"There was a gasp throughout the room," the New York Times reported, as Sotheby's opened bidding for Van Gogh's "Irises" painting at $15 million on the evening of Nov. 11, 1987. But that was mere chump change as the bidding ascended a million dollars at a time until it landed at $49 million -- plus a 10 percent commission to be paid by the buyer, bringing the total to $53.9 million.
The painting had been expected to sell for $21 million to $39 million, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time, but it had not been expected to beat Van Gogh's "Sunflowers," which set a stunning record when it sold at auction a few months earlier for $39.9 million. "Sunflowers" more than tripled the record set with an $11.1 million Edouard Manet painting the previous year.
And yet, "Irises" beat "Sunflowers," and by no small amount -- and in doing so, it came "to epitomize the extravagance of the booming art market."