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Lawsuit Claims Van Gogh Fake

November 10, 1998

PARIS (AP) _ Heirs of a French banker who paid $10 million for a Vincent van Gogh landscape are suing the previous owner and the auctioneers who sold it, saying they knowingly withheld information suggesting it may be a fake.

Jean-Marc Vernes’ family contends the sellers failed to disclose the painting, ``Jardin a Auvers″ (Garden at Auvers), was once owned by the brother of a second-rate artist who was notorious for copying successful artists, including van Gogh.

Since the painting’s 1992 sale to Vernes, experts have been agonizing over whether ``Jardin″ is a brilliantly executed fake.

Reports Tuesday in the daily Figaro and LCI television said Vernes’ heirs brought legal action against French auctioneers Jean-Claude Binoche and Antoine Godeau, as well as the painting’s previous owner, Jean-Jacques Walter.

``Jardin″ isn’t a typical van Gogh. The colors are right _ iris blues, spring greens and golden yellows, _ but the abstract perspective and brush strokes lack the artist’s usual realistic touches, like a fence, a rooftop or a church spire.

Some experts also have pointed out the presence of curved lines and the pointillist style _ masses of tiny dots of color to create a visual effect _ absent from other works of the period.

The world’s leading van Gogh scholars have long insisted that the artist executed the small landscape in the creative frenzy leading up to his suicide in 1890. However, many now say he couldn’t possibly have painted the 70 landscapes attributed to him in that short time frame.

The painting has been making headlines in France since the 1980s, when it was classified a national treasure after then owner, Jacques Walter, tried to take it to Switzerland. The measure means it can’t leave France without an exit visa _ which is almost always denied.

The action, designed to protect France’s artistic patrimony, greatly lowers a work’s market value.

As a result, when Walter’s heir, Jean-Jacques Walter, sold the painting to Vernes in 1992, it fetched just $10 million, far below the $40 million it was valued at.

Jean Jacques Walter sued the state and won $26 million in reimbursement from the government in 1995 for what he would have gotten on the open market for the painting.

If the court rules in favor of Vernes’ heirs, Walter will have to return that money to the French government.

The case could take years to resolve.

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