Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Whose Eye Do You Trust?

Credit to Public Domain

With Vincent van Gogh it only takes two words to make headlines: money and fake. The art market has seen plenty of both.

When Christie’s London sold a van Gogh Sunflowers back in March 1987 for a then fantastic auction record of $39,921,750.

Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Company of Tokyo, the buyer, proudly displayed the prestige work in their art gallery and reportedly gave the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam £20 million as a token of gratitude for all the business goodwill the painting brought them.

But these days there’s trouble in paradise. Today, cries of fake plague Yasuda’s Sunflowers, the first of three van Gogh paintings that rocketed to auction records at the end of the go-go 1980’s. All three have since faced special problems.

After SunflowersIrises brought a new roaring $53,900,000 auction record at Sotheby’s in New York City on November 11, 1987. Here the question was not fakery, just money. Australian tycoon Alan Bond could not repay the loan Sotheby’s gave him to buy the painting, and finally the Getty Museum bought Irises from the auction house for an undisclosed sum a few years later.

Credits to Public Domain

The third van Gogh market meteor, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, became a somewhat different kind of money problem. It sold at Christie’s on May 15, 1990, for the incredible auction record of $82,500,000 to Japanese industrialist Ryoei Saito, who said he was so happy, he felt as if he had died and gone to heaven, which he subsequently did, unfortunately leaving Dr. Gachet in the hands of the banking interests that loaned him the money to buy it.

No one dreamed in the 1980’s that the Yasuda Sunflowers, untouched by money problems, would one day be attacked as a fake, erupting into a battle of the headlines that’s raging today.

It’s true, of course, that van Gogh’s short life (1853-1890), his prodigious unsold output, his lack of provenance and inventory lists, made his work ripe for rip-offs, and there were some well-known ones when his fame finally hit after he died. Sunflowers was not one of them.

Complicating matters, van Gogh also had a generous habit of copying his own paintings as gifts, including a Sunflowersgift copy for his artist friend Paul Gauguin, a big van Gogh admirer and collector. Altogether there are said to be ten or 11 different genuine van Gogh Sunflowerspaintings, depending on whom you talk to. The actual flower was vitally important to van Gogh near the end of his life, and he painted a lot of them in different arrangements.

The fascinating thing about the current Yasuda Sunflowers charges and countercharges is that every time the word fake appears in a news headline or TV show, lots of people around the world take it as absolute gospel. Even in stories that are long on accusation and short on proof. And it’s not just in big art centers like London, Paris, or New York. News services pick up the story, and people hear about it in towns across America. American schoolchildren might not know the Yasuda Sunflowers, but they do know van Gogh cut off part of his own ear and painted Starry Night.

Credits to Public Domain

Americans love van Gogh. They’ve seen the movie. They empathize with his short, troubled life. They drool over the multimillions paid since for pictures the penniless painter could only give away while he lived. And this fall they’ll pack the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., for the upcoming “Van Gogh’s Van Goghs” exhibition from October 4, 1998, to January 3, 1999.

This unprecedented loan of 70 van Goghs from the Van Gogh Museum will hang out in Washington while the Amsterdam museum renovates its building. Starting Sunday, August 30, up to six free passes per person can be picked up at the National Gallery in Washington; or tickets can be ordered from TicketMaster or Hecht department stores for a service charge of $2.75 each, plus an additional $1.25 per order for those orders that are mailed. A traveler’s tip: during renovation, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam will be closed from about September 1998 through May 1999.

Yasuda’s now controversial Sunflowerswill not join the crowd in Washington. It is expected to stay in Tokyo, fending off the accusations of fakery, which have been in high gear since last year. As the battle of the headlines has heated up, art journalists and reporters have not been above sniping at each other in print. It’s been quite a brawl.