Sommer.
Opinions also change over time — a fact demonstrated in The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt exhibition in the 1990s, Kupferman said.
The exhibit showed about 18 paintings determined by common consensus to have been done by Rembrandt, and about 25 others that were once thought to be Rembrandt pieces, but were later recognized as works done by his students, followers or even imitators.
"We tend to think of this [art authentication] as a very objective kind of view of things, but really, there's so much subjectivity," Kupferman said.
Experts may not even be aware of subjective factors influencing their decisions, he said, including something as simple as adopting the opinion of the teachers who trained them in art history or connoisseurship.
Psychological perceptions around art can also cause people to be biased one way or the other when authenticity questions arise, Sommer said.
"People who are involved in these kinds of disputes so often have huge financial or career, reputation biases at stake," he said. "It causes people to become more entrenched in their positions than, for example, a scientist operating in a very objective way."
In addition, art lovers often "feel a deep personal connection to the artist," and the possibility of a piece being fake is difficult to deal with emotionally, Sommer said.
With files from Jessica Wong