On November 11, 1987 Sotheby's, New York auctioned off a previously little known work by the Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh. The painting was Irises and Van Gogh, when he was alive, never thought of the work as more than a sketch. Alan Bond, who had risen from virtually nothing to become one of the richest men in Australia (and who garnered international fame in 1983 by becoming the first non-American since 1841 to win the America's Cup) apparently held a much higher opinion of it and paid the then unheard of sum of 53.9 million dollars for the work, sending shockwaves through the art world.
His purchase touched off the era of the blockbuster art sale, and had a cascading effect few would have foreseen. If Irises was worth $54 million then how much was the much more famous "Starry Night" worth? If you were a museum that owned Starry Night how much did your insurance just increase by? If, in the past you were a private collector who might have been inclined to loan your Van Gogh out to this institution or that for scholarly retrospectives etc you now held it close to home for fear someone might steal it if you let it out of your sight. Or you simply sold it outright to some private collector from overseas for zillions of bucks and he treated it like any other big investment, locking it away in a vault somewhere.
Unfortunately the problems caused by the onset of the blockbuster auction have only become worse over the intervening years and there's no reason to think things won't continue to get crazier and crazier, with the big loser being, of course, the art loving public.
But back to Irises: There was only one problem with the auction of Irises and that was that Bond didn't have the money to back up his purchase. He wound up borrowing most of it from Sotheby's. As a result Sotheby's kept the painting as collateral against the money it had loaned Bond and the brazen Australian never even got to enjoy hanging the painting over his mantle.
Three years later the painting was re-sold by Sotheby's to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles where it hangs to this day.
For more about Van Gogh's life click here.
Van Gogh musem here.