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Manoogian Maneuvers: Michigan Collector Owned Crystal Bridges’ Tait; May Have Purchased National Academy’s Church, Gifford

Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, “The Life of a Hunter: A Tight Fix,” 1856, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

CultureGrrl readers are a devoted, savvy bunch: Two different museum curators wrote to inform me that BOTH Crystal Bridges-owned works in the Metropolitan Museum’s current American Stories exhibition were previously owned by mega-collector Richard Manoogian—not just Richard Caton Woodville‘s “War News from Mexico,” as I had reported on Monday, but also Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait‘s “The Life of a Hunter: A Tight Fix” (above).

A Crystal Bridges official confirmed to me that the Tait is indeed the same painting that had been previously exhibited in museums that had publicly identified it as belonging to the Detroit industrialist. But my Crystal Bridges contact would not say whether Alice Walton‘s planned Bentonville, AR, museum had acquired the Tait directly from Manoogian.

Leslie Newell Peacock
of the Arkansas Times also recently reported about the Woodville’s ownership history (which I had first recounted here) and then went off in a new (and I think, unfounded) direction:

Now, speculation is that Walton—or, more accurately, the Crystal Bridges Museum foundation that she created—purchased from the [National] Academy Church‘s “Scene on the Magdalene” and Gifford‘s “Mount Mansfield, Vermont” last year. While the museum is in hot water for selling the pieces, some critics in New York have bemoaned the fact an Arkansas institution may have acquired two Hudson River school pieces.

My contacts have indicated that it’s Manoogian, not Walton, who accessioned the Academy’s 2008 deaccessions. When I broke the story of the sales of the Church and Gifford last December, I immediately asked John Wilmerding, a close advisor to Walton, whether she was the purchaser. His reply:

To my knowledge, neither Alice Walton nor Crystal Bridges bought those pictures. I don’t know where they’ve gone.

I believed that he was telling the truth, and I also believed that he would have known if Walton had been the purchaser.

The name that has had traction among knowledgeable experts as being the purchaser of the Academy painting is Manoogian. I’ve long hesitated to publish that, because I’m still two degrees of separation from a firsthand, unimpeachable source: A contact whom I’ve previously found to be reliable got the lowdown from someone with direct knowledge of the transaction. I haven’t been able to get that direct-knowledge source to talk to me, however. Both Carmine Branagan, the Academy’s director (who was NOT my source’s source) and Jonathan Boos, Manoogian’s curator, have been unwilling to speak.

When I asked her a few days ago whether Manoogian was the buyer, Branagan prudently advised me: “You may wish to speak directly with the party you believe purchased the

I’ve tried: Months ago, I left a voice message with Boos. Since last Friday, I’ve sent numerous e-mails and voicemails to Boos and to Cheryl Robledo, who works with him. I’ve received no reply, other than an acknowledgement from Robledo that she had indeed received my initial e-mail. in which I asked her and Boos whether Manoogian was the Academy paintings’ buyer and whether he is planning to publicly exhibit the two works, as the Academy had originally announced would happen.

If I hear more, you’ll hear more.

My guess is that if Manoogian wasn’t the buyer, his advisors would have had no problem about responding to me. If he WAS the buyer, he was the other side of a dicey transaction for which the Academy was severely censured by art museum professionals. He might be reluctant to out himself, at least until time assuages the outrage and the Academy is back in the good graces of the Assocation of Art Museum Directors.

But what if, as suggested by the Woodville and Tait transactions, Manoogian’s holdings sometimes function as a feeder collection for Walton’s? Might the Academy pictures eventually migrate south?

That truly IS mere speculation. Walton wants her nascent institution to be welcomed collegially by the rest of the nation’s art museum community, so she needs to be careful about acquiring works that have been engulfed in a firestorm of artworld controversy.

an ArtsJournal blog