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$91.88-Million Hopper Sale Makes “Chop Suey”of Ebsworth’s Vow to Seattle Art Museum (with video) CORRECTED & UPDATED

In my Wall Street Journal review of the 2007 opening of the expanded Seattle Art Museum, I noted that SAM’s campaign to “augment its permanent collection, in time for its 75th anniversary next year,” had been “successful beyond the wildest curatorial dreams, adding nearly 1,000 owned, pledged and promised works to the collection”…

…or maybe not.

Billed as a major catch from that cache were 65 works promised from the collection of Barney Ebsworth (who died last April). Ebsworth selections had been highlights of SAM’s inaugural display in its large new double-height special exhibitions gallery that featured recent and promised gifts of modern and contemporary art.

Instead of taking up permanent residence in SAM’s galleries, as had been expected, this star of the Ebsworth Collection became the cover lot of last night’s 42-work Ebsworth sale at Christie’s:

Edward Hopper, “Chop Suey,” 1929
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post mistakenly stated that “Chop Suey” had been a “star of [SAM’s] 2007 installation.” It had, in fact, been a star of the 2007 Edward Hopper retrospective organized by the National Gallery of Art, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and the Art Institute of Chicago (which did not travel to SAM). I regret the error.

Acquired by Ebsworth in 1973, this textbook Hopper, estimated by Christie’s to bring $70-100 million, was knocked down to “Anonymous” last night for $85 million (final price, with fees: $91.88 million), trouncing both the $46.09-million auction record for (non-contemporary) American art (a Norman Rockwell) and the $40.49-million auction record for Hopper.

In her informative post-mortem for the sale, Eileen Kinsella of artnet tantalizingly suggested that a likely destination for this vibrantly colored but emotionally subdued vignette might be a museum:

Marc Porter [chairman of Christie’s America] seemed to hint that it [the buyer] could be an institution, adding with a broad smile that the house “hopes to see it hanging again soon.”

Hmmm…What museum could afford to spend $91.88 million on a Hopper? It would certainly fill a hole in the Hopper collection of a certain munificently bankrolled young museum of American art. But the Crystal Bridges press office promptly shot back this reply to my query:

This was not purchased by Crystal Bridges.

In her April 2007 report, Collection Infusion, in The Stranger, Jen Graves noted that Christie’s (now the venue for the Ebsworth dispersal) had estimated that the large trove of works then given and promised to SAM by multiple owners would bring $1 billion if they were to come to auction. Now some of them have.

SAM got far fewer than the expected 65 Ebsworth paintings and drawings. Barney’s consummated benefactions include: Georgia O’Keeffe, “Music—Pink and Blue I”; Marsden Hartley, “Painting No. 49, Berlin”; Philippe de Champaigne, “The Visitation”; Francisco de Zurbarán, “The Flight Into Egypt”; Jaume Plensa, “Echo.” (The National Gallery, Washington, received six Ebsworth gifts.)

Jaume Plensa, “Echo,” 2011
Given in 2013 by Barney Ebsworth to Seattle Art Museum

UPDATE: The O’Keeffe and Hartley were included in SAM’s 2007 exhibition of recent and promised gifts, according to Domenic Morea, SAM’s chief of communications, whom I queried after he requested the “Chop Suey” correction. He had answered my Sept. 9 query in which I had requested a list of Ebsworth’s promised works that had actually come to the museum by stating:

“The SAM statement that you received [see director Kimerly Rorschach ‘s statement, below] is all that has been released. There is no additional comment or information at this time.”

In total, last night’s and this morning’s Ebsworth sales at Christie’s brought $323.10 million (including buyer’s premium). Last night’s evening sale alone brought a hammer price of $281.5 million ($317.8 million with fees), beating its $258-million low estimate. The evening sale was 88% sold by lot (37 of the 42 offerings) and a whopping 99% sold by value. Christie’s revealed that it had a “direct financial interest” in all the works in the sale, which meant (as its press office explained) that it had promised the seller a guaranteed minimum amount for the entire collection, regardless of whether bidding reached that level.

I’ve been unable to find out which of the other works (aside from “Chop Suey”) in the Ebsworth auctions had been previously promised to SAM. The museum couldn’t (or wouldn’t) provide the checklist from the 2007 installation that included the Ebsworth highlights.

Mimi Gardner Gates, speaking at the 2007 preview of expanded Seattle Art Museum, where she was then director
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

SAM’s press office did issue this statement by its current director, Kimerly Rorschach, who recently announced that she would retire next fall:

The late Barney A. Ebsworth was a great collector, philanthropist, champion for art, and longtime Seattle Art Museum trustee. We are forever grateful for the generous support he bestowed upon SAM. Over the years, he contributed many works of art to the museum, including four transformative gifts that recently arrived at SAM and are now on view. We look forward to continuing our longstanding relationship with the Ebsworth family.”

Kimerly Rorschach

How did this reneging on a pledge happen? Perhaps SAM omitted one important step in clinching the deal:

Get all promises in writing.

If there was, in fact, a written agreement, it must have had loopholes or else the museum was somehow persuaded to agree to a disadvantageous do-over. As it happens, Stewart Landefeld, SAM’s board chairman, is also the partner at the Perkins Coie law firm who “represented Ebsworth’s daughter and his living trust, the legal umbrella covering all his property,” according to yesterday’s Seattle Times report on the Christie’s sale. If this dual loyalty wasn’t an actual conflict of interest, it could be perceived as one.

Back in September and again yesterday, I emailed and called the Perkins Coie contact provided to me by Christie’s, inquiring about the change in plans for Ebsworth’s collection. I’ve received no reply.

When I asked Christie’s whether it had “confirmed that the upcoming sale of the Ebsworth consignments would not be in violation of the collector’s agreement with the Seattle Art Museum,” Erin McAndrew, the auction firm’s head of corporate communications, replied:

The balance of the Collection was entrusted by Mr. Ebsworth to his family at the time of his passing. Christie’s is authorized to sell all of the consigned works from the Collection on behalf of the Trust Mr. Ebsworth created, and in accordance with his family’s wishes….The family plans to continue its relationship with the Seattle Art Museum, going forward.

One person with whom I did get to speak at last week’s Ebsworth press preview at Christie’s was Eric Widing, the auction house’s deputy chairman and former head of American paintings:

Eric Widing
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s our contentious conversation:

ROSENBAUM: How many of the works here [at the Christie’s presale exhibition] were promised to the Seattle Art Museum?

WIDING: I never talked to Barney about that, so I can’t answer the question.

ROSENBAUM: But you have exhibition history [published in the catalogue]. Were they [the Christie’s consignments] on display at the [Seattle] museum when it reopened? I looked at the exhibition history.

WIDING: You should read the Seattle Art Museum press release. They go into that.

ROSENBAUM: I read it [the Rorschach statement, above].

WIDING: So that’s the answer.

ROSENBAUM: No. Your catalogue omits that [the 2007 reopening exhibition, SAM at 75: Building a Collection for Seattle] in the exhibition history. [Another SAM show with Ebsworth’s holdings—“Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection,” 2000—is included in the Christie’s catalogue.]

WIDING: It’s not an area that I can answer. That’s a discussion between Barney and the Seattle Art Museum and they answered it in the press release.

ROSENBAUM: No, it’s a question of Christie’s listing provenance and exhibition history and you omitted that part of the exhibition history.

WIDING: We put everything relevant in the provenance and exhibition history.

ROSENBAUM: And it’s not relevant that it was on display at the Seattle Art Museum?

At that point, I had exhausted his patience and he walked off. [UPDATE: From my recent email exchange with SAM’s communications chief, I now see that the works offered at Christie’s may not have been in SAM’s 2007 exhibition.]

Let’s summon Widing back, via this CultureGrrl Video, to hear him expound on the top lot:

SAM might soon get another shot (or maybe not) at a major collection—this from Seattle-based benefactor Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft with Mimi Gates’ stepson, Bill Gates), who died last month at age 65. A spokesperson for the museum told me: “We have no knowledge of his estate plans.”

But SAM issued this statement from director Rorschach:

Paul was a leader of Seattle’s cultural community and a frequent lender and donor to the Seattle Art Museum.

A tireless champion of art, he and his foundation supported many exhibitions and programs at the museum. Through the years, he generously lent works from his remarkable private art collection, including 39 paintings presented in the 2017 exhibition, Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from The Paul G. Allen Family Collection.

One of the evocative paintings originally seen in “Seeing Nature” is currently on view at SAM, thanks to a loan from Paul’s collection. Pierre-Jacques Volaire’s “Eruption of Mount Vesuvius with the Ponte della Maddalena in the Distance,” ca. 1770, hangs opposite a new SAM acquisition by Louis-Philippe Crépin in the installation Extreme Nature.

For the museum, one of Paul’s most impactful philanthropic gestures was his substantial financial contribution in support of the creation of the Olympic Sculpture Park.

Hopes for bequests spring eternal…

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