To what extent is japonisme a factor[i] in the extraordinary sums[ii] that paintings by Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin have managed to accrue in the global market for art? If it is a factor, then I would like to disclose its primary “victim” (or sacrificial offering) as the Portrait of Dr Gachet (1890) which set a world record for a work of art sold at auction, in New York, on its 100th anniversary in 1990 (at that time $82.5 Million USD)—this was also the 100th anniversary of the death of the artist himself.
Two versions (or two painted portraits) of Dr Paul Gachet (who treated van Gogh) were left for the world to admire. The first, wholly inaccessible to the public since 1990, was signed by van Gogh, and its “authenticity is “beyond doubt”.[iii] The second, described as “a very weak replica of the preceding” portrait,[iv] by the connoisseur who produced the first complete catalogue of van Gogh’s oeuvre, can be studied at Paris’ Musée d’Orsay: Le docteur Paul Gachet (en 1890).[v]
After the record-breaking purchase of the first version by Ryolei Saito (a Tokyo tycoon) on May 15th, 1990 at Christie’s in New York, this van Gogh masterpiece might as well have dropped off the face of the Earth. The purchase itself was bound to cause a sensation, because the magnate explained that his principle was to acquire whatever he desired “no matter how much money it costs”.[vi] Then two days later (May 17th, 1990) Saito demonstrated that he could put his money “where is mouth is” by paying $78.1 Million for Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette. As if this did not provide notoriety enough, Saito, apparently in jest, suggested that these two great masterpieces should be placed in his coffin with him (and buried)—so as to avoid crippling inheritance taxes.[vii] An assistant explained that this was just a way of Saito’s expressing “his intense affection”[viii] for these two priceless examples of 19th-Century painting.
Whatever Saito actually thought or intended, it certainly did not help when—three years after his death in 1996—“a spokesman for [his] Daihowa Paper Company admitted that, as the painting belonged to Mr Saito and not to the company, staff were unsure where it is now”.[ix] What is known is that rather than being put on display anywhere, the first Gachet version was treated with the respect a true treasure requires: it ended up in “a cloth-covered plywood box stored in a climate-controlled warehouse somewhere in Tokyo or its outskirts”.[x]
There are authoritative opinions that the Tokyo Gachet has survived and is safe and secure in the hands of an unnamed private collector.[xi] However, The Wall Street Journal account—which offers a real basis of hope—makes it clear that the current owner has no interest whatsoever in the painting’s surfacing anytime soon. Some of the reasons are obvious: anonymity in the art world has huge advantages: notoriety brings with it the opportunity for highly professional theft (and the concurrent damage that can be done to great masterworks—when they are cut out of their frames for instance). Just to give one nauseating example: there are only 36 Vermeer paintings known to have survived. In 1990, Vermeer’s The Concert was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the same year that Dr Gachet was purchased:[xii] The Concert was never recovered; whereabouts unknown.
And we do not need to limit our concerns to potential theft: damage (or even total loss) as a result of shipping; also the ever-present threat of authentication issues (a real one for the 2nd Gachet version), and in the case of the 1st version, the inconvenience of potential ownership challenges as well. In order to secure a loan of a van Gogh masterpiece of such world-wide fame, it seems sensible also to suggest—that in order to convince the private owner—it would be best to secure the temporary exhibit (as a Christie’s international director explained): by only showing it “behind 10 inches of bulletproof glass”.[xiii] The Tokyo Sunflowers, it has to be said, can be viewed on the 42nd floor of the Sompo Holdings Headquarters: but the Museum makes it clear that there are conditions: no chewing gum or sucking on candies, no touching of the exhibits, no use of cellular phones, and, therefore, definitively: no photography.[xiv]
If there were ever an effective case to be made for a 2000-year “waterproof and fireproof” Otsuka “ceramic board masterpiece” replica—it is impossible to image a more compelling case than the one that could be made for the “Tokyo” Dr Gachet.
I have a suggestion, before Christie’s or Sotheby’s is permitted to proceed with an auction of any other multi-million USD masterpiece to a “private collector”, the auction houses should be required by law, in London and New York, to commission the Otsuka Ohmi Ceramics Co., Ltd to make a now “priceless” copy, since, effectively, all future access to the painting may be lost.
There are plenty of other good reasons for engaging the technology (and opportunities) that Otsuka Ohmi Ceramics has brought onto the world scene. We have already mentioned the re-assembling of “all six panels in El Greco’s 12-metre-tall ‘High Altar’”―but just as important is that fact that the Otsuka Museum of Art has collected in one place what are described as “all of Rembrandt’s self-portraits”.[xv] I have to confess I am not sure precisely what this means, but I welcome the opportunity to see these universally praised masterpieces gathered from Museums in Edinburgh, Florence, The Hague, London, Paris, Vienna (just to list the Otsuka seven that are strictly titled as “Self-Portrait” in their collection), and then adding other Rembrandt Otsuka “self-portrayals” from England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands … Well, who could dispute the value of that? Jonathan Jones famously suggested that “no art lover wants to see a replica Rembrandt”, and the shout-out to his article suggested: “you wouldn’t pay to see a Rembrandt copy” … Well, I would—and would do so gladly even at the enhanced admission charges so disparaged on TripAdvisor. To have the privilege to view such a unified collection of so many dispersed Rembrandts in one gallery … is there anything more that I can say to persuade you?
Personally, I would be more interested in viewing “Seven Rembrandts” than “Eight Elvises” (whose image has apparently lent itself very handily to artistic reproduction). But I would also certainly have recommended that the Otsuka Museum secure a ceramic board replica of the “Eight Elvises” as well, since that might be the only way any of us are ever going to have an opportunity to view it again. Where will the next sighting of “Elvis” be: circumstances unknown, but presumably domiciled in Qatar.[xvi]
There will be many opportunities to return to this question of world-famous works “disappearing” into the hands of extremely wealthy private collectors—but in the next parts of this series we shall explore how devoted private collectors can actually make modern and contemporary art, in particular, more available and accessible to the general public by their philanthropy: rather than shutting down our access to these works, on the contrary, they may actually be opening them up.[xvii] One of the key reasons for this has been indicated by a German philanthropist, Harald Falckenberg, who curates his own personal collection:[xviii] private individuals and foundations are able “to take more risks”,[xix] especially in serving as promoters and patrons of contemporary art and artists. In other words, enthusiastic collectors can have a very special place in the development of the public’s appreciation of unfamiliar or only newly established artists: these philanthropists are actually in a position to create an audience for contemporary art, rather than appealing to an already well-established audience. These individuals can advance rather than just reflect the tastes of a museum-going public.
Also it is worth reporting that, according to the Qatar Museums website, we can anticipate the eventual completion of the “National Museum of Qatar”—a stunning design (now under construction) by a French architect, Jean Nouvel. Sadly, it is apparently already clear that the famous masterpieces purchased by collectors in Qatar will not be hung in this brand new space. There are “reports” that the confidential cost (in 2016 terms) for the final construction of Qatar’s National Museum will come in at $434 Million.[xx] Could the reader, please, keep this figure in mind, so that it can be placed beside the assumed and projected costs of other museums—still to be discussed—also under construction or recently opened.
One last comment on the van Gogh Dr Gachet portraits (which also prepares us for future discussions): I hope we have already indicated the desirability of repetitions (or copies) attributed to the same artist being hung side-by-side—even if only temporarily—since this is obviously of huge assistance in their evaluation and authentication. Remember, the great endorsement that the disputed Tokyo Sunflowers received by being placed alongside the London and Amsterdam versions in the Van Gogh Museum in 2002. The BBC Headline could not be more precise: “Van Gogh ‘fake’ declared genuine”.[xxi]
A similar proposal to put the two versions of Dr Gachet’s portrait side-by-side for evaluation have been pretty definitively thwarted;[xxii] but a keen desire remains for such a proximate hanging of van Gogh masterpieces. Again, it would appear that it is the second version (the Musée d’Orsay portrait) which is going to suffer by being placed in close proximity: allegedly, “a painting cruder in technique and lacking the more carefully detailed highlights”[xxiii] of the first version. The second portrait has even been described (by Jean-Marie Tasset[xxiv]) as: “a lifeless, clumsy, soulless composition”—a copy, often attributed to Dr Gachet himself.
However, there is a powerful incongruity at work here: part of the authentication process, distinguishing original from copy, has to do with the stability and quality of the (inexpensive) pigments that van Gogh employed. The more stable the quality of the red or mauve, the less likelihood there is that we are dealing with a “real” van Gogh. Scientific analysis apparently informs us: “it is a tragic irony that many of the bright red and yellow pigments van Gogh used … are fading or changing colour with time”.[xxv] So, any evidence in a painting of what are called van Gogh’s “fugitive pigments” would tend to incline towards a judgment of authenticity. On the other hand, we are told that the fading “fugitive” colours no longer adequately represent “what the painter intended”[xxvi]—another topic that needs to be addressed in our series.
The assessment is that over time “the foxgloves grasped in Dr Gachet’s hand … have altered colour from mauve to blue”; and the crucial point is that, in the second version of Dr Gachet, exactly the same deterioration has occurred. Dr Gachet, the putative painter of the “copy” was “known to have used higher-quality” pigments than van Gogh himself. And in summary, we learn that van Gogh paintings have now been subjected to quite vigorous analysis, an analysis employing “infra-red, ultra-violet and chemical tests”; it has, therefore now been firmly established, for instance, that “van Gogh’s pink pigment has faded quite differently from that used in the copies.”[xxvii]
If we accept the principles provided above, then we have to draw the following conclusion: as the Paris version of the Doctor’s portrait declines further and further away from “what the painter intended”, apparently the Musée d’Orsay can rest assured—inversely—that it has a firmer and firmer grasp on an “authentic van Gogh”.
My advice to the Parisian authorities: don’t even think about undertaking any kind of restoration: you might be putting your van Gogh at risk!
PS: A speculative view has been reported in this series that Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh had such a close collaboration during their 9 weeks together in “The Yellow House” in Arles in 1888[xxviii] that even such a famous painting as one of the “Sunflowers” series, attributed to van Gogh, was actually a copy, made by Paul Gauguin. At the time, I reported that Paul Gauguin’s When Will You Marry? was one of the two most expensive paintings ever sold, at some undisclosed figure close to $300 Million USD, presumably sold to Qatar. The other undisclosed world-record competitor is Willem de Kooning’s Interchange again for a figure close to $300 million USD. On July 3rd, 2017 The New York Times reported a trial taking place in London; during the testimony of the previous week, it appears that the undisclosed sale price was actually $210 million,[xxix] thus knocking Gauguin’s painting from its perch, and now placing a version of Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players (early 1890s, also sold to Qatar) in second place at some figure above $250 Million. I have to say that I am also impressed by the fact that the Wikipedia entry, “List of most expensive Paintings” had updated its summary as soon as The New York Times report appeared―immediately reflecting the new disclosure.
Next time: The Handbags of Two Households: “Both Alike in Dignity”
[i] The New York Times (Books), April 28th, 1998 (Michiko Kakutani): Review of Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a van Gogh Masterpiece by Cynthia Saltzman (Viking): “a passionate collector of Japanese prints, van Gogh once declared that all his work was ‘founded on Japanese art’”.
[ii] theartwolf.com: “Most Expensive Paintings ever sold”
[iii] The Guardian, January 28th, 1999 (Jon Henley): “The remarkable Dr Gachet”
[iv] Jacob-Baart [de la] Faille, The Works of Vincent van Gogh: His Paintings and Drawings. New York: William Morrow, 1970; p. 292. Cited in Wiki: “Portrait of Dr. Gachet”; de la Faille published the first exhaustive catalogue of van Gogh’s oeuvre in 1928; also see Vincent: vggallery.com: “Catalogues Rasionnés”: the 1970 revised version is “viewed by most to be the definitive scholarly work…”
[v] A striking reproduction of the 2nd version can be found on the Musée d’Orsay website: “Collections catalogue”
[vi] The Independent, 16th November 1993 (Terry McCarthy): “The last of the big spender: Ryoei Saito…”
[vii] The Los Angeles Times (May 15th, 1991): “Art Collector: ‘Burial’ Plan a Jest”
[viii] Newsweek, May 26th, 1991: “Ashes to Ashes, but not with your van Gogh”; Newsweek quotes “the director of French museums” (at the time) as reminding us that “even the most pharaohesque of pharaohs took care of the art works that were buried with them.”
[ix] The Independent, 26th July, 1999 (David Usborne): “Missing van Gogh feared cremated with its Owner”
[x] The New York Times (Books), April 28th, 1998 (Michiko Kakutani): op. cit.
[xi] The fullest account to which I have access was provided by Lee Rosenbaum in The Wall Street Journal, March 7th, 2000: “A Doctor in the House, but whose Doctor?”
[xii] Time, March 18th, 2013 (Olivia B. Waxman): “The $500 Million Gardner Museum Heist”
[xiii] The Wall Street Journal, March 7th, 2000 (Lee Rosenbaum): op. cit.
[xiv] Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Museum of Art website: “Information: Museum Rules”
[xv] Artscape Japan website: (Lucy Birmingham): “1,000 Reproductions for 2,000 Years”
[xvi] artnews.com, August 7th, 2014 (Dan Duray): “Qatar may have purchased Warhol’s ‘Eight Elvises’”
[xvii] As the reader will, in due course, discover I am thinking of Bernard Arnault and François Pinault in Paris, and the founders of The Broad museum in Los Angeles (viz. Eli and Edythe Broad).
[xviii] Sammlung Falckenberg, Hamburg-Harburg
[xix] The New York Times, August 3rd, 2016 (Doreen Carvajal): “Plans take Shape for François Pinault Museum in Paris”
[xx] The New York Times, March 17th, 2016 (Robin Pogrebin): “A Progress Report on the National Museum of Qatar”
[xxi] BBC News, March 27th, 2002: “Van Gogh ‘fake’ declared genuine”.
[xxii] The Wall Street Journal, March 7th, 2000 (Lee Rosenbaum): op. cit.
[xxiii] Eliza E. Rathbone et al., Van Gogh Repetitions. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013; p. 33
[xxiv] The Independent, February 5th, 1999 (John Lichfield): “Arts: No Cachet in a Gachet”: Jean-Marie Tasset is described as a “French critic”.
[xxv] Chemical & Engineering News (cen.acs.org), February 1st, 2016 (Sarah Everts): “Van Gogh’s Fading Colors inspire Scientific Inquiry”
[xxvi] The Independent, February 5th, 1999 (John Lichfield): op. cit.
[xxvii] The Guardian, January 28th, 1999 (Jon Henley): op. cit.
[xxviii] The Telegraph, February 14th, 2002 (Richard Dorment): “Nine Weeks that changed Art for ever”
[xxix] The New York Times, July 3rd, 2017 (Sophie Haigney): “Lawsuit reveals Gauguin Painting was not World’s most Expensive”