Of Vincent and Eanum Pig

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Last week a painting was sold at auction in London for $39.9 million or, in real money, some 5.8 billion yen. This was the highest price ever paid for a work of art. The multimillion-dollar marvel is now a commonplace of the '80s: a Turner went for $10 million in 1984, a Mantegna for $10.4 million and a Van Gogh for $9.9 million in 1985, and a Rembrandt for $10.3 million and a Manet for $11 million in 1986. Nevertheless, this one brought in more than three times the previous record established in 1983 with the sale of the 12th century illuminated Gospels of Henry the Lion for $11.9 million.

The lucky object was by Vincent van Gogh -- the largest and best known of seven paintings of sunflowers in a pot that he had done in Arles between August 1888 and January 1889. It was bought through telephone bids by an anonymous collector. It was the next to the last in the sunflowers series still left in private hands, since four are in museums and one was destroyed in Yokohama during World War II.

"He was a strange man," Christie's auctioneer Charles Allsopp said of Van Gogh amid the clamor that followed the fall of the gavel. "He wasn't very good at marketing it." Not only a deep epitaph but a modest understatement: Van Gogh sold, as everyone knows, one painting in his life, and it was not Sunflowers. If only he had had what we have today -- a million millionaires clamoring for art, corporate art advisers breeding like Gucci-shod mice in every cranny from Tokyo to Stuttgart, the whole grotesque edifice of sanctimony, hype, greed and social mummery that has been raised above bones like his. How much closer he might have come, poor strange man, to an understanding of his own value.

To discuss a reason for this price is to imply that on some level, the price was rational; perhaps it is better to speak of causes, since with this auction such convulsions at the higher end of the art market are flatly shown for what they are, symptoms of pathology. There is no rational price for a work of art. That price is solely an index of desire, and nothing is more manipulable than desire, a fact as well known to auctioneers as to hookers. All works of art are worth exactly what someone can be induced to pay for them as fictions of uniqueness.

Colossal amounts of money are afloat in the hands of a new entrepreneurial class that has fixated on "masterpieces." One cannot spend $39.9 million on houses, Ferraris or caviar without looking like an ape. Art is the saving grace by which any nasty Croesus with more money than he knows what to do with can look virtuous. It confers an oily sheen of spiritual transcendence and cultural responsibility upon individual and corporation alike. That is why even a soft-porn merchant like Bob Guccione, publisher of Penthouse magazine, is now a "major" collector.

The result of all this is that private collectors are driving museums out of the market. Even in the midst of the lunacy, some deals seem more rational than others: the Getty Museum, for instance, got a relative bargain when it bought its great David, The Farewell of Telemachus to Eucharis, for some $4 million earlier this year. But no museum in the world can compete with the private sector for paintings like Sunflowers.

Why such a price for Sunflowers? It is one of the larger Van Goghs, if not necessarily the best. Thanks to mass reproduction, it is exceptionally popular and famous. Its clones have hung on so many suburban walls over the decades that it has become the Mona Lisa of the vegetable world. What is more, everyone associates it with Van Gogh's madness; it is the embodied sign of what all persons of cultural pretension long ago learned to call his "last outburst of frenzied genius," or words to that effect. Thus, apart from its merits as a painting, it has the sentimental pull of a truck. Against this must be set its reduced condition. The high chrome yellow paint that Van Gogh used was unstable, and it has darkened to ocher and brown, so that the whole chromatic key of the painting is gone; the paint surface has turned callused with time and has little of the vivacity or even the textural beauty one sees in other Van Goghs.

What the eager art world saw at Christie's on Monday of last week, Van Gogh's 134th birthday, was less a market transaction than a quasi-religious rite. The house was being washed in the blood of Vincent, the Lamb of Modernism. (And none too soon, skeptics might say, since less than two years ago the president of Christie's, David Bathurst, had to admit that he had tried to rig the market by falsely announcing he had sold a Van Gogh and a Gauguin.)

The form of the rite divided neatly into three phases. First, the Manifestation, during which Sunflowers was exhibited, behind bars, to long queues of curiosity seekers at Christie's. Then the Ascension, or auction proper, in which Vincent's glorified body was raised to the empyrean in 4 minutes 30 seconds, a rate of climb of $147,700 per second. And third, the Eucharistic Feast. After the sale, Christie's brought out a savory 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. It was cut up and eaten by the worshipers. No doubt when and if a major Van Gogh self-portrait comes on the block, there will be a distribution of marzipan ears.

Two days later in a lakefront tent at the Hotel Beau-Rivage in Geneva, another event began: the sale of the late Duchess of Windsor's jewelry, organized by Christie's rival auction house Sotheby's. Here was a nominal contrast at least, since though everyone admires Van Gogh, none but a snob or a fantasist (not that we are short of either) could feel much nostalgia for Wallis Simpson and her husband, who abdicated the throne of England in 1936 and was obliged to spend the war years as governor of the Bahamas on account of his thinly veiled Nazi sympathies. Nevertheless, this pair of calcified drones, who wrote to each other in baby talk ("Eanum Pig" was his code for her) but never said a memorable thing to anyone else -- except for the Duchess's mot, refuted by her own person, that one cannot be "too rich or too thin" -- are still imagined, especially by elderly Americans, to be a modern version of Tristan and Isolde. Hence Sotheby's spent a bundle before the sale hyping the jewels and went into a second printing with a $50 catalog that dilated, as though describing the iconography of a Rubens, on such events as the death of the future Duchess's dog Slipper.

The fabled tchotchkes were shown in advance to conclaves of socialites and patient lines of ordinary folk in New York City, Palm Beach, Fla., and Geneva -- though not in England, where the dead Windsors have the kind of sociopolitical karma that, in the discreet words of Marcus Linell, a marketing director who was in charge of the sales, "could have spoiled things." Most of the jewelry was florid stuff from the '40s and '50s, of no stylistic distinction, with some good stones and a few inventive settings. None of that mattered. Sotheby's had projected a total sale of $7.5 million; the two-day affair fetched $50 million (which, in accordance with the Duchess's will, went for the benefit of medical research at Paris' Pasteur Institute). The well- known bauble collector Elizabeth Taylor phoned in from Los Angeles to pick up a diamond clip for $565,000.

One thinks of this event as ugly social comedy at one's own risk. Of course such sales are parodies. But the point is that they are no more so, these days, than the sale of a Van Gogh. The big auction, as transformed by Sotheby's and Christie's, is now the natural home of all that is most demeaning to the public sense of art. Sunflowers was once alive, and now it is dead -- as dead as bullion, or Eanum Pig's bracelets.