Sunrise at Montmajour

Today, on the front page of the Wall Street Journal: Sunset at Montmajour, thought for a century to be a fake, turns out to be a real Van Gogh!  New technology in paint analysis confirmed that the pigments used in Sunset were the same as those taken from Van Gogh’s palette in Arles, the southern-France town where the artist is believed to have painted the work.


Alex Ruger, curator of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, presents “Sunset at Montmajour”. Note the Montmajour Abbey on the far left of the painting.

The painting had been passed from owner to owner, selling for very little each time.  It spent over 50 years lying in an attic.  It underwent several reassessments, but each concluded that Sunset was no Van Gogh.  Now, though, it’ll serve as a lead act at the prestigious Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam—one of the very museums that had called it a fake several decades earlier!  Its value hasn’t been assessed, but Sunset could be worth well over 50 million dollars.

This entire situation prompts a serious reevaluation of what creates value in art.  The most obvious answer is beauty, but Sunset clearly invalidates this hypothesis! Before the painting’s recent reevaluation, it looked no less beautiful.  After its reevaluation, though, it’ll be sitting in the spotlight, not in the attic!  So what does create value in art?

Rarity creates value in art.  Van Gogh’s paintings are extremely rare; only a few hundred exist today.  Meanwhile, paintings by other no-name Dutch impressionists are a dime a dozen.  But wait: rarity can’t be sufficient for value either.  Fingerprints are also very rare, as are snowflakes.  But you don’t see my fingerprint gracing any art museums.  Rarity alone can’t be enough.  An even more glaring rebuttal to this argument: if Van Gogh’s paintings are rare, so would have been the paintings of Sunset’s creator were it not Van Gogh!  After all, someone painted the Sunset of Montmajour, whether it was Vincent Van Gogh or his lowly apprentice.  Even if the apprentice had painted it, Sunset, as well as the apprentice’s other paintings, would be just as rare as those of Van Gogh himself.  So, just as the painting didn’t change in beauty after its reevaluation, it didn’t change in rarity either.

Fame creates value in art.  Van Gogh was famous; his apprentice wasn’t.  It’s as simple as that!  Right? But fame alone won’t create value either.  I wouldn’t pay much to see Charlie Chaplin’s paintings, just like I wouldn’t pay to see Van Gogh’s comedy. (Van Gogh was a severely-depressed, paranoid, schizophrenic alcoholic—what a show that would be!)  So what’s truly at play?

Really, I think it’s a combination of the three.  Here’s how it starts: an artist creates works that are beautiful, not just aesthetically, but also on a mental level: these works challenge the viewer and inspire thought.  After creating many such works, the artist achieves fame.  Once famous, works by this artist become rare—and not in an arbitrary sense, like the rarity of a fingerprint—but in the sense that works by an artist this famous are extremely hard to come by.  Here it is legitimate to divide painters into Van Gogh and other Dutch impressionists—works by the former are much more rare, since the latter artists aren’t famous.

Of course, I just described how it is.  But how should it be?  In a perfect world, beauty would be the only criterion for art’s value.  Assuming both paint equally well, Van Gogh should have no better a chance than his lowly apprentice at seeing his work displayed on center stage.


  1. Original WSJ article was published At Long Last, van Gogh ‘Fake’ Is Declared Real on September 10, 2013.  Written by Clemens Bomdsdorf.  The online version of the article can be found here.

5 comments on “Sunrise at Montmajour

    • Josh says:

      Interesting connection. The two stories are definitely reminiscent of each other. In the Samuragochi case, people are disillusioned because what they thought was Samuragochi’s music wasn’t, whereas in this case, people were delighted to find that what they thought wasn’t Van Gogh’s work actually was.

      I don’t think the comparison is completely fair, though. It would be more interesting if Samuragochi were simply a popular figure without any disability. The fact that he masqueraded as a deaf man, though, makes this story much more damning. People aren’t disappointed just because Samuragochi’s work isn’t actually his. They are also let down because his story, in which a deaf man overcomes all odds to be a great musician, turned out to be just a ploy for publicity.

      A more parallel case might be one in which a beautiful painting was found to be Van Gogh’s, and Van Gogh was blind.

  1. Nancy says:

    A similar issue is raised by sports memorabilia. An old used baseball would not be worth more than a dollar or two. In fact, you’d have trouble selling it at a garage sale. But a quick Internet search reveals that a baseball autographed in 1932 by Babe Ruth might fetch over twenty thousand dollars.

    Apparently the value, to the person who’s willing to pay thousands of dollars, is not related to the inherent worth of the object. Rather, it’s the fact that it was signed by Babe Ruth that makes it valuable, just as the painting is valuable not just because it’s beautiful but because it was allegedly (and, in this case, actually) painted by Van Gogh. See also this: BBC reported that six days ago was the first public performance of a piece composed by Mendelsohn that was recently discovered after 140 years — the original manuscript is expected to bring in £15,000 – £25,000 at a Christie’s auction). There seems to be a limit, however, in the value of celebrity-associated items. Apparently, there were no takers for sheets slept in by Bill Clinton.

    What would be the value of that same baseball, if it were discovered that the signature were not authentic? Very little. The souvenir is now just in the pile of old sports equipment at the yard sale.

    A more interesting question is what are the ethical implications of giving signed memorabilia as a gift, knowing it’s not genuine? You could argue that the recipient, as long as he or she is unaware of the actual origins, would love and appreciate it. Ater all, it’s not the item they enjoy, but the association. This creates problems, though. On that logic, it’s OK to lie to one’s spouse. As long as he/she does not know you’re having an affair, he/she is happy. This quandary arises in any scenario where it’s the belief that creates value. Dare I say, Martin Guerre’s family was fine as long as they were blissfully unaware that he was an imposter?

  2. Richard says:

    What creates value in art? The factors Josh considers seem pretty fair. There should be some sense in which it is attractive or at least immediately interesting by conventional standards. Though this may not be necessary if other factors like association with antecedently well-received artists come into play. I suspect that, now, with only some exceptions, sheer fashionableness is the essence of the art industry. There’s no accounting for taste, beyond the influence of the majority, I suppose. Fashion is definitely quite arbitrary. And I agree that rarity plays a role in this as it permits social exclusion. People are never so fond of things they have as when other people want them but cannot get them.

    • Josh says:

      I agree that sheer fashionableness appears to be the essence of the art industry.

      It brings up another interesting question, though: how does someone wind up fashionable? It’s true that we might scoff at many of the paintings hung up at the museums, since they must have taken very little skill to make, and they’re up on display simply because the artist is fashionable. Again, though, becoming fashionable in the first place cannot have been easy. There are scores of would-be artists, and only a very small percentage become successful. And, I doubt that the selection process is completely random. So, those who “make it” may not be chosen for the beauty of their work, but they’re chosen by something, so as to achieve rarity. Maybe it’s the uniqueness of their work or the controversy produced by it, or the extent to which they align with or further current trends.

      Whatever it is, though, I agree that it almost seems as if rarity itself is the desired end here, and some arbitrary criteria are chosen such that only a few artists meet them. Contrast with the art of old, where beauty is the desired criteria, and those artists who do achieve rarity do so secondary only to the unparalleled beauty of their work.

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