Burn a Van Gogh and be famous

If the Dr Gachet is destroyed, then Saito has assured himself some sort of immortality

THE TEMPLE of Artemis at Ephesus was destroyed, in the end, by a Greek named Herostratus. The historians record that he had only one reason for burning down the most celebrated temple of the ancient world. He wanted, he said, to ensure that his name would always be remembered. Well, he got his wish all right; but immortality is not always worth the price.

Herostratus came to mind yesterday when I was reading the disgusting news of the possible destruction of one of Van Gogh's portraits, of Paul- Ferdinand Gachet.

Disgusting, and not tragic, because if, as it seems, the painting has been destroyed, it was destroyed wilfully, to comply with an ingenious accountancy scheme to avoid death duties. It is hard to think of words to describe the wickedness of such an act; people who could do such a thing could, you feel, do anything.

The portrait of Dr Gachet was sold in 1990, at the grotesque height of the boom in picture prices. The picture was sold by Christie's for $82.5m, which was then, and has remained, the highest price ever paid for a painting.

Since then, a worldwide recession has wreaked its effects. A scholarly debate has started up which has made it apparent even to the most dimwitted collector that the authorship of Impressionist paintings may not be as certain as all that - a factor that had previously encouraged the richest buyers to think of the Impressionists as a blue-chip investment, free from the worrying vicissitudes of attribution among old masters which may turn a Rembrandt into an anonymous follower of Lievens overnight.

But way back in 1990, there can have seemed nothing more splendid than a high period Van Gogh, and when Ryoei Saito, a Tokyo paper magnate, was looking for a random object to spend an obscene amount of money on, the painting was the obvious answer. It displayed appallingly conspicuous consumption; it had a solid investment value; and yet it enabled Saito to pose as an enlightened and civilised man, rather than, say, a vulgar idiot with more money than sense.

Of course, vulgar idiots with more money than sense are two-a-penny in the world, and not worth the expression of anyone's opinion. What happened next, however, raised Saito to an unanticipated level of wickedness. Hit by a substantial tax bill, he suggested to his friends that if the Van Gogh and a Renoir were burnt at his death, his heirs would escape substantial liabilities in death duties. The old fool died three years ago, since when the painting has not been seen.

Whether or not his heirs burnt the painting - I mean, the whole thing sounds a bit like a story for the Japanese tax authorities, like saying that the dog ate your homework - the portrait is now lost for ever. Either it is in a heavily locked bank vault, or it is a small pile of incomparable ashes, scattered to the Japanese winds.

It did not begin as a financial fact. It began with an unheard-of and deeply disturbed painter, catching a likeness of the decent doctor who was helping him through his life.

But things sometimes get out of hand, and a hundred years after Vincent Van Gogh's death, what he had done was less important than the money it represented, and when it got in the way of money, it could be destroyed, or buried for ever.

I hope this story is not true. But if it is - and Saito certainly expressed the wish - he was an evil man, and whoever could carry out such an act on his instructions was no less evil. Of course, there are people who care nothing for Van Gogh, or for art. But on the whole, they do not wish to destroy something to which they are indifferent.

There are many people, too, who collect art only because it is valuable, and are not profoundly responsive to its more secretive selves. But even they don't care so much for money that they fail to preserve the precious object, even if it means paying tax on it, becoming unwitting guardians of an object whose value could never be reckoned in dollars, sterling or even yen.

If the Dr Gachet is destroyed, then Saito and his monstrous heirs have ensured themselves some sort of immortality; like Herostratus, a footnote in the history of culture. And there is an obscene symmetry between Saito and the man whose work he bought: the painter who sold only one painting in his life, and the man so rich that the only objects that could absorb his massive bank balance were paintings.

During Van Gogh's life, no one had heard of him, and afterwards his name needed no explanation.

But during Saito's life, it is fair to say, he was a pretty big shot, and after his death he was found to have done nothing to deserve to be remembered. Except, perhaps, one thing, something which proves that the desire to be remembered is strong even among people whose wickedness should, on the contrary, make them hope and pray to be quickly forgotten.

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