The new owner of Montmartre Street Scene (1887) is the Reuben family—the property developers Simon and David Reuben. In an extraordinary auction last week at Sotheby’s in Paris, an internet bidder turned out not to have the money for a Van Gogh.
Although the Reuben brothers are Britain’s joint second-richest UK family, worth £16bn (according to The Sunday Times Rich List), they are discreet and hardly household names. But their life story shows how self-made people can acquire a Van Gogh to hang above their sofa.
Simon and David were born in Mumbai, India, to Jewish parents of Iraqi descent. They came to England as teenagers in the 1950s, with David going into the scrap metal business and Simon into the carpet trade. The brothers later worked together and in the 1990s they made a fortune in the Russian metal market. The two men are now among the world’s leading property developers. They also have a charitable foundation, which last year gave £80m to the University of Oxford to establish a new college.
The Reuben family art collection is run by Simon’s daughter Lisa, who studied at Sotheby’s Institute of Art and then worked for the auction house in London, in their contemporary department. She left a few years ago.
It was Lisa’s decision to go for Montmartre Street Scene, which came up at her former employer’s branch in Paris on 25 March. Bidding anonymously through a Sotheby’s representative in London, Lisa found herself competing with an Asian collector, with the price soaring well above the €5m-€8m estimate. At a late stage an internet bidder also entered the fray, in a live-streamed auction.
Lisa’s anonymous bid looked like the winner, at €13,050,000. But just as auctioneer Aurélie Vandevoorde’s gavel hit the block, the internet bidder came in with €14m. Although the timing was extremely close, Vandevoorde accepted it.
But behind the scenes a drama was playing out: it seems that the mysterious internet bidder was both unwilling and unable to pay. Sotheby’s later told The Art Newspaper’s Vincent Noce that the bidder “denied having placed a bid and obviously did not have the financial capacity [to buy the Van Gogh]”.
Vandevoorde interrupted the auction schedule to announce that Montmartre Street Scene would be offered again after the other lots. This time the painting went for €11,250,000 (€13.1m with fees), going to the London bidder.
The vendor, an unnamed French family who have owned the Van Gogh for over a hundred years, must have been sorely disappointed to have seen its value plummet by €2.75m in a matter of minutes. Presumably they made this clear to Sotheby’s. Nevertheless, they did all right, since their ancestors probably paid the equivalent of around $1,000 for the painting shortly before 1920.
The day after the auction Art Market Monitor named the London buyer as the Reuben family. A spokesman for Reuben Brothers “confirmed” the acquisition.
So what sort of company will the Van Gogh now keep? The Reuben collection is mainly from the 20th century, with works by Modigliani, Warhol and Basquiat. Recent purchases have included Rudolf Stingel’s untitled portrait of Picasso (2012). In 2019 they bought Norman Rockwell’s Before the Shot (1958)—a prescient acquisition since it represents a young boy being given an injection.
With three households within the family, whose sofa will the Van Gogh now hang above? As extremely wealthy property developers, the Reuben family have a number of luxurious residences in London, Monaco and further afield—including "Siren", a £60m superyacht.
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 2019). 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). Bailey's Living with Vincent van Gogh: The Homes & Landscapes that Shaped the Artist (White Lion Publishing 2019, available in the UK and US) provides an overview of the artist’s life. His latest publication is the reissued book The Illustrated Provence Letters of Van Gogh (Batsford 2021, available in the UK and US).
Read more from Martin's Adventures with Van Gogh blog here.