India’s 'vaccine prince' has a Van Gogh landscape in his living room

Adar Poonawalla, who runs the world’s largest Covid-19 vaccine producer, claims to have the finest collection of European art in the sub-continent

Adar Poonawalla in his private office in Pune, housed in a decommissioned Airbus A320 plane Photo: Serum Institute of India

Adar Poonawalla in his private office in Pune, housed in a decommissioned Airbus A320 plane Photo: Serum Institute of India

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.

Adar Poonawalla, who heads the Serum Institute of India, owns a Van Gogh landscape. His company, which manufactures the AstraZeneca vaccine, has become the largest producer of Covid-19 jabs. The Poonawalla family, with Adar and his father Cyrus, is now the seventh wealthiest in India, worth $13.5bn. Even before Covid, the company was producing 1.5 billion vaccines a year of various types—one for every five people on earth.

In 2013 Poonawalla bought Van Gogh’s Watermill at Opwetten (November 1884) at Sotheby’s. Early works from the artist’s Dutch period are often dark and do not fetch the huge prices of his exuberantly coloured paintings which he later made in France. Watermill at Opwetten had therefore been estimated by Sotheby’s at a relatively modest £200,000-£300,000, but the price at auction soared and it went to Poonawalla for £1.3m. The painting had previously sold in 1966 for £7,500 to the London collector A.T. Smith.

Van Gogh’s Watermill at Opwetten (November 1884)

Watermill at Opwetten depicts a landscape just outside Nuenen, the village in Brabant, in the south of the Netherlands, where Vincent was living with his family. He had visited the mill with his young artist friend Anthon van Rappard. Van Gogh later recalled the scene, describing the mill as having “two red roofs… with poplars around it… magnificent in the autumn”. The watermill still survives, its appearance relatively unchanged.

The watermill at Opwetten Photo: Wammes Waggel

Poonawalla’s Van Gogh hangs in the main lounge of the palatial mansion that he built in Pune, the city where his factory is based, 150km from Mumbai. The dome of this huge room is frescoed in the style of Michelangelo.

Poonawalla told the Delhi-based business news website Mint that he now owns what is probably “the best European art collection in India”, with two or three works by each of some of the big names: Renoir, Monet, Chagall, Picasso and Dalí. He nearly always buys at Sotheby’s or Christie’s, with Watermill at Opwetten being one of his early purchases.

The self-styled “prince of vaccines” has now amassed untold riches (his father Cyrus, who founded the family firm in 1966, is presumably “king”). Adar owns his own private jet, which apparently comes in useful when he wants to fly in a Michelin star chef to cook for him. His 20-strong fleet of cars in Pune includes a Rolls-Royce and a Lamborghini. This spring he started renting a mansion in London’s Mayfair for £2.5m a year. Poonawalla recently commented that “I still enjoy material things, but the rate at which I buy them has slowed down considerably.”

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).

• To contact Martin Bailey, please email: Please kindly refer queries about authentication of possible Van Goghs to the Van Gogh Museum.

Read more from Martin's Adventures with Van Gogh blog here.