ATTENTION, FLEA MARKET SHOPPERS! Keep plowing through those velvet Elvis portraits and you—like Francesco Plateroti—might strike gold. Or at least a Van Gogh.
Back in 1990, the Italian-born art lover, 45, was combing junk shops in the South of France, where he and his companion, Valerie Noizet, ran a clothing boutique, when he spied six small drawings overlapping each other in a single wooden frame. He paid $80, brought his purchase home to Aixen-Provence and, he says, forgot about it. Months later he and Noizet finally removed the drawings from their frame, examined them more closely and were impressed by the powerful chalk, charcoal and pencil landscapes. They were even more impressed by the signature on two of them, VINCENT, and the number 88, as in 1888. "We sort of gaped at each other," says Noizet, 33. "We didn't really have any idea what to do next—just to find out if this was a joke or they might be real."
They are indeed real, claims the Paris police laboratory, which conducted months of scientific and artistic analyses of the drawings, all of which depict scenes in the region around Arles, where Vincent van Gogh lived in 1888 and 1889. The lab says materials used in the works are consistent with those known to have been used by Van Gogh and that the signatures also appear to be his. In addition, portraits of Van Gogh and some of his heroes, such as Rembrandt, were found playfully hidden in the drawings. Amsterdam's Van Gogh Foundation, however, which has only reviewed photos of the sketches, maintains that the works are not Vincent's. Though the trove, if genuine, could be worth as much as $16 million, the issue is academic, says Plateroti, because he has no plans to sell.
The public can draw its own conclusions when the sketches are exhibited in Paris next March. Eventually the couple and their businessman-sponsor, Patrick Campi, hope to take the show on the road. They seem unfazed by the no-Goghers in Amsterdam. "Van Gogh once said that people look too fast—you have to look attentively," Plateroti says. "We knew how to look and we got the message."
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