“Van Gogh Pistol” Circus: Why Art Historians and Auctioneers should keep their long, crooked noses out of True Crime

It’s a farce, that’s what it is. The PR spiel to sell a piece of rusted junk, punted [always in “inverted commas” you’ll notice] as the weapon “believed” to have killed the great artist is all about making money. It started two months ago, in April. The sheer amount of media that participated and recycled the same garbage was impressive.

Forbes,The Art Newspaper,The Telegraph, CNN, Dutch News, EuroNews and so on and on and on.

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A few of these media stories admitted in their headlines that the whole thing was a bit of a stretch. CNN  described it as Van Gogh’s “possible” suicide weapon [but then incorrectly assume the suicide as fact]. Dutch News was a little more honest, saying that it was simply the gun that “may” have been used…, but then they make the same mess as CNN by referring to the same myth of suicide.

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So what’s all the fuss about if it’s not definitively, definitely connected to “the incident” [murder, suicide, accident, whatever it was]?

More: Van Gogh did not kill himself, authors claim – BBC

New theory finds teenager may have shot Van Gogh – ABC

Was van Gogh Killed? New Research Says He Was Shot – Art Net

If the audience at the auction “believe” the gun is authentic, like an authentic work of art, it’s worth more. But there’s something patently ridiculous about an auction that clearly admits there’s no forensic or ballistic proof linking the gun to Van Gogh.

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This would be fairly easy to do in theory – since the bullet is still lodged in the skeleton in the grave where Van Gogh is buried in Auvers-sur-Oise. But imagine going to a car dealership and being told that the model for sale is “possibly” a Mercedes, or that the shining silver surfboard on wheels “may” be a Ferrari, or that hidden under a cloth is vehicle that is “believed” to be a Porche. Is it or isn’t it? Because if it isn’t then there’s a huge difference is how much its worth.

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Now, aside from linking a weapon to a homicide or suicide [art historians can’t decide whether it’s one or the other, or whether it’s possibly an accidental killing], there’s the issue of the 75 years that passed between the incident and the recovery of the weapon. Quite a lot happened in those 75 years. Van Gogh went from almost complete obscurity at the time of his death in July 1890, to becoming one of the most famous, popular, and expensive artists in the world. When the so-called weapon was “discovered” in a field it was when Van Gogh had come into his fame. Why not before?

So there is clearly a motive for coming after the fact, planting a fake weapon and claiming it as the real thing. In fact there’s €67 000 on the line if some sucker falls for this spiel. Incidentally, there’s a vast, sinister underworld of fakes and forgeries associated with Van Gogh. Everything from his diary, to his sketches, to his paintings have been passed off as the real thing. Sometimes a painting regarded as authentic will later be dismissed as fake, sometimes the pendulum goes from real, to fake, to real again, depending on the “right” art expert appearing in the “right” place at the “right” time.

Each time this happens, someone becomes a millionaire. Each time a promising forgery remains a forgery, someone who is not a millionaire remains a not-a-millionaire. So the stakes on these “priceless” artefacts are dizzingly high.

But wait, there’s more.

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That’s not entirely accurate. The trajectory of the bullet entered the artist’s body through his lower abdomen. Trying shooting yourself from this angle…

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Dr Mazery, one of the two physicians who treated Van Gogh after he sustained the gunshot wound, described entry point as just below the ribs, and about the size of a large pea, with a dark red margin and surrounded by a blue halo. The wound path was described as “downward”. It’s not clear whether downward means down towards the groin or down subcutaneously. This is an important distinction, because a self-inflicted wound directed downward is one thing, but to execute a self-inflicted wound in the lower abdomen where the trajectory moves up is almost impossible. Yet this is how the trajectory is dramatized in Loving Vincent.

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If a second person had shot Vincent, the shooter either had to be on the floor with Vincent standing above him, or Vincent had to be lying down, on his back, with the shooter standing above him.

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Not only is the weapon possibly, maybe, thought to be connected to Van Gogh, the scene of the incident is possibly, maybe, thought to be a field somewhere.

In late May 2019, I travelled to Auvers-sur-Oise specifically to inquire from the local experts and tour guides where Vincent was supposed to have been shot, or shot himself. Where did the incident happen? There are signposts all over Auver with Van Gogh’s name on it. Signs indicating where he painted this, where he painted that, signs for to the cemetry where he’s buried, the restaurant and inn where he ate and slept, signs to museums, maps to every conceivable point of interest. But…er…where is is that Van Gogh was supposed to have shot himself? No one knew. There’s no sign. Nobody seems to know, and quite frankly, no one seems to have thought about it.

The popular myth is that Van Gogh shot himself in the wheatfield behind his home, and behind the Catholic church. Some speculate that he shot himself in a ravine-path behind the Chateau, which is adjacent to the wheatfield. I went to all these sites.

Here.

If he was shot here why didn’t anyone hear the gunshot? If he was shot here, what happened to his paint supplies? The innkeeper’s daughter said Van Gogh left that day, as usual, with his painting equipment. Why would he paint first, then shoot himself? Or if he did, what happened to his paints, brushes, and his final ever canvas? What happened to the gun?

If he shot himself and missed, why wasn’t the gun found immediately afterwards? If he shot and missed why didn’t he shoot himself again? Why did he ask the doctors treating him to remove the bullet from his stomach if he wanted to die?

The other question is where did Van Gogh get the gun in the first place?

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The way it’s described, the weapon was everywhere, as common as dirt. It doesn’t matter where Van Gogh got the gun because everyone had one.  But it does matter. It matters very much where he got the gun, assuming he did steal it in the first place.

Notice how the historian here is also implying “everyone had one”. That was not the case in late 19th century France. Only two candidates are likely, as owners of the weapon in question. The first is Gustave Ravoux, the owner of the Inn where Van Gogh was staying. The second is Dr. Paul Gachet, an ex-military doctor.

Art historians seem to like the idea that the weapon belonged to Ravoux, and Van Gogh took it without permission. Martin Bailey, who calls himself a “leading Van Gogh specialist”, is a proponent of the Ravoux’s-gun theory, and also incidentally of the suicide theory, which he describes as “overwhelming”.

According to Bailey:

One of the mysteries of Van Gogh’s death is how the artist acquired the revolver. The artist never owned a gun and there is no evidence that he ever used to shoot. He probably ended his life with a gun that belonged to Arthur Gustave Ravoux, the owner of the inn where he was staying, most likely taking it without permission.

So what is the provenance of the gun which is coming up for sale? According to the auctioneer, Grégoire Veyrès, the farmer who came across the weapon in his field gave it in around 1960 to the then owner of the café which had originally been the Auberge Ravoux. The finder probably thought that the gun had no great financial value.

Although Veyrès is not naming the family, the café was at that time owned by Roger and Micheline Tagliana. Their daughter is believed to be the present owner of the revolver.

And what will happen at the sale? It is very difficult to guess what the corroded gun will fetch, but the price may soar. One only hopes that it will go to a responsible buyer who will not exhibit it as a gruesome relic—but treat it with the respect that it deserves.

I’m inclined to think it was far more likely Gachet’s gun. For starters, Van Gogh hung around Gachet’s house a lot, Gachet was treating him and Van Gogh had even painted Gachet’s portrait [to date the most expensive and valuable of all Van Gogh’s paintings] as well as his daughter’s portrait and even Gachet’s garden. It’s also more likely Van Gogh could have stumbled across the weapon, or made aware of its presence, while having the run of the house. This scenario is less likely at the Ravoux Inn, where patrons were always present, as were the Ravouxs themselves.

It will be interesting to see how much the probably fake gun fetches at auction. The more it fetches the more gullible the buyer. The less it fetches, the more traction the notion Van Gogh was murdered, and the murder weapon secreted from the scene, and from history.

But the art world isn’t known for its authenticity, is it? Rather, it’s a haven for fakers and fakery, fortune-seekers and fraudsters, PR and publicity stunts, this being a prime example.

Van Gogh Full Forensic Report – PDF

One thought on ““Van Gogh Pistol” Circus: Why Art Historians and Auctioneers should keep their long, crooked noses out of True Crime

  1. Pingback: Crime News – June 2019 - CrimeStopNews.Com

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