Christie’s, the auction house, is set to auction off Van Gogh’s Head of a Woman (Gordina de Groot) on 28 February, with an estimated value of £1m-£2m. The painting has been in a private collection for 120 years and has only been exhibited once, in Zurich during World War II. The portrait was painted in 1885, during the time when Van Gogh was working on “heads of the people”, a term he used in English and the title of a series of illustrations in The Graphic, a weekly newspaper published in London. Gordina de Groot was the only sitter he named in his letters, and is also depicted in his first masterpiece, The Potato Eaters.
Van Gogh’s contacts with Gordina caused scandal in the village where he was living, with the local priesthood warning him to “not be too familiar with people beneath my station”. In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh explained the true reason for the controversy, claiming that a girl he often painted was having a child and the local people believed he was the father, although he wasn’t. Gordina, an unmarried woman, gave birth to a son, Cornelis, in October 1885, and the birth certificate does not name the father.
Head of a Woman was one of the 40 paintings left behind by Van Gogh when he departed for Antwerp in 1885. The entire crate containing the pictures was almost abandoned, but in 1902, they were sold for less than £1 to a junk dealer. In 1903, the portrait was purchased by Henri Daniel Pierson, a banker based in The Hague, whose family bank later became part of ABN AMRO, one of the largest Dutch banks. Astonishingly, the painting remained with the Pierson family for more than a century, and it is now being sold by some of the great-grandchildren based in Switzerland.
The re-emergence of Head of a Woman will generate significant excitement among Van Gogh specialists. Its existence had long been virtually unknown, and it has only been published in black and white. The Christie’s sale offers the first opportunity to see the painting published in colour and to view it in London before the auction. The painting was briefly on display in Hong Kong earlier this month, indicating that it could sell to an Asian buyer. The estimate reflects the fact that Van Gogh’s Dutch paintings do not typically reach the high prices of his later French works.