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Philanthropy Fail: How Museums Got Hammered at the Major Spring Auctions

It’s like a museum, only everything’s for sale.

That visitor’s comment, overheard by me at Christie’s presale display of its evening-sale offerings earlier this month, isn’t usually true nowadays at the auction houses, especially when it comes to Impressionist and modern art: Relatively few major Monets, Manets, Cézannes or van Goghs remain in private hands, making those presale exhibitions a lot less museum-like than they were when I began covering auctions four decades ago.

But the evening Impressionist/Modern and Contemporary sales at Christie’s this month felt like a bit of a throwback to the old days when more museum-quality works graced the sale catalogues. The upgrade was largely thanks to posthumous consignments from collections of major museum benefactors—S.I. Newhouse, Drue Heinz and Robert and Beatrice Mayer. Their holdings may well have once been on the wish lists of the museums with which they had been closely associated—the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum and Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, respectively.

The blue-chip collection amassed by Newhouse, who famously had a falling-out with MoMA while he was still collecting, not divesting, was the source of the flashiest work offered during the big sales:

Jeff Koons, “Rabbit,” 1986
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

If rumors are correct that megacollector Steve Cohen was the client on whose behalf dealer Robert Mnuchin won the bidding on Koons at $80 million ($91.1 million with fees, an auction record for any living artist), the bunny might eventually hop over to MoMA, where Cohen is on the board of trustees.

Judging from the Koonses featured on its collections website, MoMA (whose late chief curator Kirk Varnedoe championed “Rabbit” in an Artforum essay reproduced in Christie’s catalogue) could use a major example of the price-inflated “inflatables.”

That said, CultureGrrl readers know how I feel about Koons in general and about his bunny in particular. There’s another fetish-bunny to which I’m more kindly disposed. Perhaps Jeff should try his hand at immortalizing this cuddly one:

CultureGrandson’s “Comfort Bunny”
Photo by CultureSon

Another standout from the Newhouse Collection—a lively Cézanne still life monetized at Christie’s Impressionist/Modern sale, might not have filled a hole in MoMA’s rich collection of works by that artist, but it’s a museum picture, if there ever was one:

Cézanne, “Kettle with Fruit,” 1888-90
Sold at Christie’s for $59.3 million
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

When I asked MoMA whether, prior to Newhouse’s resignation from its board in 2000, it had hoped eventually to receive some of works from his collection, its spokesperson would only say: “We did not receive a bequest from Si and did not expect to.” Unsaid was what its expectations might have been when he was still on the board.

Similarly, I asked Gary Tinterow, former chairman of the Met’s Department of 19th-Century, Modern and Contemporary Art (now director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) whether the Met had hoped to receive some or all of the Drue Heinz works just auctioned at Christie’s. Some of the museum’s Impressionist/Modern galleries, over which Tinterow had presided, are named for her late husband, who was CEO of the H.J. Heinz Company (of ketchup fame):

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s what Gary told me:

Drue was great friends with [the Met’s long-time director] Philippe de Montebello, John Pope-Hennessy [the Met’s former head of European paintings] and Everett Fahy [another former head of European paintings], but I believe she bought most of her collection in the 1960s, prior to the tenures of both at the Met.

I too knew and admired Drue, and she supported many of my projects. Like many Met trustees, she would lend her most important pictures to the Met each summer. For years, I installed them in our galleries, where they became familiar friends [emphasis added].

Most of the works sold at Christie’s had come in as summer loans over the years. But in all honesty, the Met does not need them. It already has superior examples in almost every instance.

It seems to me that if museums offer free summer storage to major collectors who leave New York for the summer, there should be a quid pro quo that gives museums first dibs on those “familiar friends” when the owners no longer want them or bequeath them.

According to a Met spokesperson, the museum did receive four works as Drue Heinz bequests: a painting and a charcoal drawing by Lucien Freud, a painting by Francis Bacon and a painting by Magritte.

None of these (according to the above links on the Met’s website) are currently on view, and none rise to the level of Heinz works dispatched to Christie’s, which include this…

Modigliani, “Lunia Czechowska,” 1919
Sold at Christie’s for $25.25 million

…and this:

Bonnard, “La Terrasse ou Une Terrasse à Grasse, 1912
Sold at Christie’s for $19.57 million, an auction record for the artist
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Another museum-worthy picture is this Balthus, acquired from the artist himself by the late Dorothy and Richard Sherwood. Its market value at Christie’s was likely enhanced by its having been the cover work for the Metropolitan Museum’s 2013 “Balthus: Cats and Girls” exhibition:

Balthus, “Thérèse sur un Banquette,” 1939
Sold at Christie’s for $19 million, an auction record for the artist
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

CultureGrrl readers already know about another work from the recent auctions that I had strongly believed should have remained in the museum that it came from—the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which decided to sell one of the six Rothko paintings it owned, in order to bankroll other (as yet unidentified) acquisitions. I particularly objected to the museum’s discarding a painting that it received, upon its own request, directly from the artist.

That said, my outrage ramped down a notch when I got the opportunity to eyeball the painting at Sotheby’s presale exhibition. I was did a doubletake at the appearance of the top third of that dramatically spotlit painting: It bore vertical streaks that reflected light differently, interfering with the mesmerizing aura that customarily emanates from the best Rothkos.

Here’s one view of what I saw at Sotheby’s:

Rothko, “Untitled,” 1960
Sold at Sotheby’s for $50.1 million
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

And here are two close-ups showing the disruptions of its surface:

Photos by Lee Rosenbaum

None of this unevenness is evident in the photos published by Sotheby’s—neither the ones in the catalogue (for which it was the cover lot) nor those online. Curious to learn more about what I was seeing, I requested (but never received) the painting’s condition report.

Instead, a Sotheby’s spokesperson told me this about the painting’s condition:

I did speak to the Contemporary team here and I wanted to pass on confirmation that the work has never had any conservation. Any irregularities in the surface are a vestige of Rothko’s working method, and are consistent with many works from this period by the artist.

A disturbing subtext to this is the role of auction houses as self-interested cheerleaders for museums’ dicey disposals. Here’s Charlotte Burns, writing and podcasting as an employee of Sotheby’s, tweeting about the Rothko let-go:

A couple of ill-conceived museum deaccessions (including the recent disposals by the Baltimore Museum of Art) do not constitute a move towards general acceptance of this practice (at least, I hope not).

One instance in which museums got “hammered” in a good way was “Artists for the Hammer”—the $12.4-million disposal at Sotheby’s contemporary evening and day sales of 40 works donated by artists “to support the creation of an Artist Fund at the Hammer,” in the words of Sotheby’s press release. The artists did well by doing good: Auction records were set for five of them. The proceeds went towards the Hammer Museum’s exhibition program and its work with emerging artists.

The fund is part of the museum’s $180-million capital campaign, which also includes a major transformation of the Hammer’s physical plant and expansion of its endowment.

This, combined with last year’s sales at Sotheby’s of 42 works donated by artists to benefit the Studio Museum in Harlem (also in the midst of a major capital project) could start a win-win trend for collaborations among artists, museums and auction houses. The Studio Museum auctions brought some $20.2 million and established 24 auction records.

Notwithstanding its own newly renovated and expanded headquarters, Sotheby’s sales didn’t attract big-name private collections of the importance of those that Christie’s snared—Newhouse, Heinz and the Mayers (whose dispersed holdings included this Rauschenberg, which set an auction record for the artist at $88.81 million).

Sotheby’s did have the distinction, though, of scoring the highest price in the evening sales, breaking the $100-million barrier for this iridescently hued Monet from his haystacks series, consigned from an unidentified “important private collection.”

It set a new auction record for any Impressionist work:

Monet, “Meules,” 1890
Sold at Sotheby’s for $110.7 million
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

My impressions of Sotheby’s spiffed-up digs, designed by Shohei Shigematsu of OMA New York (who attended the auction press preview), were mixed.

Some spaces were airy…

…but others seemed constricted, with distractingly busy, unappealing ceilings:

Photos by Lee Rosenbaum

The quality differential in the evening-sale offerings of the two auction houses was reflected in the disparity of their takes: Christie’s two evening sales totaled (with fees) $938 million; Sotheby’s two evening sales totaled (with fees) $642.3 million.

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