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Auction of infamous Van Gogh pistol sparks debate

Most experts have accepted the explanation that Dutch painter shot himself in a suicide in July 1890
The pistol thought to be the one used by Van Gogh to shoot himself is going up for auction. File photo.

The auction of a pistol said to have been used by the painter Vincent van Gogh to shoot himself has reignited a debate about who actually pulled the trigger: Did Van Gogh commit suicide, or was he shot by someone else?

According to a report in Live Science, the gun will be auctioned in France on Wednesday, where it’s expected to sell for more than US$50,000.

For years, most Van Gogh experts have accepted the explanation that he shot himself in the chest with a pistol in a suicide in July 1890, the report said.

Such a gun was found more than 70 years later, in a field near the French farming village of Auvers-sur-Oise where Van Gogh died, and it has widely been accepted as the weapon he used to shoot himself.

Van Gogh lived on for 30 hours before dying from the wound. His last words, according to his brother Theo, were “the sadness will last forever.”

In the years since his death, the Dutch expressionist painter, who cut off his left ear in a dispute with the painter Paul Gauguin has become the archetype of a despairing, suicidal artist overcome by depression.

But in 2011, biographers Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh argued that Van Gogh didn’t shoot himself, but was shot accidentally by 16-year-old René Secrétan, who was spending the summer in the village, the report said.

According to their biography “Van Gogh: The Life,” Secrétan and his brother both befriended and bullied Van Gogh when he stayed at Auvers — and that Secrétan possessed the gun involved.

Based on a number of lingering mysteries about the last hours of Van Gogh’s life, the authors proposed that the artist was shot during a scuffle with Secrétan; then, he implied that he had shot himself, in order to cover for the boys, they wrote in an essay in Vanity Fair.

The theory that Van Gogh was shot by another is disputed by some experts on the life of the artist. But Naifeh, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, told Live Science that he was more convinced than ever that Secrétan shot Van Gogh.

“I have only become more convinced that it is more likely that he was shot in a scuffle than that he wasn’t,” he told Live Science.

The gun being auctioned in Paris next week is a Belgian-made 7mm Lefaucheux revolver — a popular small caliber handgun at that time.

The gun matches the description of the 7mm bullet taken from Van Gogh’s body by his doctor, and it is theorized that its low power may be why Van Gogh didn’t die immediately, but staggered back to his hotel with the bullet still lodged in his chest.

The pistol was found by a farmer in 1965 — 75 years after Van Gogh’s death — in a field at Auvers, badly corroded and beyond use. It was then given to the family who owned the hotel where Van Gogh died, the report said.

Although Van Gogh is one of the most famous artists in the world — one of his paintings of a farmed field, sold for US$81 million in 2017 —he sold only one painting during his lifetime, for 400 francs.

Deepening the mystery, in letters written just before his death, Van Gogh said: “I am very well, I am working hard, have painted four studies and two drawings,” but then said: “I feel I have failed and the prospect grows darker, I see no happy future at all.”

Editor’s note: The revolver sold at auction on Wednesday for €162,500 (US$182,000).

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