Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890) [30 Mar 2009 12:00]
The market’s highest priced artist, Vincent Van Gogh, was perfect for the speculative frenzy of the late eighties. Now, his major pieces have all but vanished from the market. But this has not stopped investors speculating on his canvases.
Vincent Van Gogh was a minister’s son and received a strict Protestant upbringing which profoundly affected him. In 1869, Vincent was apprenticed to the La Haye offshoot of the Parisian art gallery Goupil & Cie, founded by his uncle. He then became by turns a language teacher, librarian and theology student. He only started painting full time in 1880 at the age of 27. From 1886 until 1888, through his brother Théo, Vincent met Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro, Seurat, Signac and Gauguin in Paris. In February 1888, he moved to the “yellow house” in Arles, southern France. In the south he set about painting the most colourful of all his works. But his frenzy of work was repeatedly broken by bouts of madness. Aware of the horror that threatened him Van Gogh booked himself into the Saint-Rémy mental asylum. In March 1890 he showed ten canvases at the salon des Indépendants in Paris. The last months of his life were the most productive. Between May and June 1890 he painted nearly 150 works at Auvers sur Oise.
Artworks at auctions
Van Gogh’s creative life was short. But there are still nearly 870 canvases in his catalogue raisonné. After his death fame came quickly and massively. His distinctive palate and the tragedy of his short life helped. In 1900 his paintings were selling for around 1000 francs. Auctions kept the legend alive. In the 1980s the market was rocked by the record prices bid for his landmark works.
The art market was first shaken in March 1987 when Christie’s sold Sunflowers for USD 39.9 million, an astonishing price. Success had eluded him in his lifetime, but now he was all over the media and the Van Gogh legend was further strengthened.
A second shock followed on 11 November 1987. Sotheby’s beat the previous record, knocking down Irises for USD 53.9 million to the Australian magnate Allan Bond. At the time, no one knew that Sotheby’s had actually lent Bond half the bid and that he would never actually complete the sale, going bankrupt a few months later.
In the last gasp of the speculative bubble the absolute record for a work of art was set on 15 May 1990 when Ryoei Saito paid USD 75 million for Portrait of Doctor Gachet. Today, it is hard to imagine that the current owners can hope to make a profit on this. Now, reason predominates over euphoria and demand above USD 80 million is virtually non-existent. Van Gogh works sold since have not come close to 1990 prices.
Masterpieces aside collectors can find many prints, nearly a third of Van Gogh works put up for auction. 70% of the lots go for less than USD 1 million. Impressions of Man with pipe – portrait of doctor Gachet, an etching published in 1890 by Paul Gachet often come up for auction. Depending on their condition they can go for between EUR 50,000 and 100,000.
The market places
The market was originally French, but has gradually shifted to the UK and US. Today, apart from a few drawings or prints, sales are nearly all in London or New York. 74% of turnover between 1999 and 2002 was made in the USA.
Buy or sell
The artist is still a good speculative bet over the short term. His works may not show spectacular gains but the works that come up for auction tend to be resold frequently…sometimes in less than a year. Prudently collectors are reluctant to bid too high to ensure that they can buy at reasonable prices. Van Goghs often sell for less than their estimates, suggesting prices may rise. Girl in a wood for instance sold for USD 320,000 in 2001 and for USD 600,000 only a year later. In these circumstances, price fluctuations are severe. The index of Van Gogh’s prices rose by more than 60% in a year following the 1998 sale of Portrait of the Artist without a beard for USD 65 million at Christie’s. It then collapsed. In 1999 the exhibition at the Paris Grand Palais raised the issue of Van Gogh forgeries. Numerous specialists questioned the genuineness of nearly a hundred paintings by the world’s most expensive artist. At the end of the scandal buyers became highly selective. In 2000, half of all lots offered were bought in.