Vincent van Gogh’s late masterpiece "Portrait du Dr. Gachet," 1890, made international headlines in 1990 when it sold for a spectacular $82.5 million at Christie’s New York. One of the artist’s emblematic pictures, his depiction of his physician and confidant has not been seen publicly since, its whereabouts known only to a few tight-lipped experts formerly associated with the major auction houses. Two decades after the sale, curiosity about the painting’s location is greater than ever — not least because, given the shortage of works of this quality on the market, some experts say it could easily double the record-breaking figure it brought in 1990.
"Rumors have been circulating about it since the day it was sold," says John Tancock, a former Impressionist and modern specialist at Sotheby’s. "But I don’t know anybody who’s actually seen it."
The mystery surrounding "Dr. Gachet" stems in part from the shifting fortunes of its owners since that historic night at Christie’s. The buyer then was the Japanese paper magnate Ryoei Saito, who quickly put the painting into a sealed vault in Tokyo. Five years later, Saito was convicted of fraud in connection with a bribery scandal involving Japanese real estate. When his troubles became public, he famously told journalists that he would have the Van Gogh, along with a Renoir he also bought in 1990 at Sotheby’s, cremated and buried with him in his coffin. Saito later said he’d been joking. He died in 1996, and the following year, the Van Gogh was sold privately through Sotheby’s for $90 million, according to Japanese court documents relating to his estate, with the proceeds reportedly going to pay off some of his enormous bank debt.
At the time several reliable sources in the art trade identified the buyer as the Austrian-born hedge-fund manager and currency speculator Wolfgang Flöttl, who later the same year acquired Pablo Picasso’s "Le rêve,' 1932, at Christie’s for $48.4 million. It is understood that Diana Brooks, then CEO of Sotheby’s, helped broker the private sale for Flöttl, her star client, to whom the house also granted a short-term $240 million line of credit for future purchases. Brooks’s role in the Christie’s and Sotheby’s price-fixing scheme ended her career in 2000. Flöttl was later caught up in a financial scandal of his own involving massive bank fraud in Austria; in 2008 he was convicted with eight others and sentenced to two and a half years in prison. Well before the investigation he had unloaded a number of expensive possessions, including a Gulfstream jet, a $20 million estate in Bermuda, and dozens of major Impressionist and modern pictures, including "Dr. Gachet."
Several art-market experts who insist on anonymity believe that given Flöttl’s close relationship with Sotheby’s, the firm sold Dr. Gachet on Flöttl’s behalf, putting the proceeds toward paying down what he owed it. In 2007 it was reported that the Van Gogh was sold for $100 million. The buyer is believed to be a secretive collector based in Switzerland, whose code name inside Sotheby’s was "the Lugano Man." Several sources say that he has since died and his much younger widow is feuding with his children from an earlier marriage over his valuable art holdings. Among those are "10 to 15 absolutely mesmerizing pictures," says a New York private dealer, who claims they include a 1930's Picasso and choice Van Goghs. Is one of them "Dr. Gachet?" "It has literally dropped off the radar," he says, "but it is out there."
"Some people say it is in the States," says Ezra Chowaiki, a New York Impressionist and modern dealer. "Some people say it’s in Lugano, others say the Middle East, and some say it’s still in Japan. People say all sorts of things. It’s just one of those mysteries."
Wherever it is hiding, several high-profile individuals have expressed interest in buying the work. "It has to be worth $200 million," says a former Sotheby’s specialist. "I don’t see how it could be any less than that, because there have been offers between $150 million and $180 million in the past three years, and those were not accepted. The owner has been approached a number of times." Simon de Pury, chairman of Phillips de Pury & Company and a former top executive of Sotheby’s Europe, puts the figure at $250 million, pointing out that "Dr. Gachet" is "one of the ultimate trophies."
"We still want to buy it," says Catherine Couturier, a longtime consultant to the Beyeler Foundation, in Basel, and a friend of the museum’s founder, Ernst Beyeler, who died in February. "Even in the last four years Ernst was alive, we really tried everything to buy it for the foundation because it would be like a kind of "Mona Lisa." We still have the money to do it. Five years ago we were ready to go to $120 million."
Would-be buyers, however, face another obstacle perhaps more daunting than uncertainty about the painting’s whereabouts. This involves an aspect of its history that only came to light long after the sale, with the 1998 publication of Cynthia Saltzman’s acclaimed study "Portrait of Dr. Gachet." It seems that in 1933 the painting, labeled as degenerate art by the Third Reich’s propaganda ministry, was hidden for safekeeping before World War II broke out by the director of the Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt, from which it was confiscated, winding up in the hands of the notorious Nazi art looter Hermann Göring. The provenance in the Christie’s catalogue, although listing a handful of art dealers, including the legendary Ambroise Vollard, made no mention of the Göring connection, stating that the work had been deaccessioned by the Frankfurt museum and acquired by Siegfried Kramarsky. According to Saltzman’s account, no invoice exists recording the sale of Dr. Gachet to Kramarsky, a German-born philanthropist who before the war ran the Amsterdam bank Lisser & Rosenkranz.
Meanwhile, the granddaughter of a business associate of Kramarsky’s has laid claim to the painting. In various interviews Christine Koenigs has alleged that it belonged to her grandfather, the wealthy banker and art aficionado Franz Koenigs, a German Protestant who immigrated to Amsterdam in 1922. Koenigs was known for his collection, which contained more than 2,500 Old Master drawings, among many other works, and which he used as collateral for loans from Kramarsky’s bank. Most of his holdings were dispersed as a result of the war, ending up in various European and Russian museums. According to his granddaughter, Koenigs acquired "Dr. Gachet" and two important Impressionist works in 1938 from a representative of Göring’s in Berlin and immediately had them shipped to Paris and later to New York for safekeeping at the Knoedler Gallery. When Kramarsky landed with his family in New York, in 1941, having fled there just ahead of the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands, he took possession of "Dr. Gachet" from Knoedler, claiming it as one of the collateralized works — wrongfully, according to Christine Koenigs.
There is no paper trail to confirm the granddaughter’s claim about what happened after Koenigs’s purchase of the paintings, and other sources, including Saltzman, dispute her account. According to Saltzman, Koenigs initially offered the Göring paintings to the famed art dealer Walter Feilchenfeld, of Berlin’s Cassirer Gallery, who turned them down. Koenigs then approached Kramarsky as a possible buyer. Saltzman says that the latter already owned the paintings by September 1938, well before he got to the U.S. Beginning in 1941 Kramarsky loaned "Dr. Gachet" to numerous exhibitions; he eventually placed it along with other stellar works from his collection on long-term loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was on public view until the 1990 sale.
Werner Kramarsky, one of Siegfried’s sons and a noted contemporary-art collector in New York, declined to be quoted directly for this story, but he does note that the contract with Christie’s to sell "Dr. Gachet" contained an iron-clad clause stating that it was the responsibility of the auction house, not the Kramarsky trust, to defend any ownership claims made against the picture after its purchase. A Christie’s spokesperson says: "The terms of our agreements with clients are confidential and cannot be disclosed." (Christine Koenigs also declined to comment, expressing concerns that anything she might say on the record might keep the painting from resurfacing.)
"The problem with the [Christine Koenigs] claim is that there appears to be no evidence to support it. It’s all conjecture. Nobody turns over property on plausible theories, particularly when the other side has one," says the noted New York art-law attorney Charles Goldstein. But if the claim has little chance of changing past transactions, it could throw quite a wrench into future ones. However unsubstantiated, it would cost a buyer time, money, and headaches. "'Dr. Gachet' won’t be offered by a major auction house because there’s a cloud on the title," says Goldstein.
Still, Couturier states that when Beyeler was pursuing the painting, he was prepared to compensate Koenigs with a percentage of the sale price. And considering the picture’s probable value, Sotheby’s and others might be willing to brave a few hurdles, should its elusive owner ever decide to part with it.
"Gone? But Not Forgotten" originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's November 2010 Table of Contents.