Inside the Art Market: Promises, Promises

Having collected over the years many of the glorious catalogues published by the Museum of Modern Art going back to the 1940s—on a dizzying array of topics such as Futurism, Britain at War20 Centuries of Mexican Art, Americans 1942Bauhaus 1919-1928, New Japanese PhotographyBuilt in USA: Post-war Architecture, and any number of artist monographsI recently came across one published in 1958 that I had never seen before. It was a slim, paperbound volume in black-and-white of no stylistic distinction save for the magnificent Brancusi sculpture Blond Negress on the cover. This intriguing booklet was entitled Two exhibitions: The Philip L. Goodwin Collection and Works of Art: Given or Promised. 

I was especially curious about the promised gifts. Flipping through the pages of grainy photographs I saw a number of these which I knew had indeed been given permanently to MoMA, notably the 1905 oil painting by Picasso entitled Boy Leading a Horse from the collection of William S. Paley.  The preface to the catalogue, written in that obsequious and lofty language so beloved by museum grandees, explained the reasoning behind the exhibitions:

 “Several trustees and other friends of the Museum have in the past declared their definite intention to give or bequeath to the Museum a number of the finest works in their collections… Very likely there are others who have similar but hitherto undisclosed intentions and may indicate their willingness to join in future exhibitions of a similar character… Their participation will be very welcome.”

But what was this?  There on page 44 was Auguste Renoir’s sprawling and spectacular Au Moulin de la Galette of 1876, with the inscription: Lent by The Honorable and Mrs. John Hay Whitney. (Promised Gift.)” How interesting, for I had been much involved in the sale of that very painting at Sotheby’s in May 1990!

Newly arrived the year before as head of the new Proposals Department, I had composed the letter for the Whitney family and their advisors arguing how Sotheby’s would do so much better selling the painting than our arch-rival Christie’s.  When we won the consignment I was then asked to supervise the production of one of our more extravagant proposal promises: a video on the painting to be shot on location in Paris.

Before production ensued Dede Brooks, then CEO of Sotheby’s, wondered aloud if we might just scrap the project and save the considerable cost.  After all who would really care about the video, except maybe the Whitneys? Yes, we had promised to produce it, for it seemed like such a compelling idea at the time (and who knew what Christie’s was offering?). But, realistically, how many people in the world were going to be serious bidders for the painting, and thus deserve to receive the video? Dede had a point, but the video was duly shot, edited, distributed and forgotten.

And then, the very next morning after the sale, at which Au Moulin de la Galette sold for an eye-popping $78.1 million, I received a phone call from the private secretary of the Japanese tycoon who had bought the painting—and who had also bought Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Van Gogh at Christie’s that same week for $82.5 million.  He had heard there was a video on the Renoir.  But he had never received a copy.  Might he have one, please?

What a triumph the sale of this iconic painting had been for Sotheby’s, despite many lavish expenditures. But what of MoMA? What had gone wrong with this sensational “Promised Gift?” Had the Whitney family lost interest in MoMA?

Some of the most heroic tales of museum history must surely be those about directors chasing donors. Among the more zippy, engaging books and memoirs on this subject include the hilarious and appalling Making the Mummies Dance by Thomas Hoving of the Metropolitan Museum; The Boston Raphael by Belinda Rathbone, concerning the ill-starred reign of her father, Perry Rathbone, as director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (and with the punchy title-page synopsis: “A Mysterious Painting, an Embattled Museum in an Era of Change and a Daughter’s Search for the Truth”); and the elegant, restrained narrative by John Walker, longtime head of the National Gallery of Art, aptly entitled Self-Portrait with Donors.

Each of these books is peppered with often-grim tales of chasing down gifts amongst wealthy collectors who often prove elusive, dishonest, manipulative, parsimonious and ruthless. Sometimes they want immortality as part of a deal.

This proved to be the case with the historic gift to The Met of the Robert Lehman Collection after the financier’s death in 1969. In Making the Mummies Dance the charmingly pompous, ever self-promoting Hoving recounts the long, hard slog of courting Robert Lehman to give The Met his fabulous trove of paintings, sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, textiles, glass and many other items, some 2600 in all, comprising an encyclopedic history of European culture and civilization from the 14th to the 20th century. There is, for example, this gripping vignette of a panicked Hoving confronting Lehman’s lawyer on the very day of the collector’s memorial service:

’But you remember’ I said, ‘that in June Bobbie confirmed that we were going to get the bulk of his holdings and an endowment to pay for their upkeep. You remember confirming that over the phone in June after I had talked to Bobbie?’”

“Please, Tom, this is not the moment.”

After much bare-knuckled brinksmanship the Lehman Collection arrived at The Met—but with stiff demands. The most onerous was the requirement that the collection be preserved in a series of rooms lifted from the Lehman townhouse, with their original velvet wall coverings and all the baronial trappings, along with additional exhibition space for the vast Lehman trove and the creation of its own curatorial department, thus making the Lehman Collection its very own museum-within-a-museum.

The term of this arrangement? Forever.

As director and chief curator of the National Gallery of Art from 1956-1969, the patrician John Walker courted some of the greatest collectors of the day, including Andrew Mellon, Samuel Kress and Calouste Gulbenkian (“the one who got away”). His memoir is filled with scenes of artful, sophisticated wheedling and coaxing. One of his triumphs included the bequest of over two hundred 19th and 20th Century French paintings from the collection of banker and industrialist Chester Dale that came on the collector’s death in 1969. But it was a long and delicate dance, as the gruff and aggressive Dale was famous for making generous loans to major museums and then pulling them. He had been a prizefighter in his youth and had a fiery temperament. As Walker recalls:

I find it difficult to write about Chester Dale. The recent and overused word ‘ambivalent’ might have been coined to describe our relations. When I think of him I have so many blocks I need a psychiatrist.

Ambivalent would be a good word to describe the Tate in the 1950s as it languidly built up its holdings of modern art, director Sir John Rothenstein casually dismissing Cubism as little more than “Bijou follies.” Donors to the museum during this time were thus occasionally sent packing, along with their proposed gifts, if the art seemed too daring or new.

Such was the case with a prominent German collector, Dr. Rosa Schapire, who offered to give three works to the museum by the German Expressionist artist Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. All were declined, with another work by the artist grudgingly accepted. A more sympathetic curator at the museum later invited the collector to lunch, hoping to patch things up. But as Frances Spalding writes in The Tate: A History, things ended rather badly for Dr. Schapire:

Awareness of her grievance against the Tate will always colour the fact that, on arriving that day at the Gallery, she collapsed in the entrance hall and died in the ambulance on the way to Westminster Hospital.

Despite the melodramas of gift-giving at museums, happy endings often prevail, as was the case for MoMA and the Whitney family. On the death of Betsey Cushing Whitney in 1998 plans were made for the sale of the contents of the family’s magnificent home Greentree, along with Mrs. Whitney’s sensational jewelry collection, all to be sold at Sotheby’s. Among various bequests was the great 1910 oil painting by George Bellows, Polo Crowd, which was given to MoMA.

But, in a twist, the Museum promptly consigned the painting to Sotheby’s. Maybe Polo Crowd was no longer suitable for MoMA’s collection focus; or perhaps MoMA wanted the sale proceeds for the purchase of something more desirable. In any event, they must have been thrilled with the result.

For in a standing-room-only saleroom on December 1, 1999, Polo Crowd brought an astounding $27,502,500. The buyer, Bill Gates.

-Ronald Varney