The van Gogh sketchbook dispute: Why it’s so hard to verify art

None of the allegations about the Morrisseau paintings have been proven in court. “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. Re-examining Vincent van Gogh’s mental health struggles

With files from Jessica Wong (Supplied)

Opinions also change over time — a fact demonstrated in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt exhibition in the 1990s, Kupferman said. “Experts in the world of art authentication — and I mean real experts, not, you know, fly-by-night type of people — … (CBC)

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. “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. Proving whether a work of art was drawn or painted by a certain artist is a time-consuming and painstaking task. “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.”

Art experts do the best they can with what they know about a painting or drawing to determine its authenticity, but opinions can differ and change, says Noah Kupferman, director of the art, law and business program at Christie’s Education in New York. 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 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. Emotional bias
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. “It’s playing detective,” Levis said. 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. Lawsuits allege Norval Morrisseau paintings fake

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. it is possible that they’re wrong,” said Sommer. Art historian blasts back at Van Gogh museum

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. The late Norval Morrisseau was known as the ‘Picasso of the North.’ A Canadian lawsuit alleging that an art dealer sold a fake Morrisseau painting is expected to be heard in court in October 2017. 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. 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.  
“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. 

Retired University of Toronto art history professor Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov is locked in a dispute with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam over the authenticity of sketches Welsh-Ovcharov says were drawn by the famous artist. (Noah Kupferman)

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. “Usually, there are huge gaps in time, because we just don’t know,” he said.