It was the one story I felt sorry I wrote after I wrote it: In March 2000, I published an article in the Wall Street Journal (linked at the bottom of this article), in which I suggested that Austrian-born investment fund manager Wolfgang Flöttl might have become the owner of the elusive “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” by van Gogh, which had set an auction record in 1990 when it sold to the Japanese industrialist Ryoei Saito for $82.5 million. After Saito died in 1996, the work changed hands and it became a favorite artworld parlor game to speculate, “Who owns ‘Dr. Gachet’?”
Nobody who actually knew the owner would tell me, and the people who named him didn’t know for sure and wouldn’t go on the record. His own art-investment adviser said, “If we did own ‘Gachet,’ we wouldn’t have any comment.”
But my extensive sleuthing told me Flöttl was a good educated guess, and I rashly printed his name, without giving any convincing support for it in the article.
Luckily (or maybe through good contacts and a dash of reportorial instinct), it turns out I was right: A front-page article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (here, for WSJ online subscribers) described in great detail Flöttl’s current financial and legal woes, and, deep in the article, on Page 16, included these passages:
Mr. Flöttl began accumulating expensive art. During the 1990s, he purchased at least 79 paintings, including works by French masters Cézanne, Degas and Renoir. He bought Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” and Picasso’s “Le Rêve.” Sotheby’s Holdings Inc. of New York helped him finance the purchases with a $244 million line of credit, according to an audit last year by the Austrian National Bank. Sotheby’s said in a statement that it made a loan of about $240 million in 1998 to a borrower it declined to identify, and that it was repaid that same year….
Mr. Flöttl sold Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” for $100 million to pay down part of what he owed Sotheby’s. In an effort to repay his Bawag loans, Mr. Flöttl transferred to the bank the title to tens of millions of dollars of art, including works by Cézanne, Renoir and Manet, and helped the bank sell the work.
So yes, he did own it, and now he doesn’t.
That means we can go on playing the same parlor game. But now, as a blogger, I’ve got lots of tipsters. So, readers, YOU tell me:
Who owns “Dr. Gachet”?
This is important for more than mere gossip value, as I said in my WSJ article:
The most important reason for outing the angst-ridden doctor is his iconic status — not on the art market, but in art history. This late masterpiece, which van Gogh said embodied “the heartbroken expression of our time,” is the culmination of the artist’s work as the progenitor of modern portraiture, the aspect of his oeuvre that meant most to him. Fortunate owners of such precious nuggets of world culture should feel some responsibility to share them with the rest of us, at least “once in a century,” as van Gogh scholar Ronald Pickvance recently put it.
But wait a minute, I also wrote this:
New Yorker Ronald Lauder, chairman of the Museum of Modern Art, …had hoped to acquire “Dr. Gachet” for his own collection.
I must emphasize that I have no knowledge that Lauder is the current owner. Then again, the next exhibition to be mounted at his Neue Galerie is a bit of a stretch for a museum of Austrian and German Expressionism:
On March 22, 2007, Neue Galerie New York will open “Van Gogh and Expressionism,” an exhibition that will explore the crucial influence of Vincent van Gogh on German an Austrian Expressionism. More than 80 paintings and drawings wil be on view, including several major canvases by van Gogh.
Time will tell (maybe). Meanwhile, click the link below to read the text of my March 2000 WSJ article, with more background on the tangled fortunes and misfortunes of “Dr. Gachet.”
A Doctor in the House,
But Whose House?
By LEE ROSENBAUM
Wall Street Journal
March 7, 2000
I t’s time for the keeper of the first of Vincent van Gogh’s two versions of “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” (1890) to release it from solitary confinement. If the mega-collector who has custody of the melancholy doctor would allow him some fresh air, there’s a place reserved for him in a major portraits exhibition, “Van Gogh: Face to Face,” opening March 12 in Detroit and then traveling to Boston and Philadelphia. Indeed, there’s scarcely a museum curator in the world who wouldn’t welcome a house call from the renowned doctor.
Gary Tinterow, 19th-century European paintings curator at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, recently tried in vain to schedule a visit from the doctor. Before “Dr. Gachet” went into seclusion, he had spent almost six years on loan at the Met, on view to millions until 1990. That’s when the painting was dispatched by its owner, a trust under the will of Siegfried Kramarsky, to Christie’s, where it became the most expensive artwork ever auctioned, commanding $82.5 million from the Japanese industrialist Ryoei Saito. Since then it has reportedly changed hands again, in secret — but not into oblivion. “Dr. Gachet’s” new owner is no mystery to Mr. Tinterow. He is a major collector of “all sorts of distinguished European pictures, old masters as well as impressionist and post-impressionist,” and is “someone who doesn’t lend,” the Met curator revealed.
Trying to snare the work for their recently concluded show, “Cezanne to Van Gogh: The Collection of Doctor Gachet,” Mr. Tinterow and Susan Alyson Stein, associate curator at the Met, along with Anne Distel, curator-in-chief at the Musee d’Orsay, Paris, which now owns Dr. Gachet’s own eclectic art collection, contacted the low-profile acquirer through an art professional in New York. The intermediary was “somebody I have known for a long time, in whom I have perfect confidence,” said Ms. Distel. No dice.
The Gachet exhibition, also shown at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, included the second, generally less-highly regarded version of Gachet’s portrait, which is owned by the Musee d’Orsay. That painting sported a very unmuseum-like wall label, informing visitors that “a similar portrait sold from his [van Gogh’s] estate in 1897 for roughly $58, changed hands a dozen times and brought a record-breaking $82.5 million in 1990.”
Although the cachet of Gachet, van Gogh’s failed homeopathic healer, owes much to his status as the subject of the world’s most expensive painting, there are more pressing cultural imperatives for granting scholars and the public the first chance in 10 years to scan his sallow, careworn physiognomy. For one thing, serious questions have recently been raised about the authenticity of the Musee d’Orsay’s “Dr. Gachet,” giving new urgency to the argument that the two versions, never brought together since they left the artist’s studio, should at last be studied side-by-side.
But the most important reason for outing the angst-ridden doctor is his iconic status — not on the art market, but in art history. This late masterpiece, which van Gogh said embodied “the heartbroken expression of our time,” is the culmination of the artist’s work as the progenitor of modern portraiture, the aspect of his oeuvre that meant most to him. Fortunate owners of such precious nuggets of world culture should feel some responsibility to share them with the rest of us, at least “once in a century,” as van Gogh scholar Ronald Pickvance recently put it.
In the meantime, gossip about the secretive owner of “Dr. Gachet” rages. George Keyes, curator of European painting at the Detroit Institute of Arts, said that during his attempt to track down “Dr. Gachet” for the portraits show, he heard that it is almost certainly in New York. New Yorker Ronald Lauder, chairman of the Museum of Modern Art, who had hoped to acquire “Dr. Gachet” for his own collection, identified the new possessor as a French collector. Other rumors have put it in the clutches of an Italian pasta magnate, a Swiss art dealer and an American investor. But Mr. Tinterow said that he “would be surprised if the painting were physically in New York,” and that the person he indirectly contacted is neither a New Yorker nor a French collector. Mr. Tinterow also admitted that although he knows the identity of the person from whom he tried to borrow “Dr. Gachet,” he did not actually get to see the painting to verify its ownership.
The owner may have several compelling reasons to keep the painting out of the public eye. For one, there’s the wacko factor. “It will inevitably attract a nutcase if it’s on view,” predicted Michael Findlay, international director of 19th- and 20th-century art at Christie’s. “You’d have to show it behind 10 inches of bulletproof glass.” You’d also have to be willing to mount a legal defense against a possible ownership claim by Christine Koenigs of Amsterdam, who believes that her grandfather gave the painting to banker Siegfried Kramarsky for safekeeping before Mr. Kramarsky fled Nazi-threatened Holland for the United States in 1939. It was Mr. Kramarsky’s heirs who consigned it to Christie’s.
Walter Feilchenfeldt, a Zurich dealer and van Gogh expert, dismisses Ms. Koenigs’s claim as meritless. The son of the dealer who had stored “Dr. Gachet” on his premises after its 1938 purchase by Franz Koenigs, Mr. Feilchenfeldt asserted that although Mr. Koenigs had fronted the transaction, “my family assumed that Kramarsky financially bought the painting.” Wynn Kramarsky, son of the Amsterdam banker, also debunked Ms. Koenigs’s claim but admitted he had no proof of Siegfried Kramarsky’s good title. “The records,” he said, “have been destroyed.”
According to Cynthia Saltzman in her 1998 book, “Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a van Gogh Masterpiece,” no one knows the details of the deal that transferred the van Gogh from Mr. Koenigs to Mr. Kramarsky. She speculated that Mr. Koenigs probably gave the painting to Mr. Kramarsky to defray a debt. But Ms. Koenigs insists that all the works that had served as collateral are on a list that does not include “Dr. Gachet.”
Another likely explanation for the new owner’s lack of public-spiritedness is that, for security and privacy reasons, some megabucks collectors prefer to conceal their riches. One possessor of “Gachet”-level paintings, Austrian-born investment fund manager Wolfgang Flottl, “has an extensive collection, never comments on what he owns or sells and hardly ever lends,” according to William Poppe, managing director of Normandy Asset Management in New York, which advises Mr. Flottl on his fine-arts transactions. “If we did own ‘Gachet,’ ” declared Mr. Poppe, “we wouldn’t have any comment.” Mr. Flottl, described several years ago by Business Week as a “secretive Bahamas-based investor,” received unaccustomed publicity late last year when he sold a major Cezanne to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles for a price that Scott Schaefer, the museum’s curator of paintings, indicated was more than $50 million.
While the complete story of the selling of the painting may never be told, certain details have emerged. Mr. Tinterow was one of several players who were alerted by dealers, as well as by Sotheby’s and Christie’s, about the availability of “Dr. Gachet” sometime after the 1996 death of Mr. Saito, who left behind a sizable debt that was reportedly reduced by the sale of the van Gogh.
A veteran New York dealer, who asked not to be identified, revealed that in spring 1998 he was invited to Tokyo, as were representatives from Sotheby’s and Christie’s, to discuss the marketing of “Dr. Gachet” with Fuji Bank, one of the biggest creditors of Mr. Saito’s company, Daishowa Paper Manufacturing. “Fuji Bank rejected an offer from one of my clients of close to $75 million,” the dealer revealed.
The Washington Post reported last July that, according to “two independent sources,” Sotheby’s had “paid several million dollars to the Japanese creditors for a limited option to sell the work. When that effort failed, Sotheby’s forfeited the sum.” Sotheby’s refused comment for both that article and this one. Fuji Bank and Hideto Kobayashi, the Tokyo dealer who purchased “Dr. Gachet” at auction for Mr. Saito, also refused comment.
That is the end of the story — for now but not forever. John Leighton, director of the Van Gogh Museum, feels confident that the painting “at some stage will appear again.” This is, of course, wishful thinking. The one weakness in Mr. Leighton’s museum’s collection, he candidly observed, is portraiture. “A Gachet portrait,” he sighed, “would be a crown jewel here.”