Price Shatters Old Mark by More Than $10 Million : Van Gogh Painting ‘Irises’ Brings Record $53.9 Million

Times Art Writer

Shattering the record for a painting sold at auction--by more than $10 million--Vincent van Gogh’s “Irises” commanded the astonishing price of $53.9 million at Sotheby’s auction Wednesday night. The buyer was an unidentified European agent who placed bids by telephone.

The lyrical canvas, inspired by a garden at the asylum where the troubled artist spent the last year of his life, was the crown jewel of a $110-million sale of Impressionist and modern paintings.

Bidding on the Van Gogh began at $15 million, rapidly rising by increments of $1 million.

Speculation on Price


The highly publicized sale ended rampant speculation over the value of the third work from the Dutch Post-Impressionist’s prime period to come on the market this year. Sotheby’s had predicted that “Irises” would bring between the $39.9 million paid last March for “Sunflowers” and the $20.2 million fetched in June by “The Bridge at Trinquetaille.”

“The (auction) price was $49 million,” Sotheby’s spokeswoman Fiona Ford said. However, the purchaser must also pay a 10% commission to the auction house, bringing the total to $53.9 million.

Van Gogh, who sold only one painting during his lifetime, for about $30, now holds records for the three most expensive paintings ever sold at auction.

Prices for the artist’s late paintings have soared above those of all other artists’ work and are not considered reliable indicators of the art market--particularly since the stock market took a nose dive and a more cautious attitude has pervaded the economy.


Art World ‘Alive, Well’

At a news conference after the auction, John L. Marion, chairman of Sotheby’s North America, said: “I think it’s obvious that the art world is alive and well.

“This painting was beyond the stock market,” he said. “It transcended the stock market. There just is no other opportunity to buy a painting like this.”

Van Gogh’s prices seem to orbit in their own sphere, and this latest record only intensifies that perception.

The rest of the sale was a solid success, however, reassuring the art world that the stock market’s fluctuations have not been devastating.

Although 13% of the lots failed to sell, total figures exceeded Sotheby’s estimates and records were set for French Impressionist Claude Monet ($5.83 million), German Expressionist Max Beckmann ($1.54 million) and Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dali ($2.42 million).

Van Gogh painted “Irises” in a corner of the untended garden at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Remy de Provence. The artist had commited himself to the rural institution in 1889 after a period of emotional outbursts that led him to cut off his ear.

Last Sold for $80,000


He sent the finished 28-by-32-inch oil painting to Paris, where his brother Theo submitted it--along with “Starry Night"--to the 1889 Salon des Independants exhibition. “Irises” subsequently acquired a distinguished provenance, moving through several French collections until 1947, when the late Joan Whitney Payson bought it from a New York dealer for $80,000.

Payson, an avid art collector and a former owner of the New York Mets, was the granddaughter of John Hay, secretary of state under Theodore Roosevelt. She hung “Irises” over the mantel in the living room of the family’s New York apartment.

At her death in 1975, the Van Gogh and 27 other paintings became the property of her son, philanthropist John Whitney Payson.

The Payson collection has been on long-term loan to Westbrook College in Portland, Me., in a gallery built by John Whitney Payson. But, after the spectacular sales of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and “The Bridge at Trinquetaille,” Payson decided to sell “Irises,” saying it had become too valuable to lend and that the 1986 Tax Reform Act made it necessary for him to sell it if he was to continue his philanthropic activities.

Seller Is ‘Euphoric’

At a press conference after the sale, a flushed and excited Payson described himself as “euphoric.” He said that proceeds from the sale would fund a $6-million unrestricted grant to Westbrook College and another $6 million would be deposited in the Joan Whitney and Charles Shipman Payson Charitable Foundation, in support of Maine charities. After taxes, the remainder will go to a family trust.

Van Gogh’s prices had been high for several years before their recent escalation. In 1985, the record for a Van Gogh was $9.9 million, paid for “Landscape With Rising Sun.” At $39.9 million, “Sunflowers” quadrupled that price and became the most expensive painting ever to sell at auction.

That record was formerly held by an Edouard Manet street scene, sold in 1986 for $11 million. The Manet, in turn, succeeded Andrea Mantegna’s “Adoration of the Magi,” which became the most expensive painting ever auctioned in 1985, when the J. Paul Getty Museum bought it for $10.4 million.