NEW YORK — Vincent van Gogh's "Irises," the famous depiction of a flower garden at an asylum the painter entered shortly before he committed suicide, sold Wednesday for a record price of $53.9 million.
The buyer, who bid by telephone, was not identified. The price includes the high bid, $49 million, plus a 10% commission for the auction house, a Sotheby's spokeswoman said.
The previous record price for a single painting was paid for another Van Gogh masterpiece, "Sunflowers," sold earlier this year to a Japanese insurance company for $39.9 million.
"The whole world is looking very closely at the sale of this painting," John L. Marion, chairman of Sotheby's North America, which conducted the "Irises" auction, said before the sale. "Some see it as an indicator of what the art market is doing."
Rising Bids Applauded
Some of the about 1,000 people at the auction applauded when the bidding went over $40 million.
Marion had said that the Oct. 19 stock market crash would not affect the sale because other auctions since then had gone well. Those included a Nov. 4-5 sale in which Sotheby's recorded the second-highest price for contemporary art, $23.4 million.
He had said before the auction Wednesday that the price paid for "Irises" would be dictated by the bidding for "Sunflowers" and the $20.2-million sale in June of Van Gogh's "The Bridge at Trinquetaille."
"Irises" is one of 95 works being auctioned in Sotheby's fall sale of Impressionist and modern art. They include an early Picasso oil, "Boulevard de Clichy," expected to bring $2 million to $3 million, Claude Monet's "Antibes, Vue du Plateau Notre-Dame," which had an estimated sale price of $1 million, and Paul Cezanne's "Arbres et Maison au Bord de L'Eau," expected to bring at least $2 million.
"Irises," a 28-by-32-inch oil on canvas, depicts purple irises and one white bloom in a sea of green stems. It is a study of a flower garden at the Saint-Remy asylum, which Van Gogh entered voluntarily in 1889 for treatment of his mental illness. He lived there until he took his own life in 1890, at age 37. He sold few, if any, of his paintings during his lifetime.
Painting Hung in Home
"Irises" belonged to John Whitney Payson, an art consultant from Maine whose mother, philanthropist Joan Whitney Payson, acquired it for $80,000 in 1947. She had hung it over the fireplace in her living room.
After her death in 1975, the painting was displayed at Westbrook College in suburban Portland, Me., in a gallery Payson built in his mother's memory.
Payson said he decided to sell the painting after the "Sunflowers" auction because he felt he could not guarantee the security of a work of art potentially worth $40 million or more. He cited high insurance costs as another reason for selling.
Payson has pledged a part of the proceeds to establishment of an endowment to support the work of artists and future operation of the gallery.