Science could keep Van Gogh's Sunflowers yellow - and protect the value of his art

A recent scientific breakthrough has answered many questions about why the artwork of Vincent Van Gogh and his contemporaries have faded to a muddy brown over time.  This valuable knowledge could enable art historians and collectors to preserve paintings in the future - and help them retain their value.

For collectors of and investors in the work of Van Gogh, it has been a source of frustration for many years that the glorious yellows of works like 'Sunflowers' have gradually faded to a dull brown.  However, scientific research appears to have solved the mystery, narrowing it down to the pigments used in the paintings.

Scientists artificially 'aged' samples of historic paint using an ultraviolet lamp, and analysed the results with powerful x-rays.  They discovered that the 'chrome yellow' pigment - introduced in the early 19th Century - chemically reacted to UV light and sunlight, leading to the change in colour.

The landmark discovery will almost certainly help in the future preservation and upkeep of paintings by Van Gogh - and one would very much want to.  The Dutchman is one of the most renowned and influential artists in history, creating revolutionary and iconic masterpieces.

Remarkably, Van Gogh remained unknown throughout his life, having sold only one painting before his death by suicide in 1890.  His use of vibrant colour is one of the major of attractions of pieces such as 'Wheat Stacks with Reaper', defined by the glorious yet simple yellows, blues and greens.

His works are some of the most valuable in the world.  In 1990, his famous 'Portrait of Dr. Gachet' was sold by Christie's for $82.5m - $139.5m today - making it the fourth most expensive painting ever sold.  In 1998, a self-portrait of Van Gogh without his beard realised $71.5m - equivalent to $95.3m today. 

Van Gogh continues to be popular with collectors of fine art.  In June 2010, his 1889 work Parc de l'hopital Saint-Paul, 1889 was purchased for $13.4m.


Van Gogh painting
'Parc de l'hopital Saint-Paul' by Van Gogh - worth $13.4m

If the aforementioned discovery helps preservation of these unique and ground-breaking works, it can only be good news for collectors and investors.

This is not the first time that new preservation techniques have helped the collectibles market either.  In November 2009, we reported on the 'aroma tests' used to detect whether antique books were degrading and how quickly.  The early detection would, of course, help librarians and collectors protect their books more effectively.

Hopefully, with a little help from science, investors and collectors will be able to continue enjoying and profiting from the works of Van Gogh and many other artists affected by unwanted 'browning' for many years to come.


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