Controversial: Head of a Man.
Every story needs a beginning, even those that are later disproved.
Paris, 1886: the same year someone approves a proposal from a Monsieur Eiffel for a 324-metre iron tower, a moody artist in his early 30s named Vincent van Gogh settles in an apartment on the slopes of Montmartre. While there, some maintain, he paints Head of a Man.
The subject has a bushy beard covering sunken cheeks and dreamy blue eyes that are looking slightly upwards. After the paint dries, the painting disappears into history.
Swiss lawyer Olaf Ossmann.
Four years later, Van Gogh is shot by his own hand or - as two historians recently claimed - by a local teenager playing cowboys with a defective gun. So one of art's most storied characters dies a pauper just outside Paris. Yet his artworks are posthumously embraced and, in the 20th century, sell for millions.
In 1940, the National Gallery of Victoria acquired a Van Gogh depicting a man with scraggy hair and blue eyes for £2196 through the Felton Bequest. Head of a Man it is called and more than half a century later it is embroiled in intrigue and controversy over its provenance and revelations this week that its journey may have begun in the shadows of the Nazi regime.
In 2006, the gallery agreed to send the painting to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam for tests after critics raised doubts over its authenticity.
After an X-ray and pigment analysis, experts concluded the portrait was not a Van Gogh after all. It was too unique. The ground layer was applied differently to his other paintings, pure ochre was used, the sitter was unknown, the provenance before 1928 was unclear, and there was no reference to the work in the artist's letters.
The report stated it was not a forgery. The pigment was consistent with works of the same period. Not even van
Gogh's devoted brother, Theo, a successful Parisian art dealer, could sell Vincent's paintings, so what kind of mug would have tried to mimic him?
Instead, the report assigned credit to an anonymous contemporary - possibly working in Paris at the same time - who was influenced by the same artists as Van Gogh.
In 2007, the NGV received the news and subsequent downgrade of its previous value of $5 million philosophically. ''We have always regarded the picture as 'offbeat' and have never regarded it as one of the NGV's great masterpieces,'' it said at the time, while pointing out that works were constantly being assessed and revised.
Indeed, while undertaking provenance work on Head of a Man, the gallery discovered something new. In the early 1930s, the painting belonged to a wealthy German businessman named ''S'', full name Richard Semmel.
As an international textile manufacturer, Semmel had sustained losses before Hitler's rise to power, but in 1933, pressure from Nazi-dominated unions and banks, combined with anti-Jewish boycotts, meant his debts became crushing. His support for the German Democratic Party only added to his peril.
Within a year, Semmel, then in his late 50s, fled to Holland. Forced to pay various taxes levied on Jews leaving Germany, he sold his art at auction in Amsterdam.
In 1939, Semmel went further - to the United States - with his wife, who died in 1945. When Semmel died in 1950, he left his inheritance to Grete Gross-Eisenstaedt, a family friend from Berlin who had cared for him in America. In 1958, her interest passed to her daughter, who had escaped from Germany to South Africa.
And that is where today Grete Gross-Eisenstaedt's granddaughters (now themselves retired) are continuing the work begun by their mother to reassemble Richard Semmel's once-mighty art collection.
Semmel collected works by Brouwer, de Gelder, Cuyp, Raphael and Titian, as well as Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, Manet, Monet, and Gauguin.
This week, the NGV learnt through the media that the sisters would seek the return of Head of a Man as the latest piece of their global puzzle.
''We are speaking about a whole collection and ongoing procedures with more than 100 paintings,'' said Olaf Ossmann, the Swiss-based lawyer representing the women, who wished to remain anonymous due to security concerns in South Africa. ''You can name all the famous artists, he had one from each of them in his collection.''
Ossmann declined to name individual works for fear of being sued in US courts without time to acquire complete proof of ownership.
''For some paintings, we have only pictures from the house in Berlin,'' he said. ''From there we go into the documents and archives of the whole world to find where these paintings ended up. Beside the fact that the NGV published the provenance of this painting … we would never know that this painting ended up in Australia.''
Five claims involving the Semmel collection have so far been adjudicated by the Dutch Restitutions Committee, which comprises seven members, including retired judges and a historian.
In all five cases, the committee accepted the initial sale was a result of pressure from the Nazi regime. However, in three cases, this was mitigated by factors such as the sisters' faint connection to Semmel; the possibility that the work was not originally owned by Semmel but sold by others at the same auction in 1933; and the paintings' present value to visitors at the museums where they are held.
''It was low on the scale of a forced sale,'' said Evelien Campfens, director of the Restitutions Committee. ''It was not a straight-out confiscation; it was considered an involuntary sale as a result of the Nazi regime, but in two cases, the interests of the present possessors as legitimate owners, according to Dutch law, prevailed.''
Ossmann has launched an appeal, saying the committee's reasoning was ridiculous.
''Of course, my clients never met Mr Semmel, as mentioned in the decision, but how could they? He was on the run.''
Once she arrived in South Africa, Gross-Eisenstaedt's daughter - Ossmann's original client and the mother of the current heirs - never saw Semmel or her mother again. ''But this was a result of persecution,'' Ossmann said, ''not a decision by my clients.''
In Melbourne, the NGV is still working out how to respond to the sisters' claim while they wait for more details of their connection to the work to arrive by mail.
''Our intention [is] to right any wrongs,'' a spokeswoman said. ''We are just willing participants in the discussion and the process. There hasn't been a precedent - we don't know what that process is - but at each stage, we are active in it.''
She said the case could be complicated by the Van Gogh Museum's finding in 2007 that Head of a Man was not a Van Gogh. Though Ossmann begs to differ.
''It's exactly from the time and place where we thought van Gogh painted it,'' he said, citing a novel colour mixture as the only irregularity identified by the experts. ''They say, 'This is not a van Gogh painting as we know van Gogh's paintings until now.'''
But even if not, Ossmann said his clients were not interested in money.
Semmel's brother also owned a factory in Amsterdam and collected art before the war, during which both he and his wife perished in concentration camps.
''We know nothing about them,'' Ossmann said. ''By finding the history of the paintings, we find also the history and the details of the family.''
The sisters told the Dutch committee, ''Over the years, our mother often talked to us about Mr Semmel's art collection, telling us what a grand collection it was.
''And we began to understand just how important the collection was to Mr Semmel and how our family was emotionally tied to it. Our mother could never get over that. She used to say how terrible it was that these paintings were stolen from him.''