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MoMA Picasso’s Deplorable Deaccession Revisited: No Rockefeller “Horta” Pictures on View

Picasso, “The Reservoir, Horta de Ebro,” 1909, Museum of Modern Art, fractional and promised gift of David Rockefeller
© 2009 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In 2003, when the Museum of Modern Art sold its seminal Picasso, “Houses on the Hill, Horta de Ebro,” 1909, which was bequeathed to it in 1979 by Nelson Rockefeller, it justified this astonishing disposal of an outstanding, early Cubist masterpiece on the grounds that it had a comparable one—“The Reservoir, Horta de Ebro,” 1909 (above), promised to the museum in 1970 by David Rockefeller, who in 1991 gave MoMA a 10% fractional interest in the work.

In my 2004 Wall Street Journal article—The Lost Museum—detailing several highly problematic MoMA deaccessions, I noted that the museum had substituted a work that it didn’t completely own yet for one already ensconced in its permanent collection.

Still, I had expected that MoMA would display David’s Picasso frequently, if not continuously, since it was meant to make up for the lamentable loss of Nelson’s. What’s more, the law now governing fractional gifts states that the museum should take “substantial physical possession” of such works during the donation process.

Imagine my shock when I asked MoMA’s press office, earlier this week, to tell me when David’s
Picasso has been displayed during the last three years, and received this reply:

The painting is not currently on view. It was last on view during MoMA’s “Painting and Sculpture: Inaugural Installation,” between Nov. 20, 2004 and Mar. 14, 2005.

In other words, this Cubist masterwork, of the highest art historical importance, has been inaccessible to MoMA visitors for four years. The importance of the Horta pictures was best described by one of the world’s most distinguished Picasso scholars, John Richardson, in an interview for my WSJ article. I then wrote:

This painting [Nelson’s sold “Horta”] is “at the heart of Picasso’s Cubism,” asserted prominent Picasso expert John Richardson. It is one of “the rarest things in the world,” he said. Its original owner, Gertrude Stein, regarded Picasso’s Horta landscapes as “the beginning of Cubism,” Mr. Richardson wrote in his biography of the artist. In an interview, he decried its sale as “one of the most appalling bits of deaccessioning. I’m still shuddering and shaking.”

Mr. [Glenn] Lowry [MoMA’s director] observed that there would be “nothing wrong” with having both pictures, “if we were a Picasso museum.” The sale proceeds of the other painting were applied to purchases of works deemed “more essential to the collection.”

In one detailed query and two follow-up e-mails this week, I have sought comment from MoMA regarding the status of David’s Picasso and the museum’s failure to exhibit it for the past four years. I was first told that I would have an answer yesterday morning…then yesterday afternoon…then this morning. I got another e-mail today at 1:45 p.m., saying that I should have a reply soon. I can’t wait any longer. I will update during the weekend or on Monday.

So where is the ex-Nelson Rockefeller, ex-MoMA masterpiece now? It’s in the Berlin museum founded by the retired Paris dealer who purchased it, through Acquavella Galleries, from MoMA—the late, Berlin-born Heinz Berggruen. The price, I was told by two knowledgeable sources at the time of my WSJ article, was about $12-15 million. The Museum Berggruen’s website describes the Horta Picasso as “one of the most significant” works in its collection:

Picasso, “Houses on the Hill, Horta de Ebro,” 1909, Museum Berggruen, Berlin

an ArtsJournal blog