I Don't Believe It: Van Gogh's Suicide Gun
Updated: Oct 11, 2020
The gun is encased in rust, is missing its grip panels, has a bent ejector rod, and the action is completely frozen. And yet, this old Lefaucheux revolver chambered for 7mm pinfire cartridges sold at auction in Paris on June 19, 2019, for a staggering $148,000, far exceeding the estimate of $45,000 - $68,000.
Why? Because it is the gun with which famous artist Vincent van Gogh committed suicide ... or is it?
First, a little background on the final days of van Gogh's life, from the auction house that sold the gun:
Vincent van Gogh attempted suicide on July 27, 1890. The emblematic Dutch artist of the 19th century moved in Auvers-sur-Oise in the South of France in 1890. He lived in room number 5 of Arthur Ravoux’s inn. At this time, Vincent van Gogh was at the top of his art, he produced over a painting a day, but was mentally unstable.
He went to a field behind the village church and shot his own chest. He lost consciousness and woke up at dusk, seriously injured. He went back to the inn where he died 2 days later on July 29.
There's no denying that van Gogh died as a result of a gunshot wound, but attributing this gun to his death is quite a stretch. Here's some info on the gun from the auction house:
The gun offered in this sale was found in this field by a farmer around 1960 and was handed to the current owner’s mother. Writer Alain Rohan investigated this case and wrote the book “Did we find the suicide weapon?” in 2012.
Several pieces of evidence show it must be van Gogh’s suicide gun: it was discovered where van Gogh shot it; its caliber (7mm) is the same as the bullet retrieved from the artist’s body as described by the doctor at the time; scientific studies demonstrate that the gun had stayed in the ground since the 1890’s and finally, it is a low power gun so it could explain why van Gogh didn’t instantly die after shooting it.
Auctioneer Gregoire Veyres says, "It is a very emblematic piece."
Of course he says that. It's his job to sell items for as much as possible, but I don't buy it for a minute, and neither does the Van Gogh Institute: "Nothing suggests that the remains [of the gun] are formally linked with the death of Van Gogh, commercialization of a tragedy which deserves more respect."
Now, a bit of a personal info and a disclaimer before I explain why I don't believe this gun's story: I'm not trained in forensic ballistics or metal conservation and I've not personally handled the gun. With that said, I've got a degree in historic preservation and have taken courses in archaeology, object conservation, and museum studies. I've also worked at prestigious institutions such as the National Park Service and the Smithsonian Institution, where I've worked alongside some top-notch professional archaeologists, object conservators, and those trained in forensic ballistics. Basically, what I'm getting at is that I'm certainly no expert, but I think I know a bit more about these things than an auctioneer.
So, here's why I don't buy the alleged provenance, even for a minute:
1) The consignor is three degrees removed, being the daughter of the woman who was given the gun by the farmer who supposedly found it ... and there's no solid proof of the gun's chain of custody aside from the familial story. A chain of custody is arguably the most important piece of information when it comes to any high-profile object, and this object doesn't have it.
2) Lefaucheux pinfire revolvers were inexpensive and plentiful in the late 19th century. They turn up everywhere around the world, so finding one in a field under a tree in France isn't that big of a deal to me.
3) I know of no such scientific studies that could prove the gun had been buried for 70 years. There's no good way to measure the time it takes for an object to obtain that degree of corrosion. There are too many variables, such as soil composition and acidity, soil moisture levels, the depth of burial, and so on.
4) While it's true that the 7mm pinfire is not a very powerful cartridge, it cannot be the sole deciding factor on why van Gogh lingered for two days before succumbing to his injuries. There are plenty of cases where gunshot victims do not die instantly - or sometimes at all - even after having been shot in the chest with a more powerful cartridge.
So, will we ever know for sure that this was the gun with which one of the 19th century's most famous artists committed suicide? No, we won't, but it makes for a good story and a good payday for both the now-former owner and the auction house.
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