Although the world’s most famous artist, Vincent van Gogh, once wrote to this brother Theo that he would like to set up a community of artists, this is about as close as he ever came to the “Garden of the East”. Instead of sailing to Batavia, he instead sliced off his ear and slowly slipped into depression all the while painting brilliant works that nobody was yet interested in buying.
From the number of times that “authentic” van Gogh paintings have been offered for sale over the years in Indonesia one might conclude that in fact he did come to Java and shot himself in a rice terrace, not a corn field, with crows in the south of France. These miracle masterpieces, which appeal mostly to the most gullible and greedy, inevitably come with the same provenance story – the discovery of an old collection in a derelict plantation estate.
The most public and certainly outrageous example of this scam almost succeeded making the big time in November 2000 when an auction including “original” works not only by van Gogh but also Chagall, Renoir and Pissarro became the art event of the season. With estimates in millions, the event was to be held in one of the city’s most prestigious hotels and opened by the First Lady.
The ultimate fantasy ground to a halt only a few days before it was to take place after local and international media took note that few if any of the works even remotely resembled the works of their purported creators and raised the alarm. It was, of course, nevertheless a massive national embarrassment that it had proceeded so far undetected in the first place. As usual, nobody was ever held to task.
Amazingly the source of these rumours is based on actual fact for while Vincent van Gogh, Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso never visited Jakarta, their paintings did. This took place in 1936 when the Batavian Art Circle (kunstkring) mounted the Masterpieces Exhibition at a building better known as the former Immigration Office and Buddha Bar. The owner of this significant collection of modern paintings was the colonial plantation owner and industrialist P. A. Regnault (1868-1954). Before you start hunting in old plantation houses though, please note that all of the paintings including van Gogh’s Starry Night of the Rhone River have been accounted for and returned to Europe. Seek no miracles and you will never be duped.