In May of 1990 Japanese billionaire Ryoei Saito made history when he purchased Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet and Renoir's Bal du moulin de la Galette at auction in the span of two days. He spent a record sum on the paintings, equivalent to about $300 million today. Following the sale both works went straight from the limelight into foam-padded packing crates and were shipped off to a top-secret storeroom in the Tokyo area.
Mr. Saito spent a few hours with his purchases, then locked them in a climate-controlled vault. And there they stayed, untouched and unseen–a symbol of the ever increasing commodification of art.
While the paintings rested, Saito struggled, financially and otherwise. The 75-year old Japanese paper magnate briefly caused a scandal when he said he would have the paintings cremated with him after his death, though his aides later claimed Saito threats were just an expression of his intense affection for the works.
After Saito’s death in 1996, it wasn’t clear who owned the paintings–Saito’s heirs, his company, or his creditors–or even where they were. Museum curators and auction houses tried to locate the works, but were never successful. To this day both masterpieces remain lost in the murky waters of the international art market.