Two Van Goghs sold from the recovered hoard of an Italian fraudster

One painting was hidden in a Parma cellar, leading to the discovery of the Tanzi Treasure

Vincent van Gogh’s Pollard Willow (1881) Pandolfini Casa d’Aste, Milan

Vincent van Gogh’s Pollard Willow (1881) Pandolfini Casa d’Aste, Milan

Adventures with Van Gogh

Adventures with Van Gogh is a weekly blog by Martin Bailey, our long-standing correspondent and expert on the artist. Published every Friday, his stories will range from newsy items about this most intriguing artist to scholarly pieces based on his own meticulous investigations and discoveries.

Two Van Gogh pictures owned by a convicted criminal have just been sold in Milan, both going for considerably more than their estimates. When the sale took place on 29 October, the Pandolfini auction house coyly entitled it Rediscovered Treasures: Impressionist and Modern Masterpieces from a Private Collection. On offer were 55 works, ranging from Monet to Picasso.

Pandolfini’s lengthy catalogue introduction managed to skirt the question of who was the mysterious collector, but it was Calisto Tanzi—the founder of the bankrupt food conglomerate Parmalat. The provenance data for the individual works failed to mention their recent owner and the estimates were low, presumably to reflect the unsavoury nature of the collector.

Tanzi was convicted in 2010 on charges of fraud (the main trial began in 2008 and was later appealed, but the 18-year sentence was upheld) after his Parmalat food company collapsed in Europe’s biggest ever bankruptcy case. The Italian authorities then set out to track down his assets, including his valuable art collection. When investigators believed that the pictures were about to be sold to a Russian billionaire, the police swooped.

The discovery of one of the Van Goghs and a Monet in the cellar of a house in Parma eventually led to the recovery of hundreds of works, soon dubbed the Tanzi Treasure.

Pollard Willow, a large Van Gogh watercolour painted near the railway station in Etten in October 1881, depicts the lower part of a tree outlined against a cloudy sky, with grass sprouting from the base of the trunk. This represents one of the artist’s finest early watercolours. Estimated at €200,000-€300,000, it sold for €800,500.

Van Gogh was greatly inspired by the old willows in the Brabant village of Etten, writing to his brother Theo: “If one draws a pollard willow as though it were a living being, which it actually is, then the surroundings follow more or less naturally, if only one has focused all one’s attention on that one tree and hasn’t rested until there was some life in it.”

Vincent van Gogh’s Still life with a Basket of Apples (1885) Pandolfini Casa d’Aste, Milan

Still life with a Basket of Apples (1885), an oil painting done in Nuenen in 1885, was estimated at €280,000-€350,000, but fetched €495,000 in the Milan auction. It is unclear when Tanzi had acquired the picture, but it had sold at Christie’s, New York in 1998, when it went for $310,500. Altogether Tanzi’s 55 “rediscovered treasures” fetched just over €12m, going a small way towards repaying some of his creditors.

Vincent van Gogh’s Still life with Coffee Pot (1888) Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation collection, Athens; photo: Chris Doulgeris

In other Van Gogh news: The Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation museum in Athens, which opened in October, displays three of Van Gogh’s Provençal paintings: Still life with Coffee Pot (1888), Les Alyscamps (1888) and Olive Picking (1889). The collection was built up by the Greek shipowner Basil Goulandris (1913-94) and his wife Elise (1917-2000). All three Van Goghs were bought in 1972 through the Basel dealer Ernst Beyeler. A catalogue of the museum’s collection has just been published in English: Marie Koutsomallis-Moreau, The Collection of the Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation: Volume One, Modern Art (1870-1945) (available for €75 at

Martin Bailey is a leading Van Gogh specialist and investigative reporter for The Art Newspaper. Bailey has curated Van Gogh exhibitions at the Barbican Art Gallery and Compton Verney/National Gallery of Scotland. He was a co-curator of Tate Britain’s The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain (27 March-11 August). He has written a number of bestselling books, including The Sunflowers Are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh's Masterpiece (Frances Lincoln 2013, available in the UK and US), Studio of the South: Van Gogh in Provence (Frances Lincoln 2016, available in the UK and US) and Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum (White Lion Publishing 2018, available in the UK and US). His latest book is Living with Vincent van Gogh: The Homes & Landscapes that Shaped the Artist (White Lion Publishing 2019, available in the UK and US).

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