The Mystery

In 2015 a Belgian couple made a speculative online purchase for 450 euros (about $495). The seller was offering this portrait of a young boy, signed “Wim d Kooning,” along with a bicycle and a sewing machine. The buyers suspected that it might be an early work by prized Dutch painter Willem de Kooning (1904−1997), who had a brief commercial career in Belgium. After immigrating to New York in 1927, de Kooning changed his style of painting and became a leader of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Only one other early portrait by de Kooning is known to exist, Portrait of Renée, which is included in the artist’s catalogue raisonné. Although the authentic work is unsigned, it has a very strong provenance that connects it to a family that de Kooning lived with in the early 1920s.

Could this second portrait be a lost work painted by de Kooning in Brussels at the very start of his career?


The Verdict

The owners, certain that it was authentic, enlisted the popular BBC television program Fake or Fortune? for help. The show’s producers were able to contact the owner of the only other known portrait and arrange for scientific analysis as well as a side-by-side comparison of the two paintings. In this case, the techniques used to identify a fake were used to conclude that the portrait found in Belgium was indeed authentic.

Discovered online and purchased for just 450 euros, this portrait of a young boy holding a ball is stylistically similar to Portrait of Renée. The children share the same haunting expression, posture, and awkward clutching of an object. The works are the same dimension and also share the same technique, with thick paint on the skin; the same use of shadows; traces of conté crayon; and the same lips, hairstyle, and eyebrows. This work was sold with no provenance; the seller simply claimed that it once belonged to a homeless man who wished him to dispose of his things.

Portrait of Boy with Ball
Willem de Kooning; 1924
Oil, charcoal, and conté crayon on canvas
Private collection

Willem de Kooning painted this portrait in 1924 in Brussels, where he briefly worked for a decorating firm operated by Georges and Florent van Genechten and boarded in the family home. In gratitude for their hospitality, de Kooning painted a portrait of his employers’ young niece Renée.
Compare this to the portrait of a young boy on the (directional – right?). Do you think they were painted by the same artist?

Compare this to Portrait of Boy with Ball (above right). Do you think they were painted by the same artist?

Portrait of Renée
Willem de Kooning; 1924
Oil, charcoal, and conté crayon on canvas
Private collection, Coral Gables, Florida

Instrumental analysis and microscopy identified large amounts of mercury (Hg) in the red paint, suggesting that the pigment is vermilion (HgS, mercuric sulfide) in both portraits. Microscopic pigment analysis with Polarized Light Microscopy (PLM) also identified vermilion pigment. The result is surprising, as vermilion is an expensive pigment for such a young artist to have used in such a large quantity. Scholars suspect that the young de Kooning “borrowed” this expensive paint from his employer, who owned a fine art restoration company.

Image of vermilion pigment in reflected polarized light
Courtesy of Emily MacDonald-Korth

Except for the tonal differences that are visually obvious from the slightly different blending of the individual virgin pigments, all colors from both paintings are elementally identical. One of the scientists involved commented, “I have done elemental analysis of thousands of paintings, and I have never seen such a close pairing. I would guess the probability of this occurring randomly approaches the same probability of someone winning the lottery: one in umpteen million.”

XRF Elemental Analysis of Painting A and Painting B 
Courtesy of Bruce Kaiser and Emily MacDonald-Korth


BBC One. Fake or Fortune? Series 5, Episode 4.

MacDonald-Korth, Emily. “Willem de Kooning, Portrait of a Girl (Renne Van Genechten), c. 1924, and Boy with Ball, artist unknown, date unknown, Analysis Report, April 26, 2016. Longevity Art Preservation LLC.

Neuendorf, Henri. “Man Finds Long-Lost Early Willem de Kooning Painting Online for $500.” Artnet News, August 24, 2016.