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Vincent van Gogh
Peasant Woman
sold at the Shinwa Art GalleryTokyo

Kazumasa Nakagawa

Kazumasa Nakagawa

Ryusei Kishida
Reiko, Five Years Old
National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
Suddenly van Gogh
by Kay Itoi

It has been more than a decade since Tokyo has seen such excitement at an art auction. Hours before the sale was to kick off at 3 o'clock last Saturday, Feb. 8, 2003, the basement salesroom of Shinwa Art Auction in the Ginza, Japan's old art district, was packed -- overstuffed, really -- with seasoned art dealers, anxious collectors and herds of TV crews and reporters. Everybody was busy on their cell phones, or ebulliently chatting with others in the audience.

The source of this fever was an unassuming profile of a woman, simply titled Portrait of a Woman by "artist unknown." Buried among 168 various items, ranging from Japanese inkstones, Buddhist statues, Korean antique furniture to European oil paintings and much else, it had been estimated to be worth between 10,000 yen ($85) and 20,000 yen ($169).

In a sudden turn of events, however, just 40 hours before the auction, the dark-colored profile of a peasant woman in a white bonnet was confirmed to be painted by Vincent van Gogh. At the end of the day on Feb. 8, the painting had found a buyer at 66,000,000 yen ($550,000).

The following morning, the van Gogh was plastered on the front pages of all the major newspapers in Japan. The little lady had brought a new level of drama to Tokyo's depressed art market. Despite the well-known love for the artist among the Japanese (the $86.5 million paid by the late businessman Ryoei Saito in 1990 for Portrait of Dr. Gachet still stands as the all-time auction record), a van Gogh painting had never before been publicly auctioned in Japan.

When the collection of the famous Japanese painter Kazumasa Nakagawa (1896-1991) was brought last year to Shinwa, Japan's largest auction house, one of the items -- the portrait -- immediately caught the eye of the firm's execs, who are veteran art dealers. Suspecting it was an early van Gogh, they checked the catalogue raisonn of van Gogh's works. "To our regret, it looked rather different than the picture in the catalogue," said Shinji Hasada, Shinwa's managing director.

Though there seemed to be numerous differences between the portrait in question and the picture in the catalogue, Hasada and his colleagues knew that Nakagawa had admired van Gogh. What's more, he had been wealthy enough to have owned one. Nakagawa also produced oils of sunflowers somewhat similar to van Gogh's famous pictures and even published a book on the Dutch artist in 1925, though he left no records about this particular little painting. Shinwa sent materials on it to the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

In January the Van Gogh museum sent word that the experts would like to examine the painting. With the sale nearing, a Shinwa expert hopped on a plane, hand-carrying the woman's portrait to Amsterdam, and left it with the Dutch specialists. It was almost midnight on Feb. 6, when the confirmation finally arrived via fax. "It is our opinion that the painting, Peasant Woman (F 131/JH 685, 41.4 x 35.0 cm), is an authentic work by van Gogh," declared Louis van Tilborgh, curator of paintings at the museum, where the experts had run tests of the paint layers and an x-ray.

Tilborgh's note included a bit of bad news: "However, due to restorations, the painting has lost most of its original character and van Gogh's characteristic brushstrokes are only partially recognizable." It was painted between November 1884 and May 1885 and left behind by the artist in Nuenen, Holland. Having been heavily retouched twice in the 1950s, much of the original surface of the painting is not visible.

Still, a van Gogh is a van Gogh. Within hours, Shinwa translated the letter from Amsterdam into Japanese, alerted the press and laid out additional chairs in an upstairs gallery to seat hundreds more people.

The sale started slowly at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and there were 147 items to deal with before it got to the van Gogh. Many of these works carried estimates of around 30,000 yen ($254). Possibly buoyed by the expectations for the van Gogh, whose pre-sale estimate had been withdrawn, all lots were sold, often for much better prices than their high estimates.

Finally, at 7:19 pm, auctioneer Tatsuo Hirano told the audience that he'd begin the bidding for the van Gogh picture with 5,000,000 yen ($42,373), but soon a bidder shouted, "15,000,000 yen ($127,119)!" After a few minutes of rapid-fire bidding, the auction settled down to contest between a middle-aged man who looked like a dealer and a woman in a fire-engine-red sweater, who had stood out all afternoon in the sea of men in dark suits (as often is the scene at Japanese auctions). Within minutes, the hammer fell to applause, chatter and sighs, as everyone strained and peered, trying to discover the winning bidder.

In the post-sale press conference, art dealer Hideo Ebihara, who had obviously triumphed over the woman in red, was all smiles. He revealed that he had been on the cell phone during the entire auction with his client Toshio Nakamoto, who lives in Hiroshima. "He had told me that he wanted it, but didn't tell me how far I could go," said Ebihara.

Nakamoto is chairman of Wood One Co., which manufactures secondary processed plywood and processes lumber housing fixture products. As a collector, he is a bit like the late Nakagawa, with interests in various fields. The Wood One Museum of Art in Hiroshima houses Nakamoto's 800-piece collection, which features modern Japanese-style paintings, Meissen porcelain, Art Nouveau glassware, Chinese ceramics and Satsuma (Japanese) earthenware.

Nakamoto made headlines in December 2000 when he bought Portrait of Reiko Wearing a Wool Shawl (1914) by the Japanese artist Ryusei Kishida at a Shinwa sale for $3.2 million, the most expensive artwork ever sold at a Japanese auction. Nakamoto has happily announced that he'll exhibit van Gogh's Peasant Woman at his museum, opening on Apr. 15, 2003.

After the sale, market watchers expressed their surprise. Some thought the hammer price was twice what would be appropriate, given its condition. Sound familiar? Indeed, 12 or 13 years ago, observers noted exactly the same thing after each big sale.

Does this little van Gogh herald another art boom in Japan? That's unlikely; the price we're talking about now is $500,000, not $50,000,000 like we saw in 1990.

KAY ITOI is author of In Search of Lost Masterpieces (Jiji Press, 2001).