with a new Filipino President, we ask what happened to the Van Gogh family?

With the election this month of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr as President of the Philippines, questions are being raised about the Van Gogh that once belonged to his parents. Her father, also named Ferdinand, was deposed as president in 1986 and died three years later, while her mother Imelda is now 92.

Until the last election, the Philippine government has long claimed hundreds of works of art, which it claims were purchased by Marcos Sr with ill-gotten funds. According to the Presidential Commission on Good Government, a quasi-judicial government agency tasked with recovering the collection, “money that rightfully belonged to the Filipino people was funneled to fund a decade-long shopping spree.”

Imelda Marcos with Pablo Picasso Lying Woman VI above the couch, in a scene from Lauren Greenfield’s 2019 documentary The Kingmaker Credit: Screenshot via YouTube

Among the works sought by the presidential commission is the watercolor of Van Gogh Peasant woman winding bobbins. Dating to May-June 1884, the painting depicts a woman by a window in a cottage, using a spinning machine to wind yarn onto a spool (or spool). At the time of its realization, Vincent lived with his parents in the village of Nuenen, in the south of the Netherlands. An ink drawing, now in the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands, shows a very similar scene, with a slightly wider view.

Van Gogh drawing Woman reeling yarn (May–June 1884) Credit: Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

But what happened to Marcos’ watercolor? Our research shows that the painting they claim ownership appears to be in the Kuboso Memorial Museum of Arts in Izumi, on the outskirts of the Japanese city of Osaka. The image, and dimensions (33cm x 41cm), appear identical. However, the Kuboso watercolor does not belong to the museum, but is on long-term loan from a private Japanese collector.

There seem to be two explanations. Maybe the Presidential Commission on Good Government is wrong about the Marcos Sr link, and he never owned the Van Gogh now in Japan. Or perhaps it was acquired by the private collector and lent to the museum in good faith, without knowing its previous controversial history.

To add to the uncertainty, the Japanese watercolor appears to have been auctioned three times in New York (May 17, 1984 Doyle auction; November 14, 1984 Christie’s; and November 12, 1987 Sotheby’s). Marcos Sr was deposed in 1986, so if he really owned the Van Gogh now in Japan, he probably sold it at least two years before it fell.

When this week we informed the Kuboso Museum of Marcos’s possible provenance and claim, its current staff had no knowledge of the Philippine connection. And with the election of Marcos Jr, one would assume that his government will abandon any research into art acquired under questionable circumstances by his father.

According to the Presidential Commission on Good Government, Marcos Sr had paid $99,000 for the Van Gogh. Prices for the artist’s work have skyrocketed since the 1980s, and a Nuenen watercolor of this type could now fetch around $1 million.

Martin Bailey is the author of Van Gogh finale: Auvers and the artist’s rise to fame (Frances Lincoln, 2021, available in the UK and U.S). He is a leading Van Gogh scholar and investigative journalist for The arts journal. Bailey has curated Van Gogh exhibitions at the Barbican Art Gallery and Compton Verney/National Gallery of Scotland. He was co-curator of Tate Britain’s The EY exhibition: Van Gogh and Great Britain (March 27-August 11, 2019).

Van Gogh’s Last Books by Martin Bailey

Bailey has written a number of other bestselling books, including The Sunflowers Are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece (Frances Lincoln 2013, available in UK and U.S), Southern Studio: Van Gogh in Provence(Frances Lincoln 2016, available in UK and U.S) and Starry Night: Van Gogh in the Asylum (White Lion Publishing 2018, available in the UK and U.S). whiskey cream Living with Vincent van Gogh: the houses and landscapes that shaped the artist (White Lion Publishing 2019, available in the UK and U.S) provides insight into the artist’s life. The Illustrated Letters of Provence by Van Gogh has been re-released (Batsford 2021, available in UK and U.S).

• To contact Martin Bailey, please email: [email protected] Please note that it does not perform authentications.

Read more on the Martin’s Adventures with Van Gogh blog here.

About Bernice D. Brewer

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