How An $82 Million Painting Got That Way


The Story of a van Gogh Masterpiece

By Cynthia Saltzman

Viking 406pp $25.95

In the spring of 1990, at the peak of the art market's frenzied boom, a Vincent van Gogh portrait was sold to Ryoei Saito, a Japanese paper magnate, for an astonishing $82.5 million. The event made headlines worldwide, partly because the price was a record and partly because the sale happened exactly 100 years after the troubled artist painted the work. (Six weeks later, at the age of 37, he committed suicide). The painting, of Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, the provincial French doctor who last treated--or, in spite of instructions from van Gogh's brother, failed to adequately treat--van Gogh, had first sold for $58.

Former Forbes and Wall Street Journal reporter Cynthia Saltzman had the felicitous idea of investigating the history of the famous van Gogh work. Her well-researched book, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, traces the painting's sales and eventual rescue to the U.S. after the Nazis condemned it as "degenerate." It provides a case study of how the modern art market developed and how the forces of commerce and connoisseurship can ensure that genius will out.

But Saltzman's book also contains some grim reminders. It shows how two world wars and the Holocaust devastated Europe's cultural life. It also shows how easily even a seminal work by a great artist might have been lost or destroyed. As it is, the "Gachet"--purchased in 1990 as an investment rather than for display--has spent the last eight years wrapped in cotton and locked in a warehouse in Japan. What a terrible loss to the world's cultural life. The painting--not to be confused with the similar Musee d'Orsay-owned work, the authenticity of which some have questioned--is now being shopped around and likely will soon be sold to a private buyer for a price similar to what it fetched in 1990.

How does a work of art achieve such value? As Saltzman notes, the drama of van Gogh's life gave him almost instant cachet. His madness and self-mutilation (he really did cut off part of one of his ears in a fit of despair) made him the prototypical tortured genius. And his sad death made far more compelling copy than the comfortable if unconventional family lives of such contemporaries as Claude Monet or Pierre-Auguste Renoir. As early as 1914, one critic was calling van Gogh the suffering Christ figure among artists. By 1934, van Gogh had been immortalized in Irving Stone's best-selling novel Lust for Life.

Moreover, van Gogh was one of the first beneficiaries of the rise of the modern art market in the late 1800s. It was then that the French Impressionists, and the pioneering art dealers and collectors who championed them, started to break the hold of conservative teaching academies and museums that had kept art focused on classical themes. That, in turn, allowed the flowering of flamboyant and highly individualistic Post-Impressionists such as van Gogh, Cezanne, and Matisse, as well as a multitude of successors from Picasso on.

The rise of van Gogh's reputation is typical of how artistic taste-making has worked ever since. Contrary to popular myth, van Gogh's talent was recognized before his death. Fellow artists such as Paul Gauguin saw his genius almost immediately, as did a handful of pioneering art dealers. Initially, van Gogh's paintings failed to sell and were derided by critics as "splotchy" and unintelligible. Indeed, many of the works might have been lost if Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, the widow of Vincent's art-dealing brother Theo, aided by a few courageous gallery owners, hadn't continued to promote them following Vincent's death.

Van Gogh himself might have enjoyed a prosperous old age, as many Impressionists did, had he not committed suicide. By the turn of the century, his reputation was on the ascendant. And by 1911, when van Gogh would have been 58, Frankfurt's Stadelsches Kunstinstitut und Stadtische Galerie had already acquired the Gachet portrait for $3,861. The following year, Alfred C. Barnes, a patent-medicine magnate and ground-breaking art collector from Pennsylvania, helped internationalize van Gogh's following when he became the first American to buy one of his paintings.


Saltzman's story takes an unusual turn at the point where the Nazis became involved--and this provides some of the most interesting reading in her book. It is often forgotten that the Nazis criminally plundered their own nation as well as the rest of Europe. By 1933, the Frankfurt museum was hiding the "Gachet" and other daring modern paintings in its attic because Nazi leaders were raiding collections across Germany--to burn "degenerate" works, sell them for hard currency, or keep them for themselves. The Nazis got the "Gachet "anyway, and sold it in 1938 to a German collector living in Amsterdam to help fund Hermann Goring's collection of tapestries. The painting, then valued at $53,000, was quickly resold to Siegfried Kramarsky, a Jewish financier who fled to New York to escape the Holocaust. It was his heirs who sold the work at the 1990 Christie's auction.

Saltzman's telling of this tale sometimes bogs down in the data she amasses in over 408 pages of text and notes. Also, sadly, the illustrations are small and in black and white. But the book's detail is more often than not compelling. For anyone interested in art, the art market, and the cultural life of Europe, this is a fascinating book.

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