A crate of Van Gogh paintings once sold for less than 50 pence

Vincent Van Gogh’s 1882 painting, Beach at Scheveningen in Calm Weather (above), was auctioned for an impressive $2.8m at Sotheby’s, New York, on 14th November. 

As the artist’s earliest surviving oil painting, the piece remains one of his most prominent works. What adds to the charm of this piece is that it was painted on a beach (not in a studio), which can be confirmed by the grains of sand embedded in the paint. 

But what is most extraordinary about this painting is that it was almost forgotten and lost forever! Along with 40 other of Van Gogh’s works, Beach at Scheveningen in Calm Weather was abandoned when the artist left his family home in the village of Nuenen, south of the Netherlands. When Van Gogh’s mother and sister also left the family home in 1886, they put his paintings into a crate and stored them with a remover and carpenter, Adrianus Schrauwen. 

Not forgetting about his paintings, Van Gogh writes to his sister Wil asking her to salvage “anything good from the junk of mine, which, so Theo (his brother) says, is still somewhere in the attic.” Not hearing back from Wil, he writes again to his mother and sister, asking if they still have any of his old drawings. His letter read: “Do you still happen to have any of my old studies and drawings? Even if they’re no good in themselves, they can refresh my memory and provide information for new work… But it’s not important enough for you to spend a long time looking for them.” Three months later, he committed suicide.

Gloomy Van Gogh self-portrait, dated 1889 Photo credit: Anne Hansteen/Vincent van Gogh

For over a decade following his death, the Van Gogh family did nothing about the crate until 1903 when they approached Schrauwen to ask where it was. They were told that the crate had been stored up until the previous year and then sold to a junk dealer, Johannes Couvreur. 

Couvreur reported buying the crate of 40 paintings for one Dutch Guilder (equivalent to around 50 pence). The paintings were then sold to clothing shop owner Kees Mouwen and his cousin Willem van Bakel. After this, the significance of the paintings was finally appreciated and bought by a Rotterdam art dealer, Christiaan Oldenzeel, who went on to organise three exhibitions of Van Gogh’s work. 

One of the 40 paintings in the crate was Beach at Scheveningen in Calm Weather. The painting sold relatively quickly, and after spending most of the 20th century being passed around by various Dutch collectors, it made its way to America in 2010, where it was loaned to the Marine Art Museum in Winona. It was likely the painting was owned by a local collector, who eventually consigned it to Sotheby’s.

So there you have it, a story of Van Gogh’s earliest oil paintings almost left in an attic, bought for less than 50p and sold for almost $3 million.