AMSTERDAM -- For roughly a century, Vincent van Gogh's painting "Sunset at Montmajour" was considered a fake, stored in an attic and then held in a private collection, unknown to the public and dismissed by art historians. But Monday, the Van Gogh Museum declared the work a genuine product of the Dutch master, calling it a major discovery.
"Sunset at Montmajour," painted in Arles, France, in 1888, "is a work from the most important period of his life, when he created his substantial masterpieces, like 'The Sunflowers,' 'The Yellow House' and 'The Bedroom,' " the museum's director, Axel Ruger, said in an interview.
The painting depicts dusk in the hilly landscape of Montmajour, in Provence, with wheat fields and the ruins of a Benedictine Abbey in the background. The area around Montmajour was a subject that van Gogh explored repeatedly during his time in Arles.
"One or two early van Goghs do sometimes come out of the woodwork now and again, but from the mature period, it's very rare," said James Roundell, an art dealer and director of modern pictures for the Dickinson Galleries in London and New York City, which deals in impressionist and modern art. Mr. Roundell said it would be hard to predict precisely how much this work would fetch on the market, but he expected it would be "in the tens of millions and quite a few of them."
He added, "It's not the iconic status of something like the 'Sunflowers' or the 'Portrait of Dr. Gachet,' " which sold at auction for $82.5 million in 1990.
Fred Leeman, a former chief curator of the Van Gogh museum and now an independent art historian and Van Gogh scholar based in Amsterdam, said the work, which he called "100 percent genuine," contributes to an alternative understanding of the artist. "We have the impression of Van Gogh as a very modern painter, but here, he's working in the tradition of 19th-century landscape painting," he said.
The painting has been in the private collection of a family for several years, and Mr. Rüger said that because of privacy concerns, he couldn't release any more information about the owners.
Until 1901, the painting was in a collection owned by Van Gogh's brother, Theo, said Marije Vellekoop, the museum's head of collections, research and presentation. His widow, Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger, sold it to a Paris art dealer.
Sometime around 1908, Norwegian industrialist and collector Christian Nicolai Mustad bought the work, according to three Van Gogh Museum specialists writing in the October issue of Burlington Magazine. Shortly afterward, Mustad showed the painting to a French diplomat, who suggested it was either a fake or mistakenly attributed to van Gogh. Mustad immediately put the painting in his attic, away from view.
After Mustad's death in 1970, when his collection was valued for sale, the painting was labeled a fake, and it repeatedly changed owners, the article said.
The current owners ultimately brought it to the Van Gogh Museum in 1991, said Mr. Ruger, but at the time, experts there said they did not think it was authentic. Two years ago, the owners brought it back to the museum to seek authentication, and researchers from the museum have been examining it ever since, Mr. Ruger said.
The museum recently concluded that the work was a genuine van Gogh painting because the pigments correspond with those of his palette from Arles. "This time, we have topographical information plus a number of other factors that have helped us to establish authenticity," the museum director said. "Research is so much more advanced now, so we could come to a very different conclusion."
Louis Van Tilborgh, the museum's senior researcher, who has worked on the painting for the last two years, said the museum since 1991 has developed new techniques for identifying and authenticating works of art. He said all those methods were put to use when they had the chance to look at this painting again.
According to Mr. Van Tilborgh, it was painted on the same type of canvas, with the same type of underpainting van Gogh used for at least one other painting of the same area, "The Rocks" (owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston). The work was also listed as part of Theo van Gogh's collection in 1890. The painting has a number "180" on the back, which corresponds to the number in the collection inventory.
The date of the painting has been identified as July 4, 1888. In a letter van Gogh wrote to his brother the next day, he seemed to have described the scene: "Yesterday, at sunset, I was on a stony heath where very small, twisted oaks grow, in the background a ruin on the hill, and wheat fields in the valley. It was romantic, it couldn't be more so, a la Monticello, the sun was pouring its very yellow rays over the bushes and the ground, absolutely a shower of gold. And all the lines were beautiful; the whole scene had charming nobility."
"Sunset at Montmajour" is comparable in size to van Gogh's "Sunflowers" painting of the same year, which sold in 1987 for $39.9 million at an auction at Christie's London.
Van Gogh moved to Arles in February 1888 and spent time exploring landscapes in Provence, and doing work "en plein air," or in nature. He was particularly fascinated by the flat landscape around the hill of Montmajour, with its rocky outcroppings and hay-colored fields. In a July 1888 letter, he said he had been to Montmajour at least 50 times "to see the view over the plain."
The painting will be on view in Amsterdam starting Sept. 24, as part of the exhibition, "Van Gogh at Work," which focuses on other new discoveries about the painter's artistic development. Mr. Ruger said the current owners have not indicated what they intend to do with the painting.
Bloomberg News contributed. First Published September 10, 2013 4:00 AM