What we know about the disputed Van Gogh 'notebook'


Paris (AFP)

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and two renowned experts on the Dutch artist are at loggerheads over whether a "lost" sketchbook from his legendary stay in the French city of Arles is genuine.

We examine the key facts behind the controversy:

- Discovery of the notebook -

Monaco art dealer Franck Baille said he first heard of the ledger -- which allegedly came from the Cafe de la Gare in Arles where the artist often stayed -- while out hunting in 2008.

After being entrusted with it by a member of the family who owned it, he called in the Canadian Van Gogh expert Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov.

The ledger had apparently been sitting in a cupboard since 1964 when the mother of the present owner had given it to her for her 20th birthday. She had found it after the Allied bombing of Arles in 1944 when the "Yellow House" where Van Gogh and the painter Paul Gauguin had lived together was destroyed.

Welsh-Ovcharov believes the ledger was given to the often penniless Van Gogh by his friends Pierre and Marie Ginoux, who owned the cafe, for him to sketch with. Dr Felix Rey, who had treated Van Gogh's severed ear, later returned it to the Ginoux, she said.

The Van Gogh Museum said it was "highly improbable" that the notebook could have sat for six decades without anyone making the link with the artist.

It also argued that Dr Rey was "probably not even living in Arles" by the time he is supposed to have visited the troubled artist in the asylum in Saint-Remy to pick up the book.

- The paper and ink -

Welsh-Ovcharov's French publisher Le Seuil said the ledger's paper was of a pale blue colour while admitting that up to now it is thought that "Van Gogh only used yellow paper and never blue" in Arles. However, he sometimes did use "grey blueish" paper, it argued, and that the ledger's high-quality handmade paper which "absorbed ink well" would have made it attractive to him.

The sketches were done in a "brown, sepia-based ink" which the museum said "has never been found in Van Gogh's drawings from 1888-1890."

The artist unusually drew in black and occasionally in purple.

Of the paper, the museum was scathing. "The paper is greenish-blue in colour and approximately 200 years old, and paper of that colour and age loses its original hue when exposed to light. Yet the paper is not discoloured."

The museum's senior research Dr Louis van Tilborgh told AFP that had "Van Gogh had used blue paper but here it is blue-green."

French conservation expert Anne-Laurence Dupont said it is "very difficult to determine the exact date of paper" used in the 1880s because at the time handmade, artisanal and industrial and semi-industrial paper was being used simultaneously.

- His style -

The sketches "bring a new light to (Van Gogh's) creative practice in Arles and Saint-Remy and a previously unseen and intimate peak at his artistic vision," the publisher said.

However, the experts in Amsterdam said "'The Lost Arles Sketchbook' is monotonous, clumsy, and spiritless. Van Gogh's characteristic refinement -- which includes his ability to draw swiftly without sacrificing precision -- is not in evidence in these drawings."

They added that a "number of scenes in the album contain striking topographical errors" including a "bridgeman's house (next to an Arles drawbridge) on the wrong side of the canal.

"Topographical errors of this kind do not occur in Van Gogh's oeuvre," they insisted.

Although not a Von Gogh specialist, Stephen Farthing, Professor of Drawing at the University of the Arts London, said based on what little he had seen of the drawings, "if it is a Van Gogh it has a very light touch, a much lighter touch than what I would normally associate with him."