In many ways, what must be one of the most astonishing auctions of recent years has just taken place. The lot in question? The gun with which Vincent Van Gogh is supposed to have killed himself.
The astonishing thing about it is that even the auctioneer selling it was clear that no evidence exists to show that this was the actual gun, yet it made the equivalent of £144,000.
The troubled artist died a few days after walking into a field near Auvers-sur-Oise and shooting himself in the chest. It was July 27, 1890. No one knows what happened to the gun, but in 1965 a corroded revolver was dig up in a field near the chateau where he had been staying and tests indicated that it had been in the ground for between 50 and 80 years – so about right.
That’s as far as it goes, so the buyer was acting in faith, just as pilgrims making their way to shrines that house anything from St Catherine’s finger to a thorn from Christ’s Crown of Thorns are also taking it on trust that these relics are genuine.
Ordinary everyday items acquire a unique symbolic status when they have been touched by inspirational figures like Van Gogh, who will remain forever out of reach themselves. Akin to holy relics, they hold a special attraction for bidders at auction.