LONDON, DEC. 3 -- It's not often that Christie's auction house here devotes half its catalogue to an American film star. But in spite of the hype, Elizabeth Taylor's van Gogh -- "The View of the Asylum and the Chapel at St. Remy" -- failed to sell tonight when bidding did not reach the work's low estimate of $16 million.
The painting has come to symbolize a bygone age of unprecedented ostentation and self-indulgence. Elizabeth Taylor's father, Francis Taylor, a London dealer in impressionist and Renaissance art, bought it for his daughter at auction in 1963 for $184,000.
The actress had been searching for a significant van Gogh for 12 years, and upon seeing this one wanted it "no matter what." Wisely, her father sent both Taylor and her husband, Richard Burton, off to Paris, knowing full well that her mere presence in the auction house would automatically "double the price." The painting hung for many years in the salon of the Burtons' yacht Kalizma, which was remodeled to accommodate it. It was said to be her favorite work of art and was being sold for personal reasons.
The demand for van Gogh paintings of high quality had grown tremendously since 1987 when "Sunflowers" broke existing price barriers by selling at Christie's for $39.9 million. Since then, eight other van Goghs have fetched more than $10 million, led by "Portrait of Dr. Gachet," which sold in May for a world record $82.5 million.
Commenting tonight on the failure of the picture to sell, Christie's spokesman Mark Wray said: "The market has come down a tier. You can take a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. This was a signed picture."
The salesroom was overflowing with a mixture of Japanese, European and American buyers, the Americans bemoaning the lack of legroom. "It's worse than Concorde," one grumbled. The atmosphere was a bit like a slightly disrespectful funeral -- the congregation with its brightly colored prayer books, the staff ushering the works of art into their next life without so much as a tear.
The van Gogh dates from 1889, near the end of the artist's troubled life, though it has a tranquil atmosphere. An extended foreground celebrates the glory of autumn with foliage in yellow, oranges and greens contrasting with a little cluster of oddly assorted buildings in the center. Van Gogh had committed himself to the asylum voluntarily and painted the picture after a severe epileptic attack that had disrupted his work for at least six weeks. He wrote to his brother, Theo: "After all, I am not as violent as all that. I feel myself in calmness."