Those Whacky Wacker Van Goghs

Henk Tromp’s A Real Van Gogh

/ by Alan Hirsch

In 1928, Jacob Baart De La Faille produced the first catalogue raisonné of Vincent Van Gogh’s works, including in the artist’s oeuvre 30 paintings owned by Otto Wacker, a Berlin art dealer and dancer. The next year, De la Faille produced a “supplement” that declared the Wackers fakes. In 1930, De la Faille authored the extraordinary Les Faux Van Gogh, essentially a catalogue raisonné of fake Van Goghs, which included all the Wackers. In 1932, testifying as a witness in Wacker’s criminal trial for fraud, De la Faille partially recanted, claiming that he now considered five of the Wackers authentic.

De la Faille’s odyssey plays a pivotal role in the controversy surrounding the authenticity of Wacker’s Van Goghs, but he was only one of several experts whose handiwork lies at the heart of this book by Dutch cultural anthropologist Henk Tromp. Tromp uses the bizarre case of the Wacker Van Goghs as case study for the role of experts in authenticating art. The experts don’t come off well.

Various problems with these experts surface, starting with the inherent unreliability of their enterprise. One is tempted to say that determining authenticity is an art, not a science, though even that proposition proves questionable. The chemist A.M. De Wild, one of the experts to move on and off center stage in Tromp’s plot-heavy drama, sought to establish authenticity as a scientific process. (De Wild was also a collector and dealer. Most of the actors in this tale wear multiple hats.) Other alleged experts, like de la Faille, primarily looked at external evidence such as a work’s provenance. Still others had no use for such detective of work or science, claiming that the true expert discerns the authenticity of a work simply by looking at it. For one such expert, Henk Peter Bremmer, authenticity came down to a “question of feeling” – he eyed a work to discern the artist’s emotions when creating it. Other experts who endorsed the eye test, such as Ludwig Justi, claimed they could distinguish real from fake Van Goghs by spotting “obvious differences in composition, color and brushwork.” Their competing methodologies led to a heated argument between Justi and Bremmer at Wacker’s trial, which sort of evokes a Monty Python skit.

The notion that the seasoned eye can distinguish the real from the fake is redundantly refuted in this book. Indirect evidence comes in casual asides, as when Tromp notes that a particular Van Gogh “could easily have passed for a Franz Hals at first glance.” That a distinctive 17th century portraitist could be easily mistaken for Van Gogh illustrates the limits of the eye test.

Of course, Tromps speaks of the Hals/Van Gogh resemblance “at first glance” -- presumably the glance of the uninitiated. Surely critics and connoisseurs know better, right? Not necessarily. Or, at any rate, if they can distinguish between Hals and Van Gogh, it doesn’t follow that they can distinguish between Van Gogh and some unknown imitator. Consider some of the critics Tromp quotes about one of the Wacker Van Goghs, Self-Portrait at the Easel. One gushed that “only a great artist could have painted that work, and only Van Gogh could have been that artist.” Another was more specific and lyrical. The painting evokes “an unsettling calm as if before a storm. So much wisdom in the face of so many challenges can only be obtained by one living on the edge between life and death.”

Or, as it turns out, by a skillful forger. That forgers dupe collectors, curators, dealers, critics, art historians and, yes, the expert authenticators, is depressing enough, but the inability to spot fakes is hardly the only human foible adorning Tromp’s tale. Avarice and self-dealing also hindered the experts’ efforts. Tromp’s impressive sleuthing unearthed that personal benefit led De Wild to suppress his knowledge that one of the disputed Wackers was fake. Bremmer, for his part, publicly stated that a certain work is “truly a work by Van Gogh. Saw it in my own home.” Tromp observes that this was Bremmer’s “clever way of concealing the fact that the work was part of his own collection, enabling him to continue to pose as a disinterested party.” And De Wild and Bremmer come off well by comparison to De la Faille.

The experts aren’t the only antagonists in this story. Wacker avoided prosecution for some time through convenient illness and resort to dubious but unfalsifiable claims about how he obtained the disputed works. Spoiler Alert: The law eventually caught up to him.

But even as he commands center stage in the plot, Wacker isn’t Tromp’s principal concern. He cares most about the expert authenticators. Early in the twentieth century, conditions emerged that made these experts crucial. Art works achieved unprecedented value, enhancing the temptation to forgery, and it was impossible for most people to discern authenticity. Enter those who plausibly claimed to possess this rare talent.

Their efforts to authenticate the Wacker works, Tromp observes, “acquired all the trappings of a detective novel: fake paintings, lots of money, a mysterious Russian nobleman, quarrelling experts, duped owners, and a police investigation.” Even beyond a juicy plot, Tromp’s choice of subject makes sense for a case study of art authenticators. Van Gogh was a valued “modern” painter at the time of the rise of the maniacal modern art trade and, not coincidentally, the subject of many forgeries. Moreover, Tromp informs us, the latter half of the nineteenth century “gave rise to an influx in the number of experts who could help buyers and sellers determine the provenance of a work of art and the identity of the artist.”

Despite the experts’ failure to acquit themselves well, and the concomitant failure of others in the art world, Tromp insists that his portrayal is not negative. “I present no black book – or anything like it. . . . While I may show the less savory side of the art world in this book, this by no mean signifies that it is all trouble and affliction.”

Maybe not all.

Alan Hirsch

, an attorney and art historian, is Instructor in the Humanities and Chair of the Justice and Law Studies program at Williams College.  He is the author of several books including, most recently, The Duke of Wellington Kidnapped: The Art Heist That Shocked A Nation (Counterpoint Press, 2016).