“Sunflowers,” a masterwork by impoverished Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, who sold only one painting before his death by suicide, was purchased Monday by an anonymous buyer for nearly $40 million, more than three times the highest price previously paid for a painting at auction.
The 39 1/2-by-30 inch work, put up for sale on the 134th anniversary of Van Gogh’s birth, was snapped up in five minutes of frantic bidding that left a packed house gasping at Christie’s auction house.
The final bid was $36.2 million. A commission of 10% of the bid price was charged to the buyer by the auctioneer, boosting the total to $39.85 million.
There was scattered applause in the packed auction room as the bidding went up by increments of $800,000. About 1,500 people attended the black-tie affair, spilling into four auction rooms to witness the historic sale.
Christie’s had valued the Post-Impressionist masterpiece at more than $16 million.
Christie’s said the winning bid was telephoned in through one of the auction house’s representatives by “an anonymous foreign buyer.” The firm refused to hint at the name, or even say what country the buyer was from.
But auctioneer Noel Annesley, deputy director of Christie’s, left no doubt the treasure was destined to leave Britain. “An export license in all probability will be applied for,” he said.
Two years ago, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif., paid a record $10,449,000 for a painting when it bought “Adoration of the Magi” by Andrea Mantegna at a London auction.
Last December, again at a London sale, a Paris street scene by Edouard Manet fetched $11,090,000, the highest price ever paid for a painting until Monday’s sale.
Van Gogh never knew riches. He took his own life in 1890 at the age of 37. Always in need of money, the mentally-troubled painter who came to personify the eccentric genius was supported by his brother Theo, an art dealer.
At one point, on Jan. 22, 1889, the artist wrote to Theo to say, “I dare swear to you that my sunflowers are worth about 500 francs (then about $30) to one of these Scots or Americans.”
The picture sold Monday, painted in January, 1889, is one of seven featuring sunflowers. It is predominantly yellow, the color of hope for Van Gogh.
“The sunflowers . . . have contributed perhaps more than any other of Vincent’s paintings to make his name known throughout the world (and) . . . are in some cases the only works with which he is identified,” wrote art historian Jan Hulsker in 1980.
Paintings in Other Museums
Four sunflower paintings are in museums in Amsterdam, London, Munich and Philadelphia, one is privately owned and one was destroyed in Japan by World War II bombing.
The painting sold Monday was bought in Paris in 1934 by the Alfred Chester Beatty family, which made a fortune in mining. It was sold by executors of the estate of Helen Chester Beatty, who died in 1986.
“Sunflowers” had been on view at Christie’s main salesrooms in King Street, St. James’s, in a small room entered through a guarded security grill. It had been on loan to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square since 1959.
Monday’s sales also featured Impressionist and modern paintings and sculpture by artists like Modigliani, Derain, Matisse, Degas and Rodin.
“Europe and the United States and Japan are having financial booms. The market goes up and down. We are now up and booming, and there are plenty of people with surplus cash,” said Tim Bathurst, director of Artemis Fine Arts Ltd., a public company.
“When I was young 40 years ago it was a struggle to sell an Impressionist picture,” he said.
The weekly Observer newspaper, calculating prices since 1801 in their real present-day value, said the market is more stable than it looks.
It showed that 50 years ago, paintings were already topping $11 million in today’s values.
The Observer reckoned that a Velazquez that sold in 1801 for 39 guineas brought a price equivalent to $24,440 today.