Alan Bond and His Brief but Spoiled Ownership of van Gogh’s “Irises”
"Irises", Vincent van Gogh, 1889, Oil on canvas, 74.3 x 94.3 cm (29 1/4 x 37 1/8 in.), image courtesy the Getty Museum

“Irises”, Vincent van Gogh, 1889, Oil on canvas, 74.3 x 94.3 cm (29 1/4 x 37 1/8 in.), image courtesy the Getty Museum

Obituaries can be revelatory or maddeningly incomplete as evidenced by Tuesday’s ((June 9) send off in the New York Times headlined “Alan Bond, 77, Yachting Hero and Convict.”

You can be sure the obituary generated headline will always bring up any criminal behavior or scandal of the recently departed but in the case of Bond, an Australian brewery and real estate magnate who fell on hard times and tried to bail himself out through financial chicanery, the paper left out a stunning part of his colorful legacy.

In November 1987, a month after the stock market crash dubbed “Black Friday,” Bond bought Vincent van Gogh’s masterful still life, “Irises” from 1889 for a record shattering $53.9 million at Sotheby’s New York, at the time the highest price for any art work bought at auction.

Sold from the collection of John Whitney Payson, whose larger-than-life mother, Joan Whitney Payson, acquired the work in 1947 from M. Knoedler & Company in New York for $80,000, the painting had been on extended loan from 1977-1986 at Westbrook College in Portland Maine in the eponymous Joan Whitney Payson Gallery of Art.

The extraordinary and unexpected price (the estimate was unpublished) invigorated the art market and helped stage a mini-art boom that lasted until November 1990.

Bond, already famed and lauded in his home country for privately financing Australia’s thrilling victory in the 1983 America’s Cup yacht race, intended to exhibit his still life trophy in his Perth Australia corporate headquarters but there turned out to be a big hitch.

Bond couldn’t pay for the painting and Sotheby’s, led at the time by ceo Diana D. Brooks, who later would be prosecuted for price-fixing, cut a post-sale deal through the firm’s financial services arm, essentially loaning the skinned magnate some $27 million (roughly half the purchase price) and holding the painting in an undisclosed location as collateral.

That unusual arrangement, at least in the auction world of that time, only became public knowledge in 1989, almost two years after the historic sale when it was revealed by an executive in Dallhold Investment Ltd., Bond’s holding company, that the painting was still under Sotheby’s control and would continue to be until Bond finished paying off the loan.

That loan closure apparently came about in November 1989 when Bond sold Edouard Manet’s “la Promenade” from 1880 at Sotheby’s New York for $14.85 million (est. $10-14 million).

The catalogue entry wasn’t shy about the ownership, identifying the painting as “Property from a Collection formed by Alan Bond.”

Even that work fell under a financial cloud when Australian corporate regulators later claimed the painting had been used in an intercompany shuffling that benefitted Bond’s family company over that of the publicly traded Bond Corporation.

It remains unclear as to whether Bond ever got to live with or even see “Irises” again, a composition that van Gogh painted in the unkempt garden of the asylum at Saint- Remy where he was voluntarily confined for a time after his falling out with Gauguin in Arles and the self-mutilation of his right ear.

The painting changed hands for a final time in March 1990 when it was announced that the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu acquired the work for an undisclosed sum and entered the collection as the museum’s “greatest 19th century painting.”

Sotheby’s brokered that deal and market experts at the time speculated the purchase price was in the range of $50-70 million.

“I am very pleased with this sale,” said Mr. Bond, according to a statement released by Sotheby’s at the time, “particularly because this great masterpiece will be on exhibition at such a pre-eminent museum.”

The questionable auction record set by “Irises” in November 1987 wasn’t surpassed until May 1990 at Christie’s New York when van Gogh’s “Portrait du Dr. Gachet” sold for $82.5 million.

Since then, three other van Goghs have shot past “Irises,” including “L’Allee des Alyscamps” from 1888 that sold this past May at Sotheby’s New York for $66.3 million.

Even so, Mr. Bond deserves a more complete obituary.

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