COLLECTIBLES: Going, Going, Van Gone

Going, Going, Van Gone

When the gavel came down and the auctioneer said "Sold," the standing-room- only crowd at Sotheby's in New York City gasped, and then broke into applause. Vincent van Gogh's 1889 masterpiece Irises had just been bought by an unnamed foreign bidder for $53.9 million, the highest price paid for an artwork at auction.

The sale smashed the record set just eight months ago by another Van Gogh, Sunflowers, which was bought by a Japanese insurance company for the seemingly untoppable sum of $39.9 million. Four of the ten highest prices ever paid at art auctions have been fetched by Van Gogh's...