Thursday, June 1, 2017

Van Gogh's Irises: How much is a painting worth?

Presented to the Club by David T. Noyes in December 1988

I would like to ask you to think about the items on the following list. Can you identify what they have in common?

  1. Two F-16 fighter jets
  2. The Town of West Stockbridge, Mass.
  3. 3,448 Williams College students
  4. the largest private estate in the United States — the 250 room Biltmore House on 12,000 acres in Ashville, N.C.
  5. The City of Pittsfield
  6. The entire world’s mining production of mercury for one year

We’ll come back to this list in a moment.

A little over a year ago, on November 11, 1987, the art auction house of Sotheby’s in New York City auctioned a painting depicting a garden of blue irises painted in 1889 by Vincent Van Gogh. It was lot number twenty-five in a ninety-four piece evening. A crowd of 2,300 people had gathered in the cramped bidding room with intense anticipation; and at 7:55 p.m., Irises was brought on stage. The bidding started at fifteen million dollars. At thirty million, only two bidders remained. The price then passed forty million, the previous highest price paid for any painting. The bidding finally concluded at forty-nine million dollars. The total elapsed time: three minutes, thirty seconds!  Including the ten percent buyer’s commission, the total price came to fifty-three million dollars, or in real money — eight billion yen!
 Now, let’s get back to the list. That same fifty-four million dollars could buy or support any one of those items. That is: the two fighter planes; the appraised value of all the property for the town of West Stockbridge; room, board and tuition for 3,448 Williams College students; the Biltmore House; the municipal budget for the City of Pittsfield for one year; or one year’s supply of mercury.

How did the painting come to be available? It was owned by John Whitney Payson, who inherited it from his mother, Joan Payson. Mrs. Payson, perhaps best known as the owner of the New York Mets, had purchased Irises in 1947 for $84,000 — not a small sum in those days — and kept it in a treasured place above the fireplace mantel in her New York apartment. When she died in 1975, John Payson made it the centerpiece of the Joan Whitney Payson Gallery of Art at Westbrook College in Maine. The appraised value at that time was less than one million dollars. But, as the cost of insurance soared, he felt he had less ability to support the college and other charities. In addition, the change in the tax laws permitted only a deduction for the original cost of the charitably donated property. Thus, he decided to sell rather that donate the painting to Westbrook.

Not everyone was happy with the decision. Art critic Edgar Beem had called Irises “the only world class painting in the entire state of Maine.” He went on to say, “the rich are the custodians of culture, and we get what they give us. I’m not sure how to change that, but they are not to be applauded." Beem suggests that Payson’s choice to liquidate an asset already provisionally installed in the public domain, represents a significant loss to the public and is not recoverable. In fact, of the four Van Gogh paintings sold at action last year, only one is currently accessible.

To prepare for the sale, Irises was exhibited in Tokyo, New York, London, Geneva, and Zurich. The painting travelled seventeen thousand five hundred miles in four weeks at an estimated cost of five hundred thousand dollars. Advertising was used extensively. John Rewald, the reigning scholar on Impressionism, was quoted as saying, “If a museum could have one painting by Van Gogh, Irises is what it should get.” He described the coloration as “an incredible tour de force”.

None of the experts was prepared for what happened that evening. David Nash, Sotheby’s director of fine arts, expected Irises to bring between twenty and forty million. He felt it was superior because of its unique composition rather that being one of a series of canvasses. Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said: “I feel like a fossil awakened in another era. The commission alone exceeds the Metropolitan’s total art purchase funds. I feel so removed from the phenomenon, I can only watch in amazement”.

The financial precedent had been set by the sale of three Van Gogh paintings during the previous nine months. Portrait of Adeline Ravoux sold for thirteen and three quarters million dollars; The Bridge at Trinquetaille for twenty million; and the previous record holder, Sunflowers, for thirty nine million, nine hundred thousand dollars. The price for the Sunflowers painting, also completed in 1889, had been felt to be an aberration. It was one of a series of seven Sunflower paintings and this particular one was not in good condition. Its yellows had lost much of their original intensity. However, Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance Co., the eventual high bidder for Sunflowers, had a special interest in purchasing the painting. Van Gogh had considered Japan the site of Utopian culture and had admired Japanese wood-block prints. Furthermore, Sunflowers had been painted in the same year that Yasuda was founded. Perhaps they were trying to restore a sense of national heritage, since another Sunflowers painting had been destroyed by the bombing of Yokohama during World War II. The sale of Irises, however, proved the price to be no fluke.

Why do we have such fascination with Van Gogh? He was born in Holland, the son of a minister. At age sixteen, he began working for his uncle, who was an art dealer in Hague. Shortly after his transfer to the firm’s London office at the age of twenty, he was fired. Two years later, he entered missionary school but was expelled for sassing a teacher. At the age of twenty-seven, he took up painting and began by depicting coal miners and peasants in his native Holland. Vincent moved to Paris to live with his brother Theo at the age of thirty-three in 1886. He frequented Julien-Francois Tanguy’s paint shop, which had become a meeting place for a whole generation of young artists. Van Gogh then moved to Arles in the south of France with the hope of starting an artist’s colony. This dream was destroyed when, in 1888, Gauguin left after only two months. They were both fiercely competitive men who drank, whored, and argued. The final straw for Gauguin apparently occurred on Christmas Eve, 1888, when Van Gogh cut off part of his left ear.

It was after this episode that Van Gogh was hospitalized off and on. The final fifteen months of his life were the only ones spent in asylums. First, in Saint-Remy, which still exists as a private mental hospital and where descendants of these Irises still thrive! Finally, in Auvers-sur-Oise where, on a beautiful summer day, he walked out into a wheat field, set his easel against a haystack, and proceeded to shoot himself in the side. As you might guess from his lifetime of failures, he missed any vital organ. He dragged himself back to his attic room and lingered in pain for two days before dying at the age of thirty-seven. He had sold only one of his paintings, and that for a small sum which he immediately gave to a streetwalker for a meal. All his support, even the money to buy his paints, had come from his brother, Theo. Fortunately for posterity, Theo’s wife kept all Vincent’s letters (some twelve hundred pages), paintings, and drawings.

Forget the notion that Van Gogh’s paintings were “mad.” Whatever his illness may have been — and epilepsy seems to be the most probable, whether exacerbated by absinthe, glaucoma, digitalis poisoning, or syphilis — the fact is that it did not directly affect his work. A typical series of attacks lasted from two weeks to a month. It must be emphasized that between these attacks he had long periods of absolute lucidity where he was complete master of himself and his art. He categorized his work describing handling, color, and design; this allows us to understand his intentions more clearly that those of any other impressionist.

It is generally acknowledged that Van Gogh changed the face of art. Unlike impressionists who painted pretty pictures in delicate colors with fine brush strokes, Van Gogh used violent strokes to lay on thick layers of intense color. Quoting from one of his letters: “I am always in the hope of making a discovery then, to express the love of two lovers by a wedding of two complementary colors, their mingling and their opposition, the mysterious vibrations of kindred tones. To express thought of a brow by the radiance of a light tone against a somber background. To express hope by some star, the eagerness of a soul by a sunset radiance.”

Monet once remarked: “How did a man who loved flowers and light to such an extent and rendered them so well, how then did he still manage to be so unhappy?” Picasso once wrote: “Why do the Dutch mourn Rembrandt, they have Van Gogh?”

What, then, of the Van Gogh legend? His lack of success in his own day, his high minded principles about art exhibitions and sales in the face of today’s embarrassment of riches, his sympathy for the poor and working class — these go largely unmentioned. What does surface is a fascination with sensational prices and with the art market as theatre. The pictures are eclipsed not by the terms of the Van Gogh legend but by the behaviors they inspire in the international works of private fortune. Consider these comments Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in June 1890, just one month before he died. “I think that all the talk of high prices paid for Millets, etc., lately has made the chances of merely getting back one’s painting expenses even worse. It is enough to make you dizzy. So, why think about it? — it would only daze our minds. Better, perhaps, to seek a little friendship and live from day to day.”

Epilogue [from Wikipedia]: About three years after the 1987 sale, Irises was sold for $53.9 million to Australian businessman Alan Bond, but Bond did not have enough money to pay for it. Irises was later re-sold in 1990 to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where it remains. Irises is currently (as of 2012) tenth on the inflation-adjusted list of most expensive paintings ever sold and in 25th place if the effects of inflation are ignored.

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