Van Gogh, showing his best side, goes for pounds 44m sells for

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A YEAR had passed since he cut off his right ear in a moment of self- disgust, but the artist Vincent Van Gogh wanted to reassure his mother all was well, so he shaved off his beard to make himself look younger, and painted a self-portrait for her, showing his left side.

That painting, Portrait de l'artiste sans barbe, has just sold for $71.5m (pounds 44m), the third-highest price reached for a picture, to an anonymous bidder.

A hush fell over the audience when the painting was brought on to the block in Christie's New York saleroom. As the offers rose from $14m (pounds 8.75m) to the estimated price of $20m (pounds 12.5m), the silence became more intense. Seven bidders joined in at first but as the price continued to climb they dropped out one by one.

Finally there were just two anonymous figures, one via telephone and the other through a representative, battling it out to the final price of pounds 44m, which includes the auction house's commission of 10 per cent. As the hammer fell for the last time, the audience cheered and clapped.

The highest paid for a Van Gogh - or indeed any piece of art - was $82.5m (pounds 51.5m) for Portrait of Dr Gachet in 1990. The same year a painting by Renoir, Au Moulin de la Galette, sold for $78.1m (pounds 48.8m)

In 1889, when Van Gogh completed the painting, he was living in an asylum at St Remy, and had just resumed painting after suffering a bout of psychosis.

A few months earlier, after a fight with fellow artist Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh had sliced off part of his right ear, wrapped it in newspaper and given it to a prostitute that both men knew.

When he resumed his work he painted six portraits, including three of himself. This one is regarded as second only to Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear.

"It's an absolutely stunning painting," said Andree Corroon, a spokeswoman for Christie's. "He was very upset that he couldn't make it back for his mother's 70th birthday, so he did this painting to show her that he was in good health, which he wasn't.

"He shaved his beard off to make himself look younger."

Libbie Howie, a London dealer, said: "I loved it. There will be no other chance to buy one. There are three of the six self-portraits left in private hands and two of them have been gifted to museums.

"This was the third and its condition was superb, it was absolutely genuinely the height of quality. I will never get a chance again."

Another dealer said: "For a very rich man, this picture is the ultimate signature statement. It announces not just that you have arrived, it says that you've been someone enormous for a very, very long time."

The artist himself would no doubt have been amazed. He sold only one picture during his lifetime and such was his depression that he took his own life.