The Mystery of the Vanishing Van Gogh

450px-Portrait_of_Dr._Gachet

THIS IS THE STORY of a man, an artist, a painting, and a mystery.

The man was Dr. Paul Ferdinand Gachet, a physician in the 1880s.

His was a simple life.

He asked for little and expected little.

Then Dr. Gachet and the artist met at one of those curious crossroads in time where the known and the unknown sometimes come together.

The artist was Vincent Van Gogh.

He was aging.

He was sick.

He needed the care of a doctor.

But who would care for him? Enter Dr. Gachet.

Van Gogh was not immediately impressed. He wrote to his brother: I think that we must not count on Dr. Gachet at all. First of all, he is sicker than I am.

But the good doctor did have a sensitive face.

And he did posses a sensitive soul.

He represented the portrait that Van Gogh, the impressionist, had always wanted to paint.

When he completed the work, the artist would write: I’ve done the portrait of M. 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.”

Dr. Gachet had such a face.

Van Gogh had such a painting.

The good doctor died.

Van Gogh died broke.

And that, by all rights, should have been the end of them both.

It wasn’t.

Alive, Vincent Van Gogh was little more than a poor starving artist. His work was ignored. His genius was overlooked. His sanity had been pushed to a razor’s edge, and no one really cared whether he lived or died.

Alas, the portrait of M. Gachet was the final work of a poor, starving artist.

Who wanted it?

Hardly anyone.

Van Gogh’s sister finally sold the painting in 1897 for a mere three hundred francs, worth about fifty-eight dollars.

It was peddled again.

And again.

Tossed aside.

Given away.

Mostly forgotten.

It all began to change when a dead artist, with the passing of time, became recognized as one of the world’s most important artists. If his hand touched the brush and the brush touched canvas, his work was worth a lot of money.

Everyone who was somebody or knew somebody in the art world had a deep appreciation and longing to own the sensitive face of M. Gachet.

It was determined, on a single, fateful night, that someone would leave Christie’s Auction House in New York with the last of the great Van Gogh works.

But who?

And how much would the portrait be worth?

The suspense was unbearable.

The bidding began modestly enough.

The bidding began at twenty million dollars.

Want to raise the bid?

You would have to do so a million dollars at a time.

The rich had a lot of money.

The rich wanted to give a lot of money away.

Prestige was more valuable than money anyway.

The rich were willing to pay a fortune for the portrait of a man and an artist who both died paupers.

The bidding was brisk.

No one was bashful.

It ended almost as quickly as it began.

It ended in three minutes.

It ended with a Tokyo art dealer purchasing the portrait for an unnamed collector.

The check he wrote was for eighty-two million dollars.

In three minutes, the sensitive face and melancholy expression of M. Gachet had become the most famous, most visible painting in the world.

No other had ever sold for such a princely sum.

It didn’t take long for the art world to learn the name of the unknown collector. Japanese industrialist Ryoei Saito sat down for a few minutes to be alone with his expensive piece of art, saw it, saw that it was good, and then had it stuffed inside a foam-padded packing crate and shipped in tight secrecy to a storeroom and hidden away in a climate controlled vault.

Only he knew the location.

Saito wasn’t telling.

He shared the Van Gogh with no one.

In time, his business took a deadly downward spiral.

He lost his health.

He lost his business.

He lost his money.

He was charged with bribery.

He was confined to a wheelchair.

As a dying man, he bitterly told the art world that he wanted the Van Gogh masterpiece cremated and its ashes buried with him.

It was scandalous.

Was he joking?

Saito died.

And M. Gachet disappeared.

No one can find it.

No one knows where it is.

Was it burned and placed in a casket?

Was it sold to another collector?

Van Gogh had once called his portrait of M. Gachet “the heartbroken expression of our time.”

If the painting was lost for the ages, he was right.

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