SCOTLAND.- Claire Smith of The Scotsman.com reported that until Picasso’s Le Garçon à la Pipe sold for more than $100 million (£56 million) this week, Van Gogh’s Portrait de Dr Gachet was the world’s most expensive painting. Yet the masterpiece, bought for $82.5 million by Ryoei Saito in 1990, has not been seen since the Japanese paper magnate died in 1996. Saito once threatened to burn the painting to avoid inheritance tax - so did the most notorious example of a "lost" masterpiece go to the grave with its owner?
Experts are also unsure of the whereabouts of Renoir’s Au Moulin de la Galette, which Saito bought for $78 million a few days after the Van Gogh. Two Van Gogh’s stolen in Amsterdam in 1990 have never re-emerged, and works by Vermeer, Rembrandt and da Vinci (The Madonna with the Yarnwinder, stolen from Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfries-shire last year) are also missing.
Experts say that an increasing number of masterpieces will remain "lost" because of the dominance of the art market by a small number of super-rich collectors. It is easy for these wealthy individuals to keep personal treasures secret and trade among themselves. Picasso’s Le Garçon à la Pipe and the missing Dr Gachet, a portrait of the physician who treated Van Gogh and became his friend, are both rumored to have been bought by the Italian spaghetti billionaire, Guido Barilla.
Sarah Jackson, an expert on Dr Gachet who works for the International Art Loss Register, thinks Van Gogh’s portrait probably was not destroyed by Mr. Saito, but sold to another collector. She said: "My belief is the painting was bought by a very wealthy individual. Unless that person decides to lend it to a museum, it will be hidden from the public. Some paintings will resurface, others may be put in a bank and used as a security against a loan."
Unless wealthy collectors court kudos by lending or gifting works to public museums, the whereabouts of paintings can remain a mystery for years.
The Art Loss Register recently uncovered an £18 million Cézanne, which had been missing since 1978.
The art industry analyst Guita Abidari, who works for the art-pricing experts Gabrius, said it was rare that paintings of the quality of Le Garçon à la Pipe went on sale, and that the exceptionally high prices were due to the outstanding nature of the works.
"We don’t believe this is going to set a trend for higher prices."
While public galleries cannot compete with the super-rich collectors, Ms Abidari said some made public donations as a legacy for future generations.
Richard Calvocoressi, the director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, said galleries would inevitably have to rely on gifts or loans to maintain collections in future.
"Prices have been increasing for the last ten to 15 years, but they have been too high for us for some time now. Our acquisitions budget is £1.2 million a year, so whether it is £56 million or £57 million, it is still way beyond our reach."
Portrait de Dr Gachet, Van Gogh - sold for $82.5m (£47.1m) in May 1990.
• Au Moulin de la Galette, Renoir, $78m (£44.5m).
• Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna with the Yarnwinder, right, is still missing after its theft from Drumlanrig Castle in Scotland last summer.
• Two Van Goghs stolen in Amsterdam in 1990 have never re-emerged and works by Vermeer and Rembrandt are also still lost.