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PORTRAIT DRAWS TOP DOLLAR

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Vincent van Gogh's melancholy portrait of the doctor who treated him in the weeks before his suicide sold at auction for $82.5 million, making it by far the most expensive painting in the world.

The sale Tuesday of "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" came after a 10-minute bidding war at Christie's auction house between two buyers who jacked up the price in increments of $1 million.The 26-by-22.5-inch oil was worth $141,000 per square inch to Kobayashi Gallery of Tokyo, which has emerged in recent years as a major buyer of Impressionist art.

The total surpassed the $53.9 million paid for van Gogh's "Irises" in 1987 at Sotheby's, said Susan Britman, a Christie's spokeswoman.

Explaining the astronomical price, Christie's President Christopher Burge cited the painting's good condition, its high-profile exhibitions in New York and the opinion among many that it is one of van Gogh's five best paintings.

Dealer Hideto Kobayashi told Japan's Kyodo News Service he bought the painting on behalf of an unidentified Japanese company that wanted the work at any price. "They are extremely pleased," Kyodo quoted Kobayashi as saying.

Owned by the trust of German-born banker Siegfried Kramarsky, who died in 1961, "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" had hung since 1984 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Christie's had expected it to fetch between $40 million and $50 million.

The painting was completed in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, six weeks before the artist's suicide in 1890. Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, a practitioner of homeopathic medicine and a friend and physician to other Impressionist painters, had tended to van Gogh in the final weeks of his life.

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(Additional information)

5 top prices for paintings

1. "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" by Vincent van Gogh; $82.5 million, sold by Christie's, New York, May 15, 1990.

2. "Irises" by Vincent van Gogh; $53.9 million, sold by Sotheby's, New York, Nov. 11, 1987.

3. "Les Noches de Pierrette" (Pierrette's Wedding) by Pablo Picasso, $48.9 million, sold by Drouot-Montaigne, Paris (bid from the Bunkamura Shibuya auction house in Toyko in a televised satellite hook-up), Nov. 30, 1989.

4. "Yo Picasso" by Pablo Picasso; $47.85 million, sold by Sotheby's, New York, May 9, 1989.

5. "Au Lapin Agile" by Pablo Picasso; $40.7 million, sold by Sotheby's, New York, Nov. 15, 1989.