December 28, 1987 12:00 PM

It is absolutely certain that I shall never do important things.

He had a self-image problem long before the phrase was coined. Plagued by incapacitating fits of melancholy and mania, he never held a steady job and was supported for many of his 37 years by a younger brother. He had few friends, abysmal luck with women, and he sold only a handful of works, each for a pittance, during his lifetime. “What am I in most people’s eyes?” he once lamented. “A nonentity, or an eccentric and disagreeable man—somebody who has no position in society and never will have….” When he killed himself with a revolver in 1890, Vincent van Gogh was a pauper.

If only he could be here now. He has, of course, long been ranked among the world’s most acclaimed and popular artists. But lest up there in the Great Atelier he harbor lingering insecurities about his worth, 1987 has settled the question. In March his brilliant yellow oil painting Sunflowers was sold by Christie’s auction house to a Japanese insurance firm for a mind-boggling $39.9 million—more than three times the previous record for a work of art. Three months later the Dutch master’s Bridge at Trinquetaille went to a European collector for $20 million. But all this was prologue. Last month Irises, painted in an asylum in southern France only 15 months before Van Gogh’s suicide, went to an unidentified bidder for $53.9 million.

So the nonentity has found a place for himself and might even claim a form of revenge on an art world that paid him so miserably in his lifetime. The absurdly high prices that his work now commands are the despair of museum curators, who complain that they have no way of paying them. Poor Van Gogh would surely have been amazed. Yet on his better days even the melancholic master knew he was really no hack. “Here and there,” he once grudgingly admitted, “some of my work will last.”

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