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Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ Sells for Nearly $40 Million, Tripling Record

March 30, 1987 GMT

LONDON (AP) _ An anonymous buyer Monday paid $39.85 million for Vincent van Gogh’s ″Sunflowers,″ a dazzling yellow work the artist once hoped to sell for $125. The price was more than triple the record for an auctioned painting.

The bid of 24.75 million pounds, accepted by telephone, came on the 134th anniversary of the birth of the Dutch artist. Van Gogh committed suicide in 1890 at the age of 37, unable to sell his paintings.

The price stunned the packed saleroom at Christie’s auction house. Art buyers and enthusiasts from around the world had gathered there expecting a record, but not of these proportions.


Christie’s wouldn’t disclose the buyer’s identity or even the country the bid came from, but there were rumors that the buyer was in Japan. Christie’s had sent the picture on a tour of Tokyo, New York and Zurich.

″I am 99.9 percent certain it was from Japan,″ said New York dealer Jacob Baal-Teshuva, who watched the auction,

″There are only 10 to 15 people in the world, and the Getty Museum, who can afford that kind of money. It was a fantastic price, mind-boggling. Nobody expected it. We thought the top might be 18 million pounds ($30 million),″ he said.

In Malibu, Calif., spokeswoman Lori Starr of the J. Paul Getty Museum said the museum was not the purchaser.

After the sale, Christie’s threw a party with a cake decorated with a replica of the painting to honor Van Gogh.

The artist born March 30, 1853, lived on handouts from his brother, Theo, an art dealer who had said the money was coming from sales of the artist’s work. Van Gogh killed himself after he found Theo’s home stacked with his unsold paintings.

Van Gogh painted ″Sunflowers″ in the last months of his life. He told his brother he hoped to sell the work for 500 francs, then worth about $125.

The Getty Museum, founded with more than $2 billion by the late oil tycoon, paid a record 8.1 million pounds, then $10.5 million, for ″Adoration of the Magi″ by Andrea Mantegna. The painting was sold in April 1985 at Christie’s in London.

That price was exceeded in dollars last December in London when an anonymous European collector bought a Paris street scene by Edouard Manet for 7.7 million pounds, then worth $11.1 million because the pound had risen in value.

″Sunflowers,″ done in January 1889, was bought in Paris in 1934 for an undisclosed sum by the family of Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, a U.S.-born Briton who made a fortune in American mines.

It was sold by executors of his daughter-in-law, Helen Chester Beatty, who died last year. The proceeds will go to Mrs. Beatty’s daughter, Sarah Thompson Jones, and Mrs. Jones’ two children by the Earl of Warwick.

The previous highest price for a Van Gogh was $9.9 million at Sotheby’s, New York, in April 1985 for his ″Landscape with Rising Sun.″ The buyer’s identity was not disclosed.

Christie’s chairman Charles Allsopp started the bidding at the equivalent of $8.05 million and the price jumped $805,000 at a time to $21.7 million.

Several telephone bidders began calling in prices. There were gasps and applause at the final bid. It all took no more than five minutes.

″I think it was a cumulative thing,″ said London art dealer Godfrey Pilkington. ″If two men are bidding and go to 18 million, they are already thinking, why not go to 20 - and so it goes.

″It’s an extraordinary amount of money. I don’t think any bidder entered the auction thinking of a sum like that,″ he said.

Four similar sunflower paintings by Van Gogh are in museums in Amsterdam, London, Munich and Philadelphia, and a fifth is privately owned.

″It was a crazy price,″ said Dominique Charles Janssens, a food exporter who owns the house in Auvers, near Paris, where van Gogh died two days after he shot himself.

Alsopp said: ″It was a spectacularly good price for a very good picture. ... There aren’t many pictures as good as this.″

He would say only that it ws bought by ″an anonymous foreign buyer who wishes us to remain discreet.″

Asked if the Sultan of Brunei were the buyer, Allsopp replied: ″You can ask me questions like that all night and I still won’t say.″