SIMON CONWAY falls for the new facsimiles of the Van Gogh sketchbooks

You can get a Hans van Meegeren for about £30,000 in some places, and he – as we all know –  was just a big fat forger.  In his later career, de Chirico forged his own early works.  And you – you yourself can turn amateur forger  – you can photocopy your favourite picture for a few quid in most of the big galleries now.  Along with postcards, editions, prints, photos, copies of video art – we’re all participating in an authenticity debate.

Perhaps the arid debate about fakes and forgeries is best left for pubs and first year philosophers.  However, when there is a copy as exquisitely housed, and as perfectly produced, as the Folio Society’s new Van Gogh sketchbooks (for £445 or so – and hence about £400 more than Van Gogh would have paid) all thoughts of copies and the honesty of copies come suddenly swiftly back into focus.

The four little sketchbooks, ranging in time from 1884 until the artist’s death, are so perfect a copy, so dangerously so, that – as Marije Vellekoop said at the launch – it’s like “staring over the artist’s shoulder”.  It’s more than that, in fact, when a copy is this good – it’s all very well to shudder from the awkwardness of reading sections of letters, and excerpts from bowdlerised diaries, but with something as perfectly reproduced as this, it feels like you’re sitting his lap or (when going through the copies of single looseleaf pages) rifling through his bag.  This is history returned to its place as snooper, or voyeur.  The experience, entirely humanising for Van Gogh (removed, all at once from his galleries and bound copies) is awkward for us.  So good – in fact – that it leads you to think that these works (like, say with Larkin’s juvenilia) are a kind of theft or snoopery.

Anything like that certainly deserves a look.  Beg or borrow a copy.  Don’t steal one – you’ll feel guilty enough looking through it anyway.

Vincent Van Gogh: The Sketchbooks, published by The Folio Society, and available in a limited edition of 1000 priced at £445.  Copies available from

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