April 20, 1987 12:00 PM

In 1889 Vincent Van Gogh wrote a letter to his art dealer brother, Theo, to proclaim, “I dare swear to you my sunflowers are worth 500 francs [for each painting].” That amount (after inflation, worth about $1,200 today) sounded like a fine sum to the 35-year-old Dutch painter. But now the selfsame sunflowers have sold at Christie’s auction house in London for $39,921,750, including a $3.7 million commission. In less than five minutes an anonymous telephone bidder made Van Gogh’s painting the world’s most expensive artwork. The previous high: $11.9 million paid in 1983 for a 12th-century illuminated manuscript. Figured another way, each of the 15 flowers in the 39½” by 30¼” sunflower painting went for roughly $3 million.

Van Gogh never earned a cent from the record painting, which took him less than a week to complete. In August 1888, two years before he committed suicide, he had gathered wild sunflowers near his Aries studio and had produced four canvases, “I am working at it every morning from sunrise on,” he wrote, “for the flowers fade so quickly, and the thing is to do the whole in one rush.” The following January, he painted three copies of the original sunflowers (including the auctioned painting), altering the hues to change the mood. Even Van Gogh, who never wanted to sell or show his work because he felt it wasn’t ready, was proud of the series. “It is a kind of painting that rather changes to the eye and takes on richness the longer you look at it,” he declared.

Leading New York art dealer Richard Feigen attended the record-setting auction and discussed its implications with senior writer Michael Small.

Why did the price go so high?

I think someone figured out that a Van Gogh sunflower is a legitimate place to park $40 million. Affluent people who keep their money in dollars or gold have seen it erode by 50 percent in the world market; silver has dropped even more than that. If they put money in the stock market, they’re wondering when that will drop. I’m not saying that whoever bought the painting doesn’t like it, but the buyer seems to have dual motives—collecting fine art and creating a financial instrument.

Did Christie’s inflate the price?

No. Humpty Dumpty could have sold this painting for the same price. Van Gogh is a romantic figure who is very popular in the countries, such as Japan, that have a great deal of money. What’s more, his mature works, created in just two years before he killed himself, are very rare. Today those paintings are mostly in museums.

Where will the Christie’s painting go?

My guess is Japan; it could be intended to bring a Van Gogh sunflower to the country where one was destroyed during World War II. In any case, I think the buyer comes from a country where the dollar has been spectacularly devalued.

Will we ever find out who the buyer is?

We’ll probably find out the same way we heard who bought the great Henri Rousseau painting, The Tropics, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1972 for $600,000. It took a number of years and then quite by accident a client saw it in Tokyo, in the executive office of the Mitsui corporation.

Has the Van Gogh sale so changed the market that other famous works will sell for more?

Not many of the truly valuable paintings will ever come on the market. Van Gogh’s Starry Night In New York’s Museum of Modern Art, is a greater painting than the auctioned sunflower. I would expect it could bring $60 million. Eventually some Old Masters, such as works by Raphael and Rembrandt, could sell for as high as $100 million. Once you accept the concept of art as a safe way to store funds, the prices are unlimited. You can’t even think of what the Mona Lisa is worth.

Will museums be able to compete in this market?

They can’t plug certain holes in their collection when their endowment isn’t even adequate to buy one important painting. The director of London’s Tate Gallery told me, “We can spend two million pounds a year [$3.3 million]. That doesn’t even pay the auction house commission on the Van Gogh.” And because the new tax law makes donations less appealing, fewer American buyers will give art to museums.

Will the new owner of the sunflower painting exhibit it?

When a painting reaches $40 million, it may go to a bank vault, just as securities and precious metals do.

Do security risks rise with the price?

Don’t worry about a professional thief. This Van Gogh has been on every television set in the world. Nobody would buy if it were stolen.

Will insurance cover a $40 million work of art?

The premium on the Van Gogh sunflower would reach at least $60,000 and probably $80,000 a year. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be shown. Some museums have blanket insurance policies; others are self-insured and might be willing to gamble.

Can living artists earn huge amounts?

They may not earn $40 million for a work, but Johns, Rosenquist and Lichtenstein must earn more than $1 million a year.

Could a Van Gogh decrease in value?

Prices will keep going up. Remember, there’s a printing press in Washington to make more money, but Van Gogh’s printing press is closed.

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