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.

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...