The Mystery Of The Disappearing Van Gogh

The whereabouts of the disappearing Van Gogh painting named “The Still Life” are unknown after being purchased by producer Wang Zhongjun.

The bidding for Lot 17 started at $23 million.

In the packed room at Sotheby’s in Manhattan, the price quickly climbed: $32 million, $42 million, $48 million. Then a new prospective buyer, calling from China, made it a contest between just two people.

On the block that evening in November 2014 were works by Impressionist painters and Modernist sculptors that would make the auction the most successful yet in the firm’s history. But one painting drew particular attention: “Still Life, Vase with Daisies and Poppies,” completed by Vincent van Gogh weeks before his death.

Pushing the price to almost $62 million, the Chinese caller prevailed. His offer was the highest ever for a van Gogh still life at auction.

In the discreet world of high-end art, buyers often remain anonymous. But the winning bidder, a prominent movie producer, would proclaim in interview after interview that he was the painting’s new owner.

The producer, Wang Zhongjun, was on a roll. His company had just helped bring “Fury,” the World War II movie starring Brad Pitt, to cinemas. He dreamed of making his business China’s version of the Walt Disney Company.

The sale, according to Chinese media, became a national “sensation.” It was a sign — after the acquisition of a Picasso by a Chinese real estate tycoon the year before — that the country was becoming a force in the global art market.

“Ten years ago, I could not have imagined purchasing a van Gogh,” Mr. Wang said in a Chinese-language interview with Sotheby’s. “After buying it, I loved it so much.”

But Mr. Wang may not be the real owner at all. Two other men were linked to the purchase: an obscure middleman in Shanghai who paid Sotheby’s bill through a Caribbean shell company, and the person he answered to — a reclusive billionaire in Hong Kong.

The billionaire, Xiao Jianhua, was one of the most influential tycoons of China’s gilded age, creating a financial empire in recent decades by exploiting ties to the Communist Party elite and a new class of superrich businessmen. He also controlled a hidden offshore network of more than 130 companies holding over $5 billion in assets, according to corporate documents obtained by The New York Times. Among them was Sotheby’s invoice for the van Gogh.

The secrecy that pervades the art world and its dealmakers — including international auction houses like Sotheby’s — has drawn scrutiny in the years since the sale as authorities try to combat criminal activity. Large transactions often pass through murky intermediaries, and the vetting of them is opaque. Citing client confidentiality, Sotheby’s declined to comment on the purchase.

Today, Mr. Xiao is a man who has fallen far. Abducted from his luxury apartment and now imprisoned in mainland China, he was convicted of bribery and other misdeeds that prosecutors claimed had threatened the country’s financial security. Meanwhile, Mr. Wang is struggling, liquidating properties as his film studio loses money each year.

And the still life, according to several art experts, has been offered for private sale. For a century after van Gogh gathered flowers and placed them in an earthen vase to paint, the artwork’s provenance could be easily traced, and the piece was often exhibited in museums for visitors to admire. Now the painting has vanished from public view, its whereabouts unknown.

Art historian Prof James Hall, a former Guardian art critic, says that the Eiffel Tower may have been what inspired Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.

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