The news bulletins today hinted of shadowy treasure and riches slipped away: The world's most expensive painting has disappeared, the newscasters say, a masterpiece painting last seen in the hands of an eccentric Japanese man.

From New York to Paris, some of the world's foremost art curators have now been forced to list the whereabouts of Vincent van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" as simply "unknown." That has prompted a flurry of reports this week about this dark work and the mysterious man who last owned it--Ryoei Saito, a conflicted symbol of Japan's magnificent rise and inglorious fall.

They were an odd couple from the start--Saito and Dr. Gachet--and some found the mix of East and West too jarring to their rigid view of the proper world order.

Which is perhaps what Saito, a self-made Japanese millionaire, relished most when he stepped from obscurity at a New York art auction in 1990 with $82.5 million to buy Vincent van Gogh's sad portrait of the painter's physician, Paul-Ferdinand Gachet.

The art world was aghast at the record price, doubly aghast two days later when Saito paid just a bit less for a Renoir, and triply aghast that the European masterpieces were to be spirited away by one of Japan's bubble-economy nouveau riche.

There might have been some smug pleasure, then, at the curse that befell this odd couple; at the ignominious fall and disgraced death of the Japanese businessman; at the return of the van Gogh to the shadowy corners of the art scene.

Two awkwardly joined worlds once again split--Saito, once a symbol of the swaggering wealth of Japan, now epitomized its economic stumble; and the painting, with its own lurid Nazi past and contested claims to its ownership, now likely gone from Japan, according to Saito's son, probably to the United States.

Where is "The Portrait of Dr. Gachet"? Curators now list it as "present location unknown." The question has a sensational ring because of a remark once made by Saito that he wanted the masterpiece placed in his coffin at his cremation. It was a remark he quickly regretted, saying it was a bad joke and a misunderstood acknowledgment that the painting is so precious it would cost his heirs dearly in inheritance tax.

Indeed, that was true, according to his second-eldest son, Toshitsugu Saito, 54, a member of the Japanese parliament.

"As the remaining family, we had to give up that art," he said Tuesday night in Tokyo. "I completely gave up my inheritance right. The van Gogh painting went into the hands of the creditors. It was the bank that had the substantial hold on it."

Tokyo's huge Fuji Bank appeared to be the main creditor, Toshitsugu Saito said. But the secretive Japanese banks are loath to disclose their handling of assets, and Saito asserted that even he is not certain what happened to the painting.

"I don't have an official report of what happened to the art. However, I presume that this painting is in the United States, in the East Coast of the United States," he said. "This is a world-class asset, so I am convinced that it was treated very properly and respectfully. But to tell you the truth, this is all that we know about it."

A Fuji Bank spokesman, Shuji Yonezawa, said the bank would have no comment on the van Gogh painting. Saito's second big 1990 purchase, the Renoir, was sold a year after his death--at a 26 percent loss.

Whatever happened to the Dr. Gachet portrait, it was not a part of the elder Saito's funeral pyre. "I can tell you for sure that this was not burned with him and still exists," said Iwao Sakamoto, a spokesman for Saito's Daishowa Paper Manufacturing Co., where the painting was once stored in a warehouse.

But Saito's cremation comment inflamed those who had sniffed that the businessman's purchases were boorish and crass acquisitions of wealth.

Immediately, headlines in the French papers screamed. "Scandal!" protested the usually staid French daily Le Figaro. "Masterpieces in Peril--the Yellow Peril," sniffed a caption in the Tribune de Geneve, a Swiss daily.

"When he bought this, he was almost treated like a criminal. There were all these questions about how he could afford such a thing," recalled Ryuichiro Mizushima, president of Wildenstein Tokyo Ltd., an art dealer. "But it wasn't the media's business. It was his money."

Saito had made that money in the rough-and-tumble of the paper mill industry. In 1961 he took a modest firm begun by his father, and bullied his way into the territory of bigger companies by undercutting their prices and raiding their clients.

It was a successful tactic, and Daishowa became the second largest paper company in Japan. But Saito took financial risks to get there, betting heavily on stocks and art. The Sumitomo Bank took control of the company from him because of his losses in 1982, but he wrested it back in 1986.

The late 1980s were Japan's financial heyday, when the yen had humbled the dollar and Japanese billionaires were raiding the West for treasures. Fine art was considered--mistakenly, it turned out--to be a good investment, and at the crest of Japan's wave, Saito sent a representative to a Christie's auction in New York with instructions to pay whatever was necessary.

The van Gogh he acquired was a moody portrait of the homeopathic physician who tried to arrest van Gogh's "melancholy" in 1890. It didn't work. The artist declared of Gachet, "This doctor is sicker than I am," and shortly after finishing the portrait, van Gogh shot himself to death.

The price Saito paid for "The Portrait of Dr. Gachet" was $33 million more than he had expected, the Japanese businessman later acknowledged. But he seemed unconcerned, and two days later paid $78.1 million for Pierre Auguste Renoir's "Au Moulin de la Galette," single-handedly setting the highest and second-highest prices paid for paintings at auction.

The art world pronounced the prices audacious, even for masterpieces. To many, the Japanese were bidding to profane levels, and Saito epitomized the greed and arrogance of the new rich Japanese.

But Saito shrugged. "It wasn't a big shopping trip," he said on television. "For paintings like that, the price was cheap," he told The Washington Post a few days after the purchases.

He said he would put the paintings on public display someday, but in the meantime, he reportedly put them in a warehouse and rarely saw them.

"If other good ones become available," Saito said in 1990, "I will buy more and more."

But that was not to be. Much of his wealth had been in overvalued forest lands held by his paper company. As with many other Japanese land tycoons, when real estate values fell, so did their fortunes. And so did the value of some of their hyper-inflated purchases, including great artworks.

Once again, the Saitos' control of Daishowa was jeopardized, and they sold shares in retreat. To try to generate cash from his properties, Saito proposed to build a golf resort, and paid the governor of Miyagi Prefecture to get land changed from forestry zoning to one that would permit development.

Saito, another Daishowa company official and two politicians were indicted in December 1993 on bribery charges. Saito, disgraced and broken, was brought to the courtroom two years later in a wheelchair to hear his sentence: three years, suspended.

He apologized tearfully for his conduct. Six months later, at age 79, he collapsed in a Tokyo hotel and died of a stroke.

For more than three years, there has been no public sighting of the treasure Saito collected, and no reliable account of what has happened to it.

Two independent sources told The Post, however, that Sotheby's, the international auction house, paid several million dollars to the Japanese creditors for a limited option to sell the work. When that effort failed, Sotheby's forfeited the sum, the sources said. (A call to Sotheby's press office to confirm or deny these reports was not returned.)

Until recently, most informed observers believed the work was still in Japan with the creditors, probably a Japanese bank. But those closest to the situation, including Cynthia Saltzman, who wrote a well-received 1998 book "Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a Van Gogh Masterpiece," now believe it has been sold.

"I have since heard more reliably that it is in a European private collection," Saltzman said from her home in Brooklyn this week. She says she does not know the name of the present owner.

"There were many rumors over the past few years that it had been sold, but whenever I would trace those rumors, they turned out to be just rumors," she said. Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has also said he believes it has been sold.

Actually, both de Montebello and Saltzman could have heard of the sale from the same reliable source: Anne Distel, curator in chief of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, where the recent exhibit "Cezanne to Van Gogh: The Collection of Dr. Gachet" originated. (The show is at the Metropolitan through Aug. 15.) Distel apparently contacted the owner about borrowing the painting for the exhibition, but was turned down.

The new owner has been rumored, among others, to be the great Swiss art dealer Ernst Beyeler, who has his own museum. But Beyeler, reached by phone at his home today, denied the rumor. He said he had had 15 calls that day asking the same question. There have been plenty of rumors in Asia, too. A Japanese magazine reported that the van Gogh had been sold in Switzerland by a representative of Christie's. Last year, according to several art dealers, stories swept through Tokyo that it had been sold very discreetly to someone in America. A Christie's spokesman in Tokyo refused to comment.

"I think for the sons, they are embarrassed that their father spent so much money for the painting, even though it's a great painting," said one Tokyo art dealer, who asked not to be named.

The disappearance of the painting leaves still unsettled a fight over who owns it. The painting had been confiscated by the Nazis, and allegedly sold by Nazi air force chief Hermann Goering to Franz Koenigs, an Amsterdam art collector, who was murdered in a Cologne rail station in May 1941. In the early 1940s, he had sent it to the United States for safekeeping by Siegfried Kramarsky, a banker. But the families have since feuded about who had legal right to it even before the unsuspecting Saito bought it in 1990.

Mizushima, the art dealer who knew Saito for more than 20 years, said he believed the businessman found a true appreciation for the masterpieces before his death.

"I saw a clear change in his attitude in his final years. I think he really started enjoying the art from his heart," Mizushima said. "He enjoyed very much seeing the van Gogh."

Special correspondents Shigehiko Togo in Tokyo and Jo Ann Lewis in Washington contributed to this report.