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$53.9 million for a Van Gogh; will museums survive?

By Sanford S. Shaman / December 17, 1987



THE recent sale of Vincent van Gogh's ``Irises'' for $53.9 million, only seven months after Van Gogh's ``Sunflowers'' sold to a Japanese industrialist for $39.9 million, has added fuel to the growing concern that museums are being shut out of the art market. The prices recently fetched for works by Mantegna, Rembrandt, Manet, Turner, and now Van Gogh have increasingly placed masterpieces well out of the reach of most museums. To be sure these are hefty sums for any museum. These are figures that look more like a budget for a new building than the cost of just one acquisition. But despite the damage this excessive spending is inflicting upon the world's museums, it is doubtful that the art world's auction houses will refrain from encouraging wallet-flexing fat cats as they continue to inflate the market.

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But critics are not worried only about the excessive price tags. Concern has also been raised over the fact that Van Gogh's ``Sunflowers'' is not the only European masterpiece to fall into the hands of a Japanese collector, and in fact Japanese corporate collectors are acquiring many important European masterpieces.

There are those who ask, What will this mean for the rest of us in the United States and Europe? The irony of posing such a question in a country whose own museums and collections are filled with European as well as Japanese treasures is response enough to such a question.

Moreover, European history is riddled with juicy examples - from Napoleon to the Elgin Marbles - of extreme disregard for the concepts of national treasures and rightful ownership.

This was dramatized in 1984, when the Austrian government planned to place on the auction block thousands of art treasures confiscated from Jewish families by the Nazis. Following World War II the Austrian government had been directed to attempt to return what few works could be returned to their rightful owners and to use the rest of the works as reparations to Holocaust survivors. Instead the Austrian government hoarded the works in secrecy for decades.

Clearly the West's shoddy record in regard to issues surrounding rightful ownership makes it difficult to seriously consider cries that European treasures are being lost to the Japanese.

According to an article by Susan Chira in the May 3 New York Times Magazine, ``Many of the Japanese business moguls differ from their counterparts elsewhere in the manner in which they display their masterpieces.

``Instead of hoarding them at home or donating them with grand philanthropic gestures to prestigious museums, they entrust the acquisitions to their corporate museums for public viewing.''

Although from a curatorial point of view this may raise some professional questions about care and maintenance of works of art, these corporate museums are indicative of a sense of public awareness and obligation that is not uniformly demonstrated in the West.

But no matter how public these collectors may be, their excessive style is clearly not in the best interest of public institutions. Museums will, however, not wither on the vine.

It is the art world's search for the new that stimulates research, scholarship, and new exhibitions. In this manner, over the past two decades we have witnessed how the art world has turned serious attention to such previously ignored areas as photography, ceramics, decorative arts, and various craft forms.

Museums will get by, they will find another way. The greatest loss is to the integrity of our society. In a world where thousands of people die each day as a consequence of hunger, a $53.9 million expenditure for a painting by an artist who himself was no stranger to hunger seems vulgar and decadent.

The sad part about this is that it is this component of the art world that the world at large watches and responds to. In 1982, for example, another artist - sculptor Agnes Denes - executed a magnum opus that passed unnoticed compared with the sale of ``Sunflowers.'' Titled ``Wheatfield - A Confrontation,'' the work was an outdoor environment consisting of a 1.8-acre wheat field planted in Manhattan at the foot of the World Trade Center, a block from Wall Street and facing the Statue of Liberty.

It was a poetic, provocative work of art, standing as a metaphorical statement about contemporary values. ``Wheatfield - A Confrontation'' ``represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, [and] economics. It referred to mismanagement and world hunger....,'' said Ms. Denes.

The fact that we are geared to ignoring such artistic statements while the sale of Van Gogh's ``Sunflowers'' and ``Irises'' captures our attention and imagination is all too telling about a society that celebrates the $39.9 million sale with a ``cake in the form of `Sunflowers,' the frame made of flaky pastry, the colors rendered `impasto furioso' in various hues of saffron-tinted cream cheese, the green bits done in spinach, and detail added with studdings of seeds'' according to Robert Hughes, arts writer for Time magazine.

In 1878 while working as a lay evangelist in the south of Belgium, Van Gogh was so moved by the poverty around him that he gave away his clothes and other belongings. Were he around today, perhaps after the sale of ``Sunflowers,'' rather than Christie's distributing pieces of pricey cake, Vincent would distribute the $39.9 million to the world's hungry.

Sanford S. Shaman is director of the Pennsylvania State Museum of Art, University Park campus. He has been director of the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries and a site evaluator for the National Endowment for the Arts Challenge Grant Program.