The ‘Portrait of Dr. Gachet’ by Vincent van Gogh is one of the most expensive paintings in the world. It depicts the French physician Dr. Paul Gachet (1828-1909) who treated van Gogh during the final days of his life.
In 1890 the artist’s younger brother and art dealer Theo van Gogh sent him to Dr. Paul Gachet for treatment after he was released from the mental asylum at Saint-Rémy. The portrait was painted in June 1890 by van Gogh during his stay at the doctor’s home in Auvers-sur-Oise.
The portrait depicts Dr. Gachet as a sad but gentle person with transparent blue eyes, sitting with his right elbow on his table and his head resting on the right hand. There are two medical books lying on the table along with the medicinal herb foxglove from which digitalis, drug preparations that contain cardiac glycosides for the treatment of heart conditions are extracted.
The painting was sold for the first time in 1897 by Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, van Gogh’s sister-in-law, for 300 francs (about $1200 in today’s dollar equivalent). After changing a few hands, in 1911 the painting was acquired by the Städel (Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie), is an art museum in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and it was displayed there until 1933 after which it was kept in a hidden room. The Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, which enforced Nazi Party’s cultural norms in Germany, confiscated the portrait in 1937 as part of their efforts to get rid of what they described as the ‘degenerate art’ from Germany. However, Hermann Göring, a leading member of the Nazi Party, sold it to an Amsterdam-based art dealer from whom the art collector Siegfried Kramarsky purchased it. When Kramarsky had to flee to New York, he carried the portrait along with him.
In May 1990, the heirs of Kramarsky put up Portrait of Dr. Gachet for auction at Christie’s in New York. At the auction, the Japanese businessman Ryoei Saito bought it for $82.5 million (equivalent to $144.1 million, inflated adjusted price as of December 2011); making it the world’s most expensive painting ever sold in an auction till that time.
Ryoei Saito created a huge sensation in the art world when he wanted the painting cremated along with his body upon his death. However, later he said that he would either donate it to the Japanese government or a Japanese art museum. But no further information was available on the fate of the portrait since the death of Saito in 1996. According to some reports in 2007, the painting was sold a decade earlier to the investment manager Wolfgang Flöttl, who later sold it to a buyer whose identity remains undisclosed.
There is another authentic version of the portrait painted in June 1890 which was owned by Dr. Gachet himself. That second version is now housed in the Musée d’Orsay, after, in the early 1950s, the doctor’s heirs bequeathed it along with the other collections of Dr. Gachet to the French government.