Vincent van Gogh died in 1890 in the French town of Auvers-sur-Oise, outside of Paris. At the time, he was in the care of physician Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, an avid art collector and mediocre painter.
I doubt van Gogh ever met anyone as despondent as himself. But Gachet was quite the gloomy character in his own right. A few months before van Gogh ended his own life, he did a portrait of the sad doctor. Gachet sits with his elbow resting on a table, hand propping up his head and eyes so downcast you'd wonder how he managed to get out of bed in the morning. Maybe sadness is contagious.
Anyhow, Gachet's portrait changed hands several times as its painter's fame spread. On display at a German gallery in the early 1930's, it attracted the attention of the rapacious Nazi regime, who eventually seized it and put it up on public display in 1937 as part of an exhibition of the sort of "degenerate" art that they considered unworthy of their master race. Racial superiority doesn't seem to confer much of an aesthetic sense on its lucky recipient.
The painting might've become a casualty of war, but Nazi wheeler and dealer Hermann Goering found himself short of cash in 1937 and sold it to someone who gave it a safe home until the war's end. It spent the following decades in the Western Hemisphere, often going on public display at various galleries, until coming up for auction 100 years after its creation.
The 1990 sale of van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet to Japanese industrial baron Ryoei Saito for 82.5 million U.S. dollars shattered the record for most expensive work of art, previously held by another of van Gogh's paintings. Saito took the treasured canvas home to Tokyo, stared triumphantly at Gachet's morose mug for a few hours, and shunted it away into a vault. It has not been seen since. If it has, at least, no one is telling.
Fast-forward to 1993: the Japanese economic boom is grinding to a halt. Ryoei Saito is struggling financially and in trouble with the law. He announces to the press that he'll be taking the three-years-unseen painting with him to his grave. But prospective grave robbers take note: Saito's postmortem plans involve cremation. The world's most expensive painting will become just so much ash, to save Saito's heirs the monumental inheritance tax that'd be imposed on it.
The disreputable businessman later recanted his statement, but a legend was already in the making. Saito died in 1996. His heirs still insist that the painting is safe and intact, though they don't have it. And whoever does doesn't want the world to know. Historian Cynthia Saltzman contributed to the tale with what may be the longest-titled book ever written about a painting: Portrait of Dr. Gachet : The Story of a Van Gogh Masterpiece : Modernism, Money, Politics, Collectors, Dealers, Taste, Greed, and Loss. It looks as though the art world's version of Jimmy Hoffa will continue to grow in notoriety even as it gathers dust in some unknown collector's safe.