Two different directors of the National Gallery of Victoria have now been forced to admit that two of the gallery’s most famous paintings were fakes.

In May, 1984, then NGV director Patrick McCaughey, was showing a contingent of newspaper and television reporters around a newly refurbished section when he stopped before a self-portrait by Rembrandt and admitted it was not actually by Rembrandt and was probably done by someone else.

The Rembrandt had been accepted as genuine for 50 years and was one of the gallery’s star attractions. At the time, it was estimated to be worth $3 million but, if it was a fake, its value had suddenly plummeted to less than the $54,000 the Felton Bequest paid for it in 1933.

McCaughey assured the open-mouthed crowd of scribblers that the NGV still had two genuine Rembrandts: “Two indispensable masterpieces. The real things.” Yet he made the unreal one seem like a significant gallery asset, so much so that thousands who might never have bothered later turned up just to gawp at it.

Two decades on and almost exactly a year ago, the NGV was in the headlines again over claims in the London Sunday Times that the gallery’s only painting by Vincent van Gogh, then on loan to an Edinburgh exhibition, was not by the mad Dutchman. This time, though, current director Dr Gerard Vaughan was unable to adopt the McCaughey spin as he protested that the claims were part of “the cut and thrust of scholarly debate”.

Last Friday, Vaughan called the media back again — this time to announce the British critics were right: extensive testing by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam had proved Head of a Man to have been painted by someone else. It had been in the NGV collection since 1940 and was long rated as an authentic portrait by one of the world’s best-known impressionists.

Vaughan told a new media contingent on Friday there was no evidence the unknown artist had any intention of passing it off as a work by van Gogh — who, after all, had been largely ignored in his lifetime and only became famous long after he killed himself. Although it might not be a forgery, Vaughan admitted the news made the picture almost worthless in money terms.

The unreal van Gogh returns to Melbourne in another month and will hang in the Impressionists room, like the non-Rembrandt with a new label. It is uncertain whether another crowd of sticky-beaks will turn up to marvel at it and ponder how simply changing the artist’s name could drive its value down from $20 million to a few dollars.

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Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey