Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Van Gogh, Nazis and a Japanese eccentric - the journey of a painting

A couple of years ago I was doing some research on the art collection in the Musee d'Orsay when I came upon this fascinating story of a painting by Vincent Van Gogh. The story reads like the plot out of an Indiana Jones movie but these are in fact the historical facts.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet. Oil on Canvas 1890. (1st. version) 

Towards the end of Van Gogh's life he was living in an asylum and one of the doctors, Doctor Gachet, was an art collector and also became a personal friend of Vincent Van Gogh. Vincent painted two portraits of Dr. Gachet during the last months of his life leading up to his suicide. The first version was sold by Van Gogh's sister in-law in 1897, seven years after Vincent's death. The painting had several owners over the next 13 years until it was bought by "Statische Galerie" in Frankfurt, Germany and it remained on display there until 1933 when it was put in a hidden room.

In 1937 it was confiscated by the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, an arm of the Nazi government that wanted to rid pre-war Germany of so-called degenerate art. It found its way into the hands of Hermann Goring (second in command of the Third Reich) who quickly sold it to a dealer in Amsterdam.

The art dealer sold the painting to a collector, Seigfried Kramarsky, who brought it with him when he fled to New York. While the painting was in the possession of Mr. Kramarsky it was often on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art until 1990 then his family put the painting up for auction.

The painting became famous on May 15th. 1990 when Japanese businessman Ryoei Saito paid US$82.5 million for it at Christies in New York, making it the most expensive painting in the world at the time. Ryoei Saito, a 75 year old eccentric millionaire, caused a scandal when he said the he wanted to have the painting cremated with him after his death. He later claimed that what he said was not to be taken literally but he was just trying to express his intense feelings for it. Saito died in 1996 and the current whereabouts of the painting is unknown.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet. Oil on canvas 1890. (2nd. version) 

Above is the second version of the portrait of Dr. Gachet which is in Musee d'Orsay in Paris. I wonder how many people pass by it every day and if they know the story of the other portrait of Doctor Gachet....

Musee d"Orsay in Paris, France. November 2006


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