`Sunflowers' sale set art world abuzz

Fifteen Sunflowers - at 1.5 million each! The sale at Christie's in London last week of a painting by Vincent van Gogh for 22.5 million ($36.5 million), almost 25 million ($40.5 million) with the addition of the 10 percent buyer's premium, to an anonymous bidder, has caused the art world to gasp in astonishment. Before this sale, no work of art had breached the 10 million barrier.

Not everyone, however, greeted the news with unalloyed pleasure. Neil MacGregor, director of London's National Gallery, was both ``thrilled and depressed.'' The price, at 10 times the gallery's annual purchase grant, severely restricts the gallery's ability to compete for top works. Others decried the price on the grounds that ``Sunflowers'' is not that much better than many other pictures.

The price may have as much to do with the current state of the money market as with the art market. But the special quality of this picture should not be overlooked. It had been confidently predicted, even by the auctioneers, that the picture would set a record. The subject represents one of the best known artistic images in the world, displayed in many a school room. The 15 blooms are large and brilliant, reaching boldly out of the canvas and radiating vigor and sunlight.

The painting was one of seven which Van Gogh painted to decorate his studio at Arles between 1888 and 1889. Only six remain; one was destroyed during World War II. Four are in museums in London, Munich, Amsterdam, and Philadelphia, and another is in a private European collection. The Christie's example is the largest, at 39 inches by 30 inches.

The picture came originally from one of the greatest art collections to be formed in Britain this century, that of Sir Chester Beatty, mining engineer and philanthropist. Until its sale, it was in the estate of his daughter-in-law, Helen Beatty, who had loaned the picture to the National Gallery. Executors of her estate offered the picture to the nation in lieu of inheritance tax. However, despite the tax concession which the Treasury can offer to beneficiaries in these cases, negotiations broke down and the executors opted for auction.

The picture was almost bound to set a record price. Apart from its obvious quality and fame, it was exactly the right moment to offer a major Impressionist work. The top end of the art market has been booming for three years, with ever-spiraling record prices being achieved for works of top quality. World money markets, too, have been booming, giving large-scale investors quantities of capital in excess of their immediate investment needs. Some of this money has been spilling into the art market, washing away previous record prices.

Exchange rates have also affected the market. Buyers from Japan and West Germany, with strong currencies, have come into the British market, which sells in a relatively weak currency, producing what appear to be very high prices. And there is little that is more appealing to multimillionaire buyers than Impressionist pictures. They score among the rich, where the more specialized Old Masters are less popular. Impressionist auctions in London at the end of last year were at pitch, producing 7.7 million for a Manet, ``La Rue Mosnier aux Paveurs,'' which was generally considered a somewhat lightweight piece.

Will the upward spiral in prices continue? The auction world seems to move in three-year cycles: three good years followed by three not so good. Three especially good ones are drawing to a close. Christie's may well hold on to its record for quite a while.

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