The rusty gun which Van Gogh probably used to shoot himself sold for €162,500 at a Drouot auction in Paris this afternoon. ArtAuction Rémy le Fur, which estimated the revolver at €40,000-€60,000, describes it as “the most famous weapon in art history”. The private buyer has not been named.
Although the seller has also not been identified by the auctioneer, she is believed to be Régine Tagliana, an artist and the daughter of Roger and Micheline Tagliana, who in 1952 had bought the café where Van Gogh lodged in 1890. The Tagliana family were given the gun in around 1960 by the farmer who had found it on his land, just behind the château in Auvers-sur-Oise. This is the village just north of Paris where the artist spent his final 70 days.
The auctioned Lefaucheux pinfire revolver is almost certainly the weapon used, although this cannot be conclusively proved. The type of weapon, its calibre, its severely corroded state and the location and circumstances of the find strongly suggest it is the gun. In the evening of 27 July 1890 Van Gogh suffered a gunshot wound while in a wheatfield and he then staggered back to the inn, dying two days later.
The discovery of the gun once again raises the question of whether Van Gogh committed suicide or was murdered. The 2011 biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith argued that he was killed by a local young man, René Secrétan, possibly by accident. This idea was also taken up in Julian Schnabel’s recent film, At Eternity’s Gate.
But curators at the Van Gogh Museum and most specialists are convinced it was suicide. Although the gun does not provide a definitive answer, it certainly backs up the suicide theory.
Had it been murder, why would the gun have ended up in a field, waiting to be discovered? A murderer would have hidden or buried the weapon properly, rather than simply abandoning it. But if Van Gogh had pulled the trigger, he would have involuntarily dropped the weapon – which would explain why it lay very near the surface some 70 years later.
We can report that the loan of the gun has been requested by the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, for its coming exhibition Making Van Gogh, which will run from 23 October-16 February 2020.
The Institut Van Gogh, which under Dominique Janssens has opened the Maison de Van Gogh in Auvers to visitors since 1993, has condemned the sale of the gun. In a statement, it opposes “the commercialisation of a tragic event which deserves more respect”, and argues that there is no proof to link the gun to the artist’s death.
Martin Bailey has written two blogs on the gun, on 5 April and 12 April.