154 The transparent connoisseur 1: Free advice to the Van Gogh Museum

The Van Gogh Museum did not take kindly to my column of January 19th (“The saga of Bouwe Jans”). The museum feels that I criticized it unfairly for the way it handled a request for an expert opinion on the authorship of a possible van Gogh painting. I promised the museum, by way of response, to elaborate on the recommendations in my piece. I do this in print because my remarks were not intended only for the Van Gogh Museum – which I am sure behaved in all good faith in this matter – but for any body, museum or not, that proffers expert opinions on sensitive subjects to the public.

When the hopeful van Gogh owner Bouwe Jans submitted his painting to the museum, he received a letter in which the museum stated “In view of the style we cannot attribute your work, entitled ‘Two Diggers,’ to Van Gogh. The painting does not show any of his characteristics.” In addition to style, the brief letter also cites specifics of technique and material as reasons to reject an attribution to van Gogh.

These judgments, and more like them in a later letter, gave rise to objections – properly, I believe. Whatever one’s opinion of the authorship or quality of Jans’s painting, it incontestably is related in theme, general approach and some particulars to van Gogh’s work of the early 1880s. No wonder that the recipient of such one-sidedly dismissive letters feels inclined, as Jans did, to seek outside support against an authority that sets aside reasonable arguments with poorly disguised petulance.

In my column, I suggested that the museum abandon the practice of saying No to the owners of would-be van Goghs. Instead, it should issue “only positive assignments to a particular status,” backed up by a “well-produced statistical report” on the experience of the museum in such matters. A request for an expertise could be accompanied by an instruction for use on the following model.

N.B. All numbers and dates are made up for the sake of demonstration.

Since its founding in 1993 until March 31, 2002, the Van Gogh Museum has been approached 3,115 times with the request for an opinion on the status of objects that the owner thought might be by Vincent van Gogh. In our judgment, the submitted objects broke down into the following groups: 

Period of origin Relation to van Gogh Number of objects Published example
19th century Unrelated to van Gogh, attributable to another master 15 [In this column characteristic examples of the kinds of objects encountered should be illustrated and referenced. Insofar as the objects are related to van Gogh, each of his most important periods should be represented. This feature will make visible at a glance to the layman that many paintings and drawings that resemble van Gogh closely may nonetheless not be by him.] 
Unrelated to van Gogh, by present knowledge unattributable to another master 140
Although related to recognized works by van Gogh, attributable to another master 8
Although related to recognized works and not attributable to another master, in our judgment not by van Gogh 150
Related to recognized works and possibly by van Gogh, but the evidence does not allow of a positive attribution 65
Demonstrably or presumably by van Gogh 6
20th century Unrelated to van Gogh, attributable to another master 4
Unrelated to van Gogh, by present knowledge unattributable to another master 250
Copy after known work by van Gogh 1780
Imitation or forgery 480
Reproduction 135
? No opinion on the basis of information submitted 82
Total 3115  

 As the above figures indicate, the likelihood that a submitted work will emerge as “demonstrably or presumably by van Gogh” is extremely slight – less than one in 500. Nonetheless, we judge each submission with an open eye to this exciting possibility.

An expertise on this model has clear advantages. By rendering the record transparent, it enables the submitter to think along with the museum about the status of his object. It also eliminates the infuriating category “rejected.” Of course it will not eliminate discussion about contested objects. But when discussion does arise, the model helps shape its terms. Should a dispute come out in the open, as in the case of Bouwe Jans, the reading public will not see it as merely one opinion against another, but as a choice between various possibilities of strongly different likelihood.

In the present case, I would place Bouwe Jans’s painting in the category “Related to recognized works and possibly by van Gogh, but the evidence does not allow of a positive attribution.” Had he received this response from the Van Gogh Museum, accompanied by a fair analysis of the factors speaking for and against a relation to van Gogh – including but not limited to an attributional relation – I doubt that he would have written a book attacking the museum.

The series on The transparent connoisseur is to be continued at irregular intervals, as occasion demands.

© Gary Schwartz 2002. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 30 March 2002.

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