Inside the Art Market: Pictures at the Ballet

How many triumphant evenings, what miracles of artistry, what gasps of admiration, what beating hearts and clapping hands, what Arabian nights do these scenes and dresses represent, which are now to be sold to the highest bidder?

                                                                        —Richard Buckle, Sotheby’s Catalogue, July 1968

In the garden of The Royal Automobile Club on Pall Mall in St. James’s it was an unusually warm day in late March, and so the outdoor tables facing the garden and back lawn were filling up. But I managed to find a spot in the corner that was perfect for having afternoon tea with two esteemed former auction house specialists from Sotheby’s.

One was David Ellis-Jones, now retired but still engaged with the art market. I had been eagerly awaiting this meeting with David, as some years earlier he had been helpful in confirming the authenticity of two paintings through his own research and liaison with a gallery in Paris. The paintings, each owned by a prominent American family, had then been sold successfully in London auctions, thanks in no small part to David’s scholarly endeavors. But we had never met in person, and it wasn’t until I glimpsed a reference to David in an old Sotheby’s catalogue from 1968 on a subject that intrigued me greatly that I contacted him and arranged to meet in London.

As I greeted David that afternoon at the RAC’s front desk I was delighted to see that, on a whim, he had invited along Julian Barran, an Impressionist expert with whom I’d worked on occasion during our years at Sotheby’s. We soon retired to the garden to have tea and reminisce.

The topic of our conversation was ballet. For back in the 1960s David and Julian had been involved in a series of sales in a dramatic and colorful new field of collecting, ballet memorabilia. Hence I wanted to hear their firsthand recollections.

To set the scene, in the fall of 1967 David was summoned to a warehouse in Montrouge in the southern suburbs of Paris with a Sotheby’s colleague named Thilo von Watzdorf and the famed ballet critic and exhibition organizer Richard Buckle, a figure of great color and flamboyance. Buckle had written biographies of the legendary ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev as well as the great dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, and he was steeped in the history and grandeur of the Ballets Russes. The trio was in Paris to pore through and unpack trunks and baskets—“coughing and blinking from the clouds of dust”—encompassing a vast trove of decors and costumes from the Dhiaghilev and de Basil Ballet Foundations.

As Buckle later recounted about entering this cave of wonders:

We could hardly believe our eyes as lid after lid was thrown open and treasure after treasure was identified . . .Huge wired and beaded skirts by Bakst from ‘Le Dieu Bleu’; Chirico’s strange architectural costumes for ‘Le Bal’; Goncharova’s dazzling dresses from ‘Coq d’Or’; the white satin ball-dress worn by Karsavina in ‘Le Spectacle de la rose’; fantastic Chinese robes from ‘Le Chant du Rossignol,’ hand-painted by Matisse . . .

This spectacular material, including enormous back-drops and front curtains and many gorgeous costumes from various productions designed by the greatest names of ballet design, long hidden in storage and all but forgotten, was now to be offered for sale at Sotheby’s in London.

It would be a monumental undertaking. But it was one perfectly suited to Sotheby’s in the 1960s, back in the days when the major auction houses would happily pounce on a rarified and challenging collection like this, one of great historic and artistic importance even if of uncertain financial value. Today such a collection might be viewed as a charming, glorious anachronism; but also, perhaps, a costly headache to be avoided. However, in 1968 this wondrous trove of ballet memorabilia was welcomed for what it truly was—a sensational find and a marketing windfall.

In their centuries-old history the major auction houses have always been astute about marketing.   Above all they have proved to be cunning and ingenious about making a market. In June 1967, for example, just a year before that eye-popping visit to the dusty Paris warehouse by David Ellis-Jones and his colleagues, Sotheby’s had mounted a sale in London of miscellaneous ballet material relating to Diaghilev. As the catalogue for the sale recalled, it “not only broke new ground in Bond Street; it proved that even the slightest relic of the legendary Diaghilev period had acquired a value both monetary and historical in the eyes of museums, collections and of the public.”

The Paris trove was thus presented by Sotheby’s as another milestone in this new and promising field of art collecting, with glorious items emblematic of the greatest designers, artisans and performers of the Ballets Russes. As Richard Buckle recalled of that warehouse visit, the sheer lavishness of the costumes, their exquisite design and craftsmanship presented ballet memorabilia as high art indeed:

Pulling out a gorgeously embroidered eighteenth-century coat, immediately identified as a creation by Bakst for ‘The Sleeping Beauty,’ that most lavish of all spectacles, given at the Alhambra in 1921, we assumed, because of its splendor, that it was worn by the King or Prince Charming—but no, there were five more like it; it was just one of the courtiers in the background.

The public doesn’t see the dirty work that precedes a major auction sale in terms of transport, storage, sorting and tagging and identifying, writing catalogue notes, photographing and generally enduring long dreary hours of painstaking labor, often carried out in a dim, freezing, filthy warehouse. But such were the preparations for “Costumes and Curtains from Diaghilev and de Basil Ballets” that consumed the Sotheby’s team in the months leading up to the auction on 17th July 1968 at the Scala Theatre in London.

The specialists for the sale had been drawn mainly from the Impressionist and Modern Art department at Sotheby’s. This made perfect sense, for many of the costumes, drawings and curtains were designed by artists—notably Juan Gris, André Derain, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse—whose work appeared frequently in the department’s regular sales of paintings, drawings and sculpture.

Not surprisingly, the top lot in the entire sale was a work by Pablo Picasso. This was the monumental front curtain for the ballet Le Train Bleu, an all-star production first performed in Paris on 24th June 1924 with music by Darius Milhaud, décor by Henri Laurens, costumes by Chanel and choreography by Nijinska. The grand, spectacular front curtain measured 34 feet by 38 feet and 3 inches and depicted with a kind of heroic and raw sensuality two women with flowing black hair running ecstatically along a Mediterranean beach. The curtain was signed, dated and dedicated by Picasso to Diaghilev.

One might pause here and ask the obvious question: did Pablo Picasso actually paint this curtain? And the answer would be: no, for by custom the execution of Picasso’s design for a ballet production would fall to someone else, a professional scene-painter. As the catalogue note explained:

Diaghilev asked Prince Schervachidze to undertake the painting of this large canvas for Picasso. Prince Schervachidze was Diaghilev’s most talented and capable scenery-painter and became famous in his own right in this respect. The curtain was painted in 24 hours.

I have long been an avid collector of auction house catalogues, especially ones for the most historic, offbeat, groundbreaking sales. Some of the ones I own are lavish, multi-volume affairs, oversized and slipcased in order to convey the grandeur and momentousness of a particular sale. Prime examples include the sumptuous catalogues that were produced for the Andy Warhol Collection sale in 1988 and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor sale in 1998, both at Sotheby’s; and the Elizabeth Taylor Collection sale in 2011 at Christie’s.

Then there are catalogues far more modest in their appearance and production values, but still important. Such is the catalogue that Sotheby’s produced for the “Diaghilev and de Basil Ballets” sale. It is one of striking design, with a bold, blood-red wraparound cover that features a charming character sketch of Diaghilev wearing a monocle and carrying a cane. Inside, amidst essays on the sale by various luminaries of the ballet world, are many color photographs showing dancers from the Royal Ballet in striking poses wearing the very costumes being offered for sale. My copy of this rare and enchanting catalogue is banged up and discolored from age, but I treasure it.

I can’t recall where and when I acquired it. Perhaps it was the weekend flea market in Lambertville, New Jersey, or a used bookstore in London. Like many catalogues, it was marked up with notes and sale figures by the person holding it during the sale. But this particular copy is truly a wonder: for it presents many stunning details not only about the bidders in the saleroom but also about the prices achieved, with riveting notations.

Indeed, I believe that the person holding this catalogue during the sale was someone not only with vast knowledge of the ballet world and of the bidders present that day, but perhaps a journalist covering the sale for a newspaper. For not only did this person note the sale price for each lot but the actual names and affiliations of the winning bidders.

The four-page spread for the Picasso curtain, for example, shows not only the running sale total at the top of the page but as well the sale price for the curtain of £69,000 along with a note written at the bottom of the page revealing the identity of the winning bidder: Richard Buckle for Nation under auspices of Arts Council.

And it seems that Richard Buckle was an active bidder throughout the sale, as were many prominent museums and foundations in England as well as the United States, according to my catalogue’s most informative notes. These institutions included the British Theatre Museum, Le Petit Musée, Theatre Museum of Amsterdam, the British Costume Museum, the Wadsworth Athenaeum, the Rosenbach Foundation, the Los Angeles County Museum and the Castle Howard Costume Museum.

In flipping through the pages of the Diaghilev catalogue I found at the very back a blank page. On it was written the most glorious revelation of all:

Lord Goodison says: Buckle buying on behalf of purchasers who’ve agreed payment privately together. Arts Council led an unexpected offer [for the Picasso curtain] providing the balance was raised—it has—or trust will be established. Until it is, it isn’t known where the curtain will be housed but in England.

Here was a stunning summary for the entire sale, a veritable press release in shorthand! Indeed, in looking through the various pages and noting the names of the many esteemed collectors who bought this or that item I was impressed to see the name of Dame Alicia Markova—one of the greatest classical ballet dancers of the 20th century and one who had made her name with the Ballets Russes—identified as the successful bidder on Lot 94, a costume from Les Tentations de la Bergère, designed by Gris.

My catalogue copy also listed the final total for the sale as £88,245. This may seem a meager sum by today’s bloated standards of bidding and buying at the major auction houses but it was, at the time, a stunning result, the sale overall a triumph.

The very next year after this historic auction Sotheby’s continued with another sale of ballet and theatrical material, this time from two private collections. One of these had been formed by Max Reinhardt, perhaps the greatest theatrical producer of the twentieth century. Reinhardt knew the leading artists of his day and invited them to collaborate on his plays. Hence in the sale of his collection was a sublime watercolor by Edvard Munch for a scene from Ibsen’s Ghosts.

One had to wonder after this sale what other new and exciting material Sotheby’s would offer in future auctions of ballet and theatrical memorabilia. It was an exciting prospect.

But demand is the great equalizer of the art market. And demand in this emerging field was, it turned out, very limited. After the initial burst of fresh and brilliant material from the Diaghilev sales, surely emblematic of the very height of artistry in the field of ballet memorabilia, the supply for future sales was bound to diminish. This was especially true since the finest examples coming from the sales at Sotheby’s were flowing into foundations, museums and private collections, where they would all but vanish forever.

Sotheby’s had thus created a spectacular new field of collecting; but it would soon all but disappear. Sales continued sporadically for a number of years, but the glory days were over. There would be no more Picasso curtains like Le Train Bleu, which was acquired for the Victoria & Albert Museum and disappeared into storage immediately after the sale in 1968. It was soon forgotten.

But then, in 1995, the field of ballet memorabilia returned to the auction salerooms in spectacular fashion.

I was at Sotheby’s in New York at the time, working in business development, and we suddenly were invited to compete against Christie’s for what would become one of the crown jewels of the coming auction season: the Rudolf Nureyev Collection.

Born on a Trans-Siberian train in 1938, the son of a Red Army political commissar, Nureyev rose to fame with the Mariinsky Ballet and burst upon the West in June 1961 during a tour in Paris. About to be sent home for rebelliousness, he slipped away from his KGB overseers and defected. Soon he was a superstar, most famously paired with Dame Margot Fonteyn but in demand worldwide.

Nothing comparable to the Nureyev Collection had ever appeared on the auction market, for certainly no ballet star in memory had acquired such wealth and spent it so lavishly on paintings and furnishings as Nureyev had in the course of his career. His collection was chiefly housed in a sprawling apartment at the Dakota on Central Park West in New York. Nureyev also owned an island off Positano, a farm in Virginia, a house in the Antilles and places in Paris as well as in the hills above Cannes.

Above all a classicist, Nureyev as a collector sought Old Master paintings and prints, exquisite European furniture and vast numbers of textiles, costumes and ballet memorabilia. There was even a spectacular Gothic-style chamber organ of 1820 that commanded one of the rooms in the Dakota. Nureyev continued acquiring things at a furious clip, right up until his death in 1993 of AIDS-related complications. The entire collection was to be sold at auction to benefit the Rudolf Nureyev Dance Foundation and Ballet Promotion Foundation.

The competition between Sotheby’s and Christie’s for the Nureyev Collection ignited one of the fiercest battles between them of the 1990s. At Sotheby’s we were so obsessed with the secrecy of our proposal that we gave the entire project a code name from one of Nureyev’s most famous ballets. We also offered all manner of inducements to win this prestigious collection away from Christie’s, which included a lavishly-illustrated hardbound catalogue, reminiscences and tributes galore, parties and private viewings for VIPS, and publicity worthy of the most high-profile celebrity auction.

But the sale was not to be for Sotheby’s.

Christie’s won the business, and in January 1995 they presented the spectacular Nureyev Collection in their cramped Park Avenue premises. Among the highlights were silk and velvet costumes Nureyev had worn in his many brilliant performances, tunics and jackets and doublets of the most exquisite delicacy and design. The auction brought some $7.9 million and was followed a year later by the sale of the great dancer’s Paris apartment contents. Christie’s had scored a triumph; and as if to rub salt in the wound for Sotheby’s they engaged none other than Richard Buckle to author a lengthy introduction to the sale catalogue.

And what a far cry for Buckle from that dusty, dark warehouse outside Paris visited in 1967 to the grandeur of the Dakota and its lofty, hushed and exclusive rooms overlooking Central Park! He described being shown the apartment for the first time by Nureyev in 1983:

It was enormous, with the highest ceilings I had seen outside a palace. It was almost devoid of furniture and we ate smoked salmon on pumpernickel by the light of one unshaded bulb, casting huge shadows, and talked of Romanticism.

Looking back to that afternoon tea in London with David Ellis-Jones and Julian Barran and reminiscing about those long-ago Diaghilev and Ballets Russes sales at Sotheby’s, I realized that the Nureyev sale in the 1990s was perhaps the final scene for ballet memorabilia at auction. For it is all but dead now.

Yes, ballet material does appear from time to time, such as those colorful and dramatic drawings by Leon Bakst for so many diverse productions. But increasingly these items seem isolated and random, fitting into no specific auction category other than just decorative art. It’s as if the story of how and why these brilliant artifacts were created has simply become irrelevant.

But the thrill of discovery remains the most potent narcotic in the art market. And the search thus goes on every day for those treasures hidden away in forgotten closets, attics, basements and storage rooms all over the world. When found and brought to light, these treasures—like the ballet trove uncovered in that dim, musty Paris warehouse back in 1968—have a way of electrifying a market that of late seems to have forgotten, or discarded, its own recent past.

—Ronald Varney

(Image: May 1939: English ballet dancer Dame Alicia Markova in a Ballets Russe production of ‘Rouge Et Noir’ at Monte Carlo, choreographed by Leonid Massine, with costume design by Henri Matisse, inspired by his mural painting ‘The Dance.’ Music by Shostakovich. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.)