A Van Gogh record: landscape of orchard with cypresses soars to $117m at Paul Allen auction

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At the Christie’s New York auction of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s collection, his Van Gogh Arles landscape sold for $117m on 9 November—a record price for the artist. Three bidders, all on phones, fought it out, with the eventual winner remaining anonymous.

No formal estimate had been published for Orchard with Cypresses (April 1888), but Christie’s expected it to go for “in excess of $100m”. The hammer price did just that, at $102m, with the buyer’s premium pushing up the total to $117,180,000. 

Van Gogh’s Orchard with Cypresses (Verger avec cyprès) (April 1888) © Christie’s Images Limited 2022

Until now the highest auction price for a Van Gogh had been one of the two versions of Portrait of Dr Gachet (June 1890), which sold in 1990, at a time when Japanese collectors and investors were major buyers of the big names of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. The portrait went for $82.5m, to the Japanese businessman Ryoei Saito, and it was later sold on to an Austrian investment manager and then to a mysterious private collector.

Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet (July 1890), sold at Christie’s, 1990, for $82.5m Courtesy of Städel Museum, Frankfurt

Taking US inflation into account, the $82.5m is now equivalent to just over $180m, significantly more than the $117m Allen sale. But the $117m is still way above the next most expensive Van Gogh: Labourer in a Field (September 1889), which sold five years ago for $81m.

Van Gogh’s Labourer in a Field (September 1889), sold at Christie’s, 2017, for $81m

So what impact will the Allen record have on the Van Gogh market? Prices have already been on the rise in recent years, mainly because of growing interest in the artist’s work in East Asia (particularly China, Hong Kong and Korea), but this latest sale will certainly accelerate the trend. The Allen Van Gogh may well now be heading to Asia.

And what was it that made Orchard with Cypresses quite so desirable? Van Gogh oil paintings infrequently come onto the market. Last year, only six went up for auction globally, ranging in price from $7m to $71m.

Orchard with Cypresses was painted in Arles, a few weeks after Van Gogh’s arrival, when he was at the height of his powers. This is the period when he really discovered how to use colour and became the artist we now so love and admire. The Allen painting is particularly exuberant, showing Van Gogh at his most optimistic, with the coming of spring—and his new life starting in Provence.

The painting first came to America in 1928 and seven years later it was auctioned for $15,000 (so it has multiplied in price nearly 8,000 times since then). By 1938 it had been acquired by the New York heiress and collector Joan Whitney Payson. The orchard scene was purchased by Allen in 1998, from the Payson heirs, apparently in a private sale via a dealer.

The Allen evening sale of 9 November saw 60 works achieve a total of just over $1.5bn, making it by far the most valuable single collection ever sold at auction. Five paintings hit prices above $100m: works by Seurat ($149m), Cezanne ($138m), Van Gogh ($117m), Gauguin ($106m) and Klimt ($105m). Allen, who died in 2018, bequeathed all sales proceeds to his philanthropic ventures.

Van Gogh’s Parc à Arles avec un coin de la Maison Jaune (Park at Arles with a Corner of the Yellow House) (April 1888) Credit: Christie’s

Also included in the Allen sale was a fine Van Gogh drawing, Park at Arles with a Corner of the Yellow House (April 1888). Estimated at $3m-$5m, it sold for $3,780,000 (including buyer’s premium), so just above the low estimate.

This sketch had a most unusual provenance: it had been given by Vincent’s nephew to neighbours in 1941-42, to thank them for helping to douse a fire after his house had been struck by lightning.

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