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Vincent and Otto: an affair to remember.

The enormous prices and enormous egos at play in the world of fine art make for a fascinating and treacherous landscape. Many a buyer has been badly burned while trying to secure something that is rare, illusive, and irresistibly prestigious to own. But few art scandals have been as notorious as one that unfolded during the frantic years of the Weimar Republic. Indeed, this case was soon casting doubt on much more than the authenticity of a number of canvases.

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"This is 1927, the most idiotic moment in the worlds [sic] history."
Gordon Craig to Harry Graf Kessler, July 1927


CELEBRITY AND SCANDAL--the words blur and converge for us. But so do terms like art and entertainment. The steady breakdown of formerly fixed category and definition may be the most striking link between the modern and postmodern eras. The issue of authenticity is central to this development.

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Until recently, if the name Otto Wacker appeared in the historical record, it was usually that of a fanatical Nazi, the minister of education and culture in the German state of Baden from 1933 to 1940. But, lately, another Otto Wacker has been popping up with notable frequency, and in the longer term may achieve more notoriety or, for that matter, fame. (1)

This Wacker was born in Dusseldorf in 1898 and first came to public notice as a dancer in the early 1920s. Dance was all the rage in that decade after the Great War--one spoke of Tanzwut, dance fever--and Otto, despite a lack of formal training, was obviously a natural. In a Germany wallowing in a mixture of grief, self-pity, and anger after the lost war, nothing was more popular than Argentinian and Spanish dance, with its exotic passion and tragic innuendo. Otto devised a stage name for himself, Olindo (on occasion Olinto) Lovael and masqueraded as a Spaniard. He made an impression in Berlin and then went on tour. The reviews were often glowing. In 1924 the society magazine Elegante Welt described him as "a new dance phenomenon," who invoked "the richly textured rhythms of his southern homeland." Otto obviously had a knack for performance.

But just at the moment when his stage career was ready to take off, he had other, more lucrative, ideas. He became a full-time art dealer instead. For him this was actually less of a venture into the unknown than dance because he came from a family of artists--his father and an older brother were painters--and since his youth he had dabbled in the art business, selling family wares as well as the occasional piece from outside. While dancing in Berlin he ran a small dealership on the side, with a modest office in Berlin's Zimmerstrasse, just on the edge of the gallery district. However in 1925 the operation moved to a new level of activity, as Otto began releasing pictures onto the market that were purportedly by none other than Vincent van Gogh.

VAN GOGH'S success had come slowly in the decade after his death in 1890, but after the turn of the century the value of his works had soared, especially in Germany, until the Great War interrupted commerce in art as in most everything else. With the end of the war the art market in Germany and Austria, like the currency, faced new difficulties, particularly a dizzying inflation, that ravaged not only the economy but mores as well. Thomas Mann would note that the Germans, having been robbed of their savings and wages, became quite naturally "a nation of robbers." In this turbulent atmosphere art became increasingly a matter of investment. The influential trade journal Kunst und Kunstler reported in February 1920: "The art market is feverish. Things are being bought without even being seen, and there is a shortage of goods everywhere."

After Julius Meier-Graefe, an early promoter of French Impressionism in Germany and a stalwart of the modern movement, published a best-selling biography of van Gogh in 1921, interest in the Dutch artist rose strikingly once again. Elias Canetti recalled that van Gogh became the main topic of dining-room conversation at the boardinghouse in Frankfurt where he was living at the time. Yet his pictures seemed unavailable. The gallery of Paul Cassirer, which had played a prominent role in the dissemination of van Gogh's work before the war, moved none of his paintings during the early 1920s. Even in the Parisian galleries, a van Gogh became a rare item. In 1925, however, through the agency of Otto Wacker, previously unknown van Goghs began to surface.

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The first lot of these pictures Wacker sold without indication of provenance. He told the established dealer Hugo Perls--who acquired one of the paintings, Cypresses, for 18,000 marks in 1925--that revealing his source would endanger his whole enterprise, because dealers would then go straight to that source. Perls accepted this argument; such secrecy was normal practice if more than one item was to be sold from a collection. However, Wacker was no innocent. He was aware of the critical importance of provenance, and he was already in the process of acquiring validation for his pictures. For that he went right to the top.

In Berlin he charmed the bon vivant and self-indulgent van Gogh biographer Meier-Graefe. Meier-Graefe knew everyone in the art world. He had lived in Paris for a decade; and with his vibrant journalism and widely read biographies--of Munch, Cezanne, Renoir, Manet, Corot, as well as van Gogh--he had, more than anyone else in Germany, turned modern art into a topic of public discourse. Meier-Graefe took a genuine liking to the young and attractive Wacker and would turn out to be his staunchest supporter. One of the earliest and poorest of the Wacker pictures, Still Life with Bread, was reproduced in the March 1925 issue of Der Cicerone, a lavish art magazine with which Meier-Graefe had close connections.

Wacker also sought out Jacob Baart de la Faille, a Dutch dealer and critic, who was in the midst of cataloguing all of van Gogh's work. From his home in Bloemendaal, on the North Sea coast, de la Faille had heard rumours of new van Goghs circulating on the Berlin market. Keen to be as comprehensive as possible, he greeted with enthusiasm a telegram from Wacker in March 1926 and the young man's arrival two days later. He accepted Wacker's explanation for lack of provenance--a Russian emigre family's wish to keep its identity secret for fear of retribution against members still in Soviet Russia--and apparently added that, were he in Wacker's position, he would do the same.

Wacker had brought with him a landscape. De la Faille proceeded to authenticate that first picture, assigning it the number F 729 in his catalogue, and would endorse some twenty all told, travelling to Berlin on several occasions to do so. Self-Portrait at Easel (F523)--which would achieve a special and long-lasting notoriety because it was purchased by the American tycoon Chester Dale and ended up with the rest of his collection in the National Gallery in Washington--was validated by de la Faille in Berlin on 20 July 1927. He used the terms "authentic and characteristic." De la Faille eventually added all of Wacker's pictures, not merely the ones he had endorsed, to his catalogue raisonne. Dealers and buyers were satisfied with this seal of approval.

Still, emboldened by the reactions of Meier-Graefe and de la Faille, Wacker sought out other "experts." He visited H.P. Bremmer, the Dutch art historian, critic, and adviser to Helene Kroller-Muller. The daughter of a German shipping magnate, Kroller-Muller had already assembled the finest private collection of van Gogh's work. Bremmer, who lived in The Hague, came onside, as did the Berlin critic, journalist, and teacher Hans Rosenhagen. Wacker thought he could now silence any doubters. As provenance he offered the designation Collection suisse privee.

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Wacker sold at least eleven of the new pictures to Hugo Perls. His prices began to rise quickly. Perls put on two Impressionist exhibitions, in 1925 and 1927, that included Wacker pictures. The second had some 10,000 visitors. Other dealers were keen to purchase: Goldschmidt and Matthiesen in Berlin, Commeter in Hamburg, Thannhauser in Munich, and the renowned Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris. The latter included a Wacker in its own Impressionist show in 1927. Through these dealers the Wacker paintings entered distinguished private collections in Germany and abroad. Elsa Wolff-Essberger, wife of a Hamburg shipping magnate, was enchanted by Cypresses (F616)--"such a first-class van Gogh!"--when it was brought to her home for a private viewing. "Your picture," she wrote to Hugo Perls, "has set a standard in quality and will keep us from acquiring anything less worthwhile." Perls tried to persuade her to exchange a Cezanne or Pissarro from her collection for the purported van Gogh, but she traded a Toulouse-Lautrec for the Wacker picture and added another 19,000 marks. Prices paid by the private collectors ranged up to 65,000 marks.

In 1927, flush with profit, Wacker moved his enterprise to the Victoriastrasse, off the Potsdamer Platz, in the heart of the gallery and embassy district. Paul Cassirer's gallery was just down the street. Wacker could not have chosen finer quarters. He now established connections with Wildenstein in New York, Scherjon in Utrecht, d'Andretsch in The Hague, and Hodebert in Paris.

For his inaugural show in December 1927 he organized a blockbuster exhibit of 120 van Gogh drawings and watercolours. This was the first major exhibition of van Gogh's drawings. De la Faille curated the show; it was his expression of gratitude to Wacker for the latter's enormous contribution to his van Gogh project. The exhibition committee consisted of an authoritative list of names: professors, museum directors, and artists, including Max Liebermann, doyen of the German art world.

The catalogue Vincent van Gogh, der Zeichner was edited by Meier-Graefe, had an extended introduction by de la Faille, and was published by Wacker under his own imprint, the Otto Wacker-Verlag. The frontispiece was the self-portrait of van Gogh (F523) that Wacker had sold, through Josef Stransky, to Chester Dale in New York. Stransky was an interesting figure in his own right. A Czech Jew, he had succeeded Gustav Mahler as conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1911. When he retired from the orchestra in 1923, he went into the art business. Wacker's new gallery and first show opened to rave reviews. Kunst und Kunstler noted that the exhibit had been assembled "with great expertise" and that its success was "rightly enormous."

Otto Wacker had made it. The working-class boy from Dusseldorf had conquered Berlin. However, at this very point, as he was negotiating a major exhibit of French drawings from the Louvre, his world began to implode.

THE WHISPERING began in late 1927. Even though the "experts" continued to authenticate new Wacker paintings through 1928, a few of the pictures began to be subjected to closer scrutiny. Under growing pressure, Wacker stuck to his story: he had, he said, received the pictures from a Russian in Switzerland. That story was not implausible. Several Russian collectors, among them Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin, had been enthusiastic patrons of the Impressionists and their successors. "Soon your pictures won't ever be seen again except in Moscow," a friend had written to Henri Matisse in 1910. After the Revolution of 1917 a fair amount of art had been smuggled out of the Soviet Union, and after the death of Lenin in 1924 a second wave of emigration and surreptitious exportation began. Julius Meier-Graefe was a major conduit for this art. And he believed Wacker.

Moreover, neither Vincent van Gogh nor his brother Theo, who had tried to sell Vincent's work, had ever kept close track of inventory. Vincent had moved often and had given away many canvases. In the last two years of his life he painted at a furious rate; he also repeated themes and produced multiple copies of pictures. And of course his illness compounded the difficulty of keeping count. All that made de la Faille's effort at cataloguing the oeuvre enormously difficult. It also made Wacker's story credible.

But by the end of 1928 the doubts were out in the open; in fact they were all over the newspapers. "The thirty questionable--one can actually say forged--van Goghs that the Wacker gallery in Berlin has put into circulation," wrote the critic Paul Westheim, "are causing more excitement in the public than all the genuine van Goghs ever did." The Berlin police began an investigation. Alarmed and hurt by these developments, de la Faille, whose catalogue had just been published, did a complete volte-face and denounced all the Wacker pictures as fakes.

Wacker did not help his cause when he suddenly decamped. He closed his gallery and went off to Holland, taking several of his pictures with him for further examination and testing. The Dutch chemist and restorer, A.M. de Wild, would assert that the paint used in those works was at least thirty years old. Bremmer and the Utrecht dealer Willem Scherjon continued to support Wacker, as did Meier-Graefe. In the meantime the Wacker gallery on Victoriastrasse was turned into a library for blind veterans of the Great War.

The police investigation proceeded slowly. If a case were to be made against Wacker, one needed proof that he knowingly engaged in fraudulent activity. Police raided his brother's studio in Dusseldorf and his father's home in the village of Ferch, not far from Potsdam, and seized canvases. They also found that large sums of money had been exchanged by Otto and his brother Leonhard. Still, all the evidence remained circumstantial.

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IT WAS four years after the first doubts surfaced that the trial finally began in Berlin's Moabit courthouse on 6 April 1932. When the day arrived, the art world was on tenterhooks. But far more was in play here than a few works of art and some bloated egos. The very notions of authority and legitimacy, not just in the world of art but in the economy and in politics, were at stake. Another economic downturn, this time a deadly depression, had been ravaging commerce and credibility. The German Republic itself was in the throes of a deep crisis of legitimacy, the integrity of its constitution under severe attack. Moreover, a second round of presidential elections--a run-off between the incumbent Field Marshal von Hindenburg and Adolf Hitler--would take place four days later. The Moabit courtroom was packed.

The proceedings lasted the better part of two weeks. Witnesses came and went. Wacker did not act like a scoundrel and actually left a decidedly favourable impression. Siegfried Kracauer called him a "gentleman." Most of the Dutch press was sympathetic. "Wacker is a remarkable figure," wrote the correspondent for Het Vaderland. "His replies are given in a soft and calm tone of voice, masterly in style--in a word, polished and, without any emotion or hesitation, he gives the fullest information."

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The same could not be said of the "experts." De la Faille caused yet another sensation. Obviously under pressure from his Dutch colleagues, he flipped once again. He now claimed that at least six of the Wacker paintings were indeed van Gogh originals. The Dutch contingent--with the exception of van Gogh's nephew, Vincent Willem--continued to insist that many, if not all, of the Wacker pictures were genuine. The academician Ludwig Justi, director of Berlin's National Gallery, was incensed and took the exact opposite view. Wacker was a crook, he charged, Meier-Graefe and all his journalistic cronies fools. They were creatures of sensation taken in by a clever prestidigitator. Anyone looking closely at the Wacker pictures, said Justi, could see that the mood and the brush strokes were all wrong.

Meier-Graefe defended Wacker as long as he could, but then confessed that the doubts had become insurmountable. Hans Rosenhagen, too, felt compelled to capitulate. It was now the Dutch versus the Germans, and the Germans versus each other. For the art world, the whole affair was most discomfiting. Expertise was on trial, even more so than Wacker. And that expertise was found wanting. This, many critics pointed out, was the real meaning of the Wacker affair: the bankruptcy of authority. The satirist Kurt Tucholsky found it all a little too rich: "Van Gogh painted about 476 pictures in total, of which 481 are in Switzerland, and the rest are in German hands."

While the evidence was hardly conclusive, the court nonetheless found Wacker guilty of deliberately selling fraudulent art. His lawyer, Ivan Goldschmidt, urged an appeal. In December 1932, as the Weimar Republic was playing out its endgame, Wacker was again found guilty and sentenced to 19 months imprisonment, a fine of 30,000 marks, plus an extra 300 days should he default on the fine. He was taken into custody immediately. Since he could not pay the fine, he would spend almost three years in prison. He was released on 4 December 1935. The identity of the painter of the Wacker pictures has never been determined conclusively--most have suspected the brother Leonhard. Christopher Isherwood was in Berlin that winter of 1932-33. "The tickling and bottom-slapping days," he wrote, "are over."

The Weimar Republic had its fair share of scandals. Some, like the Wacker affair, have never been aired properly because the biggest scandal of all, with Gotterdammerung as its finale, superseded them quickly. Hitler's Third Reich put everything else in the shade. Nazism, too, was all about authenticity. Hitler claimed to be a bearer of truth, but many would argue that the very essence of Nazism was forgery. Shortly after his first trial, in April 1932, Otto Wacker joined the Nazi Party, as member 1,146,794.

Even though openly gay, he survived prison and the Third Reich. After the war he found refuge in the Soviet occupation zone. He returned to dance and to the stage, where his most frequent role was as the Sultan in Scheherezade. He died in East Berlin on 13 October 1970. He maintained his innocence in the van Gogh affair to the end of his life.

RATHER than undermining the art market, Otto Wacker fortified it. Despite ongoing doubts about the authenticity of a significant part of the oeuvre, van Gogh's commercial value has continued to spiral. The sale of the Portrait of Dr. Gachet in 1990 for $82.5 million set the twentieth-century record. As he was losing faith in his young friend Wacker, Julius Meier-Graefe had commented: "Watch out. That fellow Wacker will make van Gogh so famous that every taxi driver will have one over his sofa."

Note

1 Stefan Koldehoff, Van Gogh: Mythos und Wirklichkeit (Cologne: DuMont, 2003) and Henk Tromp, De strijd om de Echte Vincent van Gogh: De kunstexpert als brenger van een onwelkome boodschap, 1900-1970 (Amsterdam: Mets en Schilt, 2006) have made major contributions to resurrecting the other Otto Wacker.

MODRIS EKSTEINS is completing a book on Vincent van Gogh and the Wacker affair.
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Title Annotation:Vincent van Gogh and Otto Wacker
Author:Eksteins, Modris
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Dec 22, 2006
Words:3161
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