When a painting attributed to Vincent Van Gogh was bequeathed to the Detroit Institute of Arts
in 1990, it was met with immediate suspicion from scholars and art experts.
"Still life with Carnations," an unsigned painting of flowers, was to be sold to help fund an endowment to buy modern art, said museum director Graham Beal.
Instead, auction houses refused to sell it. Van Gogh specialists questioned its authenticity. And the painting remained at the museum, where despite extensive study the question of whether it was by the famed artist or an imitator remains unanswered.
"It's gone into this rather unfortunate area of not being trusted," Beal said Thursday. "But as tests have shown, there's nothing in it that says this cannot be a Van Gogh. All of the paints, all of the technique, everything is commensurate with the way Van Gogh was working at that time."
The painting is being displayed alongside a genuine Van Gogh as part of "Fakes, Forgeries, and Mysteries," an exhibit at the museum opening Sunday about the science and research behind figuring out whether art works are authentic.
The show, which runs through April 10, includes about 60 artworks and highlights mistakes and other discoveries made over the years about pieces of the museum's extensive collection.
One gallery displays works once thought to be authentic but later found to be copies or stylistic replicas. Another room shows forgeries made to deceive. A mock lab offers the chance to learn about investigative techniques such as pigment analysis, and a final gallery focuses on lingering puzzles about certain works.
"Nothing is written in stone," said Salvador Salort-Pons, associate curator of European paintings and curator of the exhibit.
In the gallery on forgeries, a painting titled "A Female Saint" that once was attributed to Italian artist Sandro Botticelli is exhibited alongside "The Resurrected Christ," a Botticelli painting from around 1480. The display invites visitors to compare the works, looking to details such as brushstrokes that were clues to museum curators.
"Still life with Carnations," which is hung in the gallery on mysteries, came to the museum from the collection of dime-store heiress Catherine Kresge Dewey. It had been accepted as a Van Gogh in the 1920s, but doubt cast in the 1990s by Van Gogh experts left the museum unable to say with confidence that it was by the artist, Beal said,
A microscopic examination found layers of paint that are consistent with Van Gogh's other canvases from the 1880s, the display notes. But it acknowledges that details such as the vase holding the flowers might not show Van Gogh's skill. Visitors can compare the work with Van Gogh's "Vase with Zinnias and Geraniums," on loan from the National Gallery of Canada.
"Working on works of art is an ongoing process," said Beal, who had been considering such an exhibition since becoming museum director in 1999.
"Fakes, Forgeries, and Mysteries" is the latest exhibit to offer insight into how experts answer questions about art. One earlier this year at London's Victoria and Albert Museum showcased investigative methods involved in detecting art forgery. It focused in part on Shaun Greenhalgh, an antique dealer who pleaded guilty in 2007 to defrauding art institutions and other buyers for years by creating sophisticated fakes of statues, paintings and other works.
The National Gallery in London this fall wrapped up an exhibition titled "Close Examination Fakes, Mistakes & Discoveries," focusing on connoisseurship and the scientific study of artworks. Though the exhibit included only a handful of fakes or forgeries, museum spokeswoman Eloise Maxwell noted in an e-mail that the topic clearly arouses curiosity.
"There is a perennial interest in the showing of the fallibility of the so-called 'expert," Maxwell said.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.