In 1965, the same year that Andy Warhol was producing endless iterations of his photographic silkscreen series such as his Campbell’s soup cans, a French farmer walked across a field in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, north of Paris, and discovered a rusted Belgian-manufactured Lefaucheux revolver. Of note was that it had purportedly been last used by 37-year-old post-impressionist and highly tormented Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, who shot himself in the stomach on July 29, 1890.
Described as “the most famous weapon in art history”, the gun is expected to sell well beyond its $45,000–$56,000 estimate when it goes to auction on June 19, courtesy of AuctionArt Rémy Le Fur & Associés at Drouot in Paris. The 7mm revolver, reportedly kept by the family that owned the Auberge Ravoux inn where the artist stayed in the final months of his life, is now being sold by the descendants of the original owners.
The appetite for Van Gogh has never been greater than now. This year alone, the artist is the subject of an exhibition at Tate Britain until August; FTLife Tower in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Bay is also showing a multisensory exhibition of the artist’s work and there are another nine shows happening around the world.
The smoking gun in the artist’s narrative is that while the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam insists he took his own life, speculation has mounted in recent years that his shooting was by accident rather than by design – and that the gun went off during a struggle between the artist and some other locals. (It certainly wouldn’t be out of character; Van Gogh’s friendship with Paul Gauguin ended after a confrontation with a razor, when in a rage he famously severed part of his own left ear). After being shot or having shot himself in the stomach, it was another 30 apparently painful hours before Dr Paul Gachet pronounced the artist dead.
However, while the show’s catalogue is far from definitive on the subject of the Lefaucheux, claiming only that there exists “a strong possibility that he [Van Gogh] used this weapon in his suicide attempt”, the auction house goes on to list pieces of evidence that substantiate its provenance as the suicide weapon. It was found where Van Gogh had shot it; the bullet found in the artist’s body was the same calibre as the gun; and studies showed the weapon had lain untouched in the ground since the 1890s. Authentic or otherwise, the gun-meets-gavel face-off will be keenly anticipated.