"I've done the portrait of Monsieur Gachet with a melancholy expression, which might well seem like a grimace to those who see it… Sad but gentle, yet clear and intelligent, that is how many portraits ought to be done… There are modern heads that may be looked at for a long time, and that may perhaps be looked back on with longing a hundred years later." Vincent Van Gogh, June 1890
Vincent Van Gogh was referring to his portrait of Dr. Gachet, a work of art that became the world's most visible work of art on May 15th, 1990, only to vanish from view - its whereabouts still unknown.
Paul-Ferdinand Gachet was Van Gogh’s physician during the last months of his life. Van Gogh painted two different versions of his portrait. The second version of the portrait is in the possession of the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France.
The first and most famous of the two, simply entitled Portrait of Dr. Gachet, was put on the auction block at Christie's auction house in New York on that night in May. The bidding started at a respectable $20 million and rose quickly in increments of $1 million, with the gavel finally coming down at $75 Million (plus 10% buyer’s commission), making art-world history as the most expensive work of art sold at that time.
The masterpiece went straight from the spotlight to a classified storeroom somewhere in the Tokyo area. The artwork’s new owner, Japanese industrialist Ryoei Saito, the honorary chairman of Daishowa Paper Manufacturing Co, spent a few hours with his purchase before locking it in a climate-controlled vault. That is where it stayed, untouched and unseen, for seven years.
Saito, in his 70’s at the time, caused a scandal when he said he would have the Van Gogh painting cremated with him after his death. He later said, "What I really wanted to [express] was my wish to preserve the paintings forever." Saito, his aides explained, was using a figure of speech, and his threatening to torch the masterpiece was just an expression of intense affection for it. Later he said he would consider giving the paintings to his government or a museum.
Since his death in 1996, the exact location and ownership of the portrait has been shrouded in mystery. Nobody is clear where it is or even who owns it - Saito's heirs, his company, or his creditors. In early 2007 reports surfaced that the painting had been sold a decade earlier to the Austrian-born investment fund manager Wolfgang Flöttl. Flöttl, in turn, had reportedly been forced by financial difficulties to sell the painting to an undisclosed party. Museum curators and auction houses have tried to locate it, without success. The popular theory is that it has almost certainly left Japan for a private collection. The person who owns it is just not interested in advertising the fact, most likely because of all the notoriety. Gachet simply seems to have vanished into the background of the international art market.
Why is it so important to return the painting to the public domain? The Portrait of Dr. Gachet is not just one of the world's most expensive paintings, it is the culmination of the artist's portraiture, says Sjraar van Heugten, head of collections at Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum. "He was trying to make a new kind of portrait, which would give a feeling of eternity to the person portrayed. These thoughts come together in Gachet."