Yet despite immersing himself in his work, studying masters such as Peter Paul Rubens, working with fellow artist Paul Gauguin, and receiving praise from contemporaries like Claude Monet, Van Gogh’s work remained firmly off the art dealer’s auction block. Van Gogh infamously only sold two paintings and a handful of drawings during his lifetime. One, a self-portrait, was sent by Van Gogh’s younger brother Theo to London art dealers Sulley & Lori in 1888 with a letter thanking them for their payment. The other, The Red Vineyard from 1888, was bought from an exhibition in Brussels in early 1890 by Anna Boch, a painter and the sister of Van Gogh’s poet friend Eugene Boch.
Van Gogh was a commercial failure as an artist and had to rely on the charity of Theo to survive. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 1890 Van Gogh ‘ironically and modestly assessed his artistic legacy as of “very secondary” importance.’ However, by 1890 he was beginning to be recognised for his talent and vision. Gauguin wrote to say Van Gogh’s paintings were being called the ‘most remarkable’ on display at the the Indépendants salon in Paris. Since his death later that year Van Gogh’s staggering influence has manifested itself throughout art history, from the vibrant colours of the Fauvists immediately following him to the Abstract Expressionists’ emotion filled brushstrokes of the mid-twentieth century.
Although his paintings were deemed by art dealers to be (at first) too dark and (later) too garish, his wide impact across the arts - and the art market - is apparent today. On 30 March 1987 Van Gogh’s iconic Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers sold at Christie’s in London for £24.75 million ($39.7), the highest ever sale of a painting at that time. Today Van Gogh’s works account for seven of the most expensive paintings in the world. Alongside his friend Gauguin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?), which sold for $303 million in 2015 are Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet (sold in 1990 for $82.5 million) and Portrait of Joseph Roulin (sold in 1989 for $58 million plus an exchange of works for the Museum of Modern Art New York). These prices are a far cry from the 400 Belgian francs his Red Vineyard earned back in 1890.
Art prices have continued to climb in recent years despite the economic recession due to demand for this status-affirming luxury good from newly minted billionaires and newly emerging economies. Although Van Gogh is achieving posthumous eye watering prices for his works these results belie the many artists struggling, as Van Gogh did in his lifetime, for recognition and monetary success. While Van Gogh’s paintings continue to capture sky-high bids at auction, it is our imagination that his art truly captures long after the gavel comes down.