NEW YORK — "Portrait of Dr. Gachet," a melancholy character study by Vincent van Gogh, was purchased Tuesday night by Kobayashi Gallery of Tokyo for $82.5 million, the highest auction price ever paid for a work of art.
Christie's auction house had valued the work at $40 million to $50 million, but lackluster sales of contemporary art last week had led to speculation that the estimate was overly optimistic. Competition for the vivid blue painting was fierce, however, with bidding that began at $20 million rising rapidly by increments of $1 million.
The Japanese gallery plunged into the bidding at around $40 million, successfully competing with an unidentified private collector who bid by telephone. Applause rang out in the crowded sale room when bids passed the record $53.9 million bid by Australian businessman Alan Bond in November, 1987, for Van Gogh's "Irises," which was recently purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum of Malibu for an undisclosed sum.
When auctioneer Christopher Burge brought down his gavel, the audience applauded thunderously, and the winning bidder thrust his paddle into the air in a gesture of victory.
Burge later said he had no idea that the price would go so high, or that Kobayashi Gallery would be a contender. The record sale commanded $56.1 million more than the auction's second-most expensive lot, a Van Gogh self-portrait purchased for $26.4 million by the anonymous underbidder on the Gachet portrait.
"Portrait of Dr. Gachet" depicts Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, a practitioner of homeopathic medicine who treated the troubled artist during the last years of his life. Executed in 1890, the year that Van Gogh committed suicide, the painting is said to double as a self-portrait.
"I have found a true friend in Dr. Gachet, something like another brother, so much do we resemble each other physically and also mentally. He is a very nervous man himself and very queer in his behavior," Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo.
The portrait changed hands several times until 1911, when it was acquired by the Stadtische Galerie in Frankfurt. The painting was confiscated from the museum by the Nazis before World World II, along with other art that was deemed "degenerate."
Siegfried Kramarsky, a German-born New York financier and philanthropist who died in 1961, bought the work in Germany and often loaned it to exhibitions. The portrait, consigned to auction by Kramarsky's daughter, Sonja Kramarsky, had been on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York since 1984.
The Van Gogh sale kicked off a series of Impressionist and modern art auctions that continues through Friday in New York. Another painting valued at up to $50 million, "Au Moulin de la Galette" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, will be offered Thursday night at Sotheby's. Both pictures are variations of paintings in the collection of France's premier showcase of Impressionist painting, Gare d'Orsay in Paris.
Apart from Christie's stunning success with "Portrait of Dr. Gachet," the Tuesday night sale indicated that buyers are becoming more selective than they have been in recent years. Twenty-four of the 81 works offered failed to sell, and 22 brought less than Christie's low estimates.
Sales totaled $269.4 million, within the predicted range of $246 million to $331 million, and 44 lots sold for more than $1 million apiece. Records were set for eight artists, including $12.98 million for Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's "Fille a la Fourrure," $9.9 million for Marc Chagall's "Au dessus de la Ville" and $4 million for "Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapslazulina," a Surrealist painting by Salvador Dali.
Three works from Los Angeles collections brought big prices. "Woman With Blue Jewel," a small painting by Henri Matisse, from the estate of Taft and Rita Schreiber, sold for $5.5 million. Two works by Pablo Picasso from the collection of television producer David Wolper also lived up to expectations: A 1962 painted metal portrait, "Jacqueline With Green Ribbon," brought $1.76 million, while a 1971 painting, "Seated Woman with Hat," sold for $3.3 million.
Some of the top-valued works fell below Christie's predictions, however. "The Bench," an Impressionist painting by Edouard Manet estimated at $20 million to $25 million, sold for $16.5 million. A classic, diamond-shaped abstraction by Piet Mondrian sold for $8.8 million, well below the estimated value of $12 million to $16 million.
Speaking of these disappointments, Burge said: "This brings some sanity and sense to the market. People are learning that they can't double their money (on art) in a year or two."