Paintings by Vincent van Gogh rarely hit the market and, unsurprisingly, they fetch huge sums. The odd one is sold privately through a dealer, often very quietly, but in a typical year only a handful are publicly auctioned.
Here, we record the ten most expensive Van Gogh paintings ever sold at auction, plus one coming to Christie’s in May that should make the list.
1. Portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet$83 million, 1990
Portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet Still holds the record for the most expensive Van Gogh, even though it sold as early as 1990. At Christie’s, it fetched $83 million, then the highest auction price for a work by any artist. With inflation, that would equal $180 million today.
So why did he make the record price? It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful portraits of Van Gogh. Dr Gachet was a key figure in Vincent’s life, caring for him after the artist committed suicide in Auvers-sur-Oise, so the sitter adds a lot of interest. In 1990 it went to a buyer in Tokyo – and at that time Japanese collectors were feverishly vying for the big names in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.
Portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet was purchased by businessman Ryoei Saito, who later claimed he wanted the painting cremated along with his body. Fortunately, this did not happen when he died in 1996, and instead the Van Gogh was sold privately to Wolfgang Flöttl, an Austrian investment manager. After running into financial problems, the portrait changed hands again and now belongs to a top-secret European billionaire.
2. worker in a field$81 million, 2017
worker in a field sold for $81 million in 2017. Painted while Van Gogh was living in the asylum outside Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, the composition is inspired by the view from his modest bedroom. A plowman is at work, installed under one of the powerful suns of the artist. Like most Van Goghs hitting the market, this landscape was sold to an anonymous buyer.
3. Self-portrait without beard$72 million, 1998
Self-portrait without beard soared to $72 million when it was auctioned in 1998. Van Gogh’s self-portraits are highly prized and only a handful remain in private hands. This one was particularly personal for Vincent, since he painted it at the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence as a gift to his mother for her 70th birthday. The Courtauld Gallery attempted to borrow Self-portrait without beard for his Van Gogh exhibition in progress, but it proved elusive and remains hidden in an anonymous European collection.
4. Wooden huts among olive trees and cypresses$71 million, 2021
Wooden huts among olive trees and cypresses is one of Van Gogh’s most recent sales, selling for $71 million last November. A striking and little-known landscape painting, it was made in the countryside outside the asylum. Although the buyer is anonymous, we understand that the painting went to Hugo Nathan, of London art advisers Beaumont Nathan, for a private client.
5. Avenue des Alyscamps$66 million, 2015
Avenue des Alyscamps was painted in Arles, a few days after the arrival of Van Gogh’s friend Paul Gauguin, who also painted the scene nearby. In 2003, the landscape sold at Christie’s for $12 million, but when it returned to auction in 2015, an anonymous buyer paid $66 million, five times as much. Van Gogh prices are almost always on the rise.
6. poppies and daisies$62 million, 2014
poppies and daisies is a dramatic and colorful still life, completed just weeks before the artist’s death in Auvers-sur-Oise. It sold for $62 million to Chinese entertainment company owner Wang Zhongjun.
Wang is also an amateur artist who enjoys painting flower still lifes. After the auction, he said the final sum was “slightly less than I expected”. Wang’s purchase is an indication of how drastically the market for Van Gogh has changed over the past few years, from North America and Europe to East Asia (China, Hong Kong and Korea).
7. Landscape under stormy sky$54 million, 2015
Landscape under stormy sky was painted in Arles after Van Gogh mutilated his ear and only a few weeks before he left for the asylum. The meadow is full of spring flowers with a couple strolling on the left side, under a dramatic sky. The photo made $54 million in 2015.
8. Iris$54 million, 1987
Iris, which was probably the first painting made by Van Gogh at the asylum, has had an exceptionally checkered recent history. In 1987 it was sold at Sotheby’s for $54 million, benefiting Australian businessman Alan Bond. But he faced financial problems and couldn’t pay, so the property remained with the auction house. In 1990, Sotheby’s then sold the Van Gogh to the J. Paul Getty Museum in California under a private agreement. Although the price paid by the museum was never disclosed, it was likely around the bid sum. It is now one of the centerpieces of the Getty’s collection.
9. Young man with blueberry$47 million, 2021
Young man with cornflower, painted in Auvers-sur-Oise, was a source of great surprise last November, when it exceeded its estimate of $5 to $7 million to finally reach $47 million. An unusually expressionist work, it was painted in the last weeks of Van Gogh’s life in Auvers-sur-Oise. The identity of the buyer has not been revealed, but collectors from the Far East have shown great interest.
ten. Sunflowers$40 million, 1987
Just scratch in the top ten, Sunflowers sold in 1987, when the art price boom was just beginning. It is one of the seven still lifes of sunflowers which Van Gogh painted in Arles. This is his own copy of the original version with a yellow background which is now in the National Gallery in London.
When it arrived at Christie’s, the £24 million ($40 million) paid was three times more than any work of art had ever sold at auction (with inflation, that would equal now at just over $100 million). It was also the first time the record price had been paid for a modern painting rather than an ancient one. The buyer was Tokyo-based insurance company Yasuda. The company was then taken over by the Sompo company and the Van Gogh is today the star attraction of the Sompo Art Museum.
Sunflowers turned out to be an amazing investment. If it ever came back on the market, it would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Breaking the top ten
Two other Van Goghs have since equaled the Sunflowers 1987 price, also reaching $40 million: L’Arlesienne, Madame Ginoux (February 1890) sold May 2, 2006 and Trees of the Asylum Garden (October 1889) May 13, 2019 (both at Christie’s, New York).
Several Van Goghs were sold privately at prices in the same range as those sold at auction. These include Portrait of Joseph Roulin (January 1889), acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1989; a version of Wheat field with cypresses (June 1889), acquired in 1993 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; and Girl on wheat background (June 1890), bought by casino boss Steve Wynn in 1999 and now owned by hedge fund manager Steven Cohen.
Interestingly, all of the works covered by our survey were painted during the last two years or so of Van Gogh’s life, when he was working in Provence or in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise. It is these late works that bring in the mega sums. And anything but Sunflowers were sold in New York, an indication that the main demand until recently came from America rather than Europe.
A newcomer could soon force his way into the top ten. On May 12, Christie’s, New York will offer Fields near the Alpilles (Fields near the Alpilles) (November 1889), a painted view on the outskirts of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Although no formal estimate has been released, the auction house expects it to fetch around $45 million. Christie’s recently toured the painting in Taipei and Hong Kong, a sign of growing interest in East Asia.
Fields near the Alpilles has an illustrious provenance, which may well add interest to potential buyers: it belonged to fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé.
Martin Bailey is the author of Van Gogh finale: Auvers and the artist’s rise to fame (Frances Lincoln, 2021, available in the UK and WE). He is a leading Van Gogh scholar and investigative journalist for The arts journal. Bailey has curated Van Gogh exhibitions at the Barbican Art Gallery and Compton Verney/National Gallery of Scotland. He was co-curator of Tate Britain’s The EY exhibition: Van Gogh and Great Britain (March 27-August 11, 2019).
Bailey has written a number of other bestselling books, including The Sunflowers Are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece (Frances Lincoln 2013, available in the UK and WE), Southern Studio: Van Gogh in Provence(Frances Lincoln 2016, available in the UK and WE) and Starry Night: Van Gogh in the Asylum (White Lion Publishing 2018, available in the UK and WE). whiskey cream Living with Vincent van Gogh: the houses and landscapes that shaped the artist (White Lion Publishing 2019, available in the UK and WE) provides insight into the artist’s life. The Illustrated Letters of Provence by Van Gogh has been reissued (Batsford 2021, available in the UK and WE).
• To contact Martin Bailey, please email: email@example.com. Please note that it does not perform authentications.
Read more on the Martin’s Adventures with Van Gogh blog here.