25 February 2015

The most expensive works of art in the world and their histories (or lack thereof)-Part Three

by Marc Masurovsky

7. The Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer II, 1912, by Gustav Klimt sold for 87 million dollars at Christie’s on November 8, 2006.
Adele Bloch Bauer II, 1912, Gustav Klimt

8. The Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I (The Lady in Gold) by Gustav Klimt, 1907, sold for 135 million dollars at the same sale.
Adele Bloch Bauer I, 1907, Gustav Klimt

These two portraits of Adele Bloch Bauer were painted by Gustav Klimt on the eve of the First World War. Klimt was a favorite of Viennese Jewish aristocrats. The portraits are lush and exuberant, yet Adele is unreachable and cold. Adele died at a young age in 1925. The Anschluss of March 10, 1938 resulted in the Nazi annexation of Austria into the Greater German Reich and in the wholesale dispossession of Jewish-owned wealth and property followed by the persecution and deportation of tens of thousands of Viennese Jews to concentration camps “nach dem Osten.” The Bloch Bauer family, one of the most financially endowed of Vienna, lost all of its property. Avid collectors of Klimt and other members of the Austrian Secession, the Nazis confiscated all of the family’s works of art which ended up in government depots in Vienna. Decades later, the Nazis gone, the paintings remained in Austria hanging at the Belvedere while the remnants of the family had resettled in exile including Adele’s niece, Marie Altmann. She consulted with Randol Schoenberg, an attorney in Los Angeles and grandson of the composer, Arnold Schoenberg. Randy (as he is known) took her case and spent the greater part of eight years trying to wrest the Bloch Bauer Klimts from the clutches of the Austrian government. He eventually took the Austrian government to the Supreme Court (Altmann v. the Repubic of Austria) and was able to establish “jurisdiction”, a legal maneuver that enabled Marie Altmann to sue the Austrian government in American Federal courts. That verdict tipped the scales against Austria. One possible outcome of the case would have been for Austria to buy back the paintings. But at fair market value, the Austrian government would have spent upwards of 300 million dollars for the paintings including the two portraits of Adele Bloch Bauer. It was unwilling to do so. Marie Altmann won the right to recover her family’s cultural inheritance. Upon restitution, Adele Bloch Bauer I and II went on the auction block.

9. Boy with pipe, 1905, by Pablo Picasso sold for 104 million dollars on May 5, 2004 at Sotheby’s.
Boy with a Pipe, 1905, Pablo Picasso
According to the Sotheby’s catalogue, this painting once belonged to the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy family which sold it to the Swiss art dealer, Walter Feilchenfeldt, who headed the Cassirer gallery. Despite of and because of their wealth and status in Germany’s elite, the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy family suffered racial persecutions much like the rest of the Jewish community of Germany. Many of their cultural and artistic possessions were sold under duress in the 1930s.

John Hay Whitney purchased “Boy with a pipe” in 1950. After Whitney’s death, the painting passed to his widow, Betsey. She died in 1998 and a family foundation established by Betsey took control of the Whitney family’s art. The foundation sold the Picasso and other works in 2004.

10. Nude, Green leaves and Bust (1932) by Pablo Picasso sold for 106 million dollars on April 30, 2010 at Christie’s. 

Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, 1932, Pablo Picasso
 This complex still life by Picasso was once owned by the fabled French Jewish art dealer, Paul Rosenberg. Fearing for his safety following the German invasion of Poland, Paul Rosenberg fled to New York leaving most of his property behind in Paris and several storage sites in central and southwestern France, including his world-renown stock of Impressionist and Cubist works. He stored some of them in a storage shed in Tours under the name of one of his employees, which apparently shielded those works from Nazi seizure. Paul and his brother, Edmond, recovered all of the art stored in Tours after France was liberated.

11. The Scream, 1895 by Edvard Munch sold for 119 million dollars at Sotheby’s on May 2, 2012. The seller was Petter Olsen, whose father, Thomas, had been a neighbor of Edvard Munch.
The Scream, 1895, by Edvard Munch

The reporting on the painting echoed other similar journalistic fawning over the staggering cost of a work of art. Usually, those paeans to the Everest of the art world tend to overshadow the actual history of the objects fetching such ridiculous sums. As it turns out, Munch’s acknowledged masterpiece of angst and despair, The Scream, had passed through many hands. According to the Los Angeles Times, the painting had a clear provenance, starting with Arthur von Franquet who sold it to Hugo Simon who sold it through an art dealer to Thomas Olsen in 1937 and thence by descent to Pette Olsen.

A posting on the ARCAblog which came on the heels of the fabled sale of the Munch painting summarized the history of the Scream as provided by the Sotheby’s auction house. There we learn that Hugo Simon purchased the painting in 1926 and consigned it to the Kunsthaus in Zurich, nearly 10 years later in December 1936. One month later, the painting presumably found its way to Stockholm where Thomas Olsen, the father of the seller, acquired the painting at M. Molvidson, Konst & Antikvitetshandel.

Meanwhile, one of the Hugo Simon heirs contacted the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) and expressed his concern that the painting had been sold by his great-grandfather under duress. Thus it was a forced sale, and Sotheby’s refused to acknowledge that fact. This additional element cast a pall on the entire sale. However, it was clear that nothing would stop this juggernaut of the auction market from doing anything to prevent the sale, especially because it represented such a hefty pay day for the auction house.

Five months after the sale, the Museum of Modern Art of New York announced that “The Scream” will be on temporary display as of mid-October 2012, thanks to one of MoMA’s trustees, Leon Black, who happened to be the lucky purchaser of the famed painting.

At this point, the local New York press took seriously charges made by Raphael Cardoso, Hugo Simon’s great-grand-son, that Hugo Simon had been forced to sell the Scream as well as most of his art collection as a direct result of his persecution as a Jew in Nazi Germany. He fled to Paris then to Brazil. The Nazis confiscated all of his assets in Germany, then, after the invasion of France, did the same with his few possessions in Paris, including his apartment and the art and furniture that it contained.
The Jewish Forward cited the October 14, 2012, article by Isabel Vincent and essentially reprinted Raphael Cardoso’s concerns. It is the only article that called into question the provenance of “The Scream,” by Edvard Munch.  Shortly afterwards, the online art world blog, Artinfo, titled an article: Is the Scream Nazi loot?  The Jewish Journal echoed the Simon heirs’ demand that, at the very least, MoMA accompany the Scream with an explanatory piece that echoed the context in which the painting changed hands once Hugo Simon tried to sell it in the mid-1930s. 

Finally, another blog, City Review, disclosed the fact that Pette Olsen, then owner of “The Scream”, had offered 250,000 dollars to the family that it could donate to whatever cause it desired. What the article did not mention is that Sotheby’s brokered this offer. The family turned it down on grounds that “it was insulting.”

In sum, a story that should have riled the art world became a “Jewish” story as only the Jewish and Israeli press took heed of the claim made by the Simon heirs that the iconographic painting of anxiety and despair portrayed so emphatically by Munch, could have been the subject of a forced sale.
If anything, the Munch painting’s travails echo once again the difficulty inherent in defining what a forced sale is, what duress really means, when faced with a claim for restitution seventy years later.

11. The dream, 24 January 1932 by Pablo Picasso sold for 155 million dollars on March 26, 2013, in a private sale between the casino billionaire, Steve Wynn, and the stockbroker billionaire, Steve Cohen, who was then under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The Dream, 1932, Pablo Picasso

Victor and Sally Gancz had acquired the painting in New York for 7,000 dollars in 1941 and kept it in their possession until November 11, 1997 There is no information about who might have sold it to them and when the painting actually crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Apparently, Gancz sold The Dream to an Austrian-born financier, Wolfgang Flöttl, whose name also appeared on the provenance of van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet.

Flöttl sold The Dream to Steve Wynn in 2001. In an unfortunate incident that made the news globally, Wynn tripped and tore the painting with his elbow. Following its successful restoration for which he spared no expense (as good as new if not better!), he offered it to Steve Cohen who had already expressed in it and would have acquired it earlier had it not been for the rip.

12. Les joueurs de cartes, early 1890s, by Paul Cézanne, sold for 259 million dollars in 2011 to a member of the Qatar royal family. The seller was a Greek billionaire, George Embiricos, who amassed an impressive art collection. 

Les joueurs de cartes, early 1890s, Paul Cezanne

The history of the painting is unknown, save for the fact that Embiricos “owned it for many years”,
Two leading lights of the global art world, Bill Acquavella and Larry Gagosian had presumably offered 220 million dollars for the painting. No deal.
Here we have one of the finest examples of Cézanne’s oeuvre, the second most expensive painting in the world, whose origins are unknown. All that we do know is that Paul Cézanne painted it in the early 1890s.  It left France at a certain point, ending up in Greece at a certain point where it stayed “for many years” before leaving for the Persian Gulf States. So much for “transparency.”

13. "Nafea Faa Ipoipo-When Will You Marry?", 1892, by Paul Gauguin sold in a private sale to the Qatar Royal Family for approximately 300 million dollars in February 2015.

When will you marry? 1892, Paul Gauguin

The seller is the Rudolph Staechelin Family Trust in Basel, Switzerland, which is run by Ruedi Staechelin, Rudolph’s grandson. The painting was on loan to the Kunstmuseum Basel. The loan period ends in June 2015. Rudolph Staechelin amassed his collection during the interwar years and befriended most of the artists whose works he had purchased. His grandson, Ruedi Staechelin, a former auction house executive, has taken a strong position against the UNIDROIT convention which he views as “an enormous danger to public and private collecting”. UNIDROIT was put into place in the mid-1990s to remind the international community of the legal, financial, and ethical risks involved in trading and displaying stolen art. Staechelin proudly announced that Swiss museums, collectors and even the Swiss Art Trade Association, supported his stance against the international convention on trafficking of looted art. Now you know why Switzerland does not return, does not restitute, and does not repatriate looted cultural assets unless under threat of subpoenas, seizures and arrests. 

What a way to do business!

See the article by Julia Voss on the Gauguin sale that appeared earlier in February 2015 in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

24 February 2015

The most expensive works of art in the world and their histories (or lack thereof)-Part Two

by Marc Masurovsky

(Note: Absent are works of art that post-date 1945: Alberto Giacometti, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and the ubiquitous Pablo Picasso.)

5. Dora Maar au chat, 1941, by Pablo Picasso sold for more than 95 million dollars in May 2006 at Sotheby’s. Picasso painted several portraits of his Croatian girlfriend who held no particular love for the Jews. The Germans had taken over Paris in mid-June 1940. Since his return from the port city of Royan to Paris on August 24, 1940, Picasso’s relationship with a number of German officers and officials had evolved, especially young officers from the Propagandastaffel who cultivated ties with intellectuals and artists in the capital. He also knew a number of art dealers who had chosen to feather their beds with the German occupiers, including Martin Fabiani and Paul Pétridès.

According to the Sotheby’s catalogue entry, Pierre Colle, a Paris art dealer and collector and specialist of Surrealist art, held the painting “as of 1946.” During the years of German occupation, Colle had been in business with another art dealer, Maurice Renou.  Together they recycled a number of modern works, signed by Salvador Dali and Max Ernst, which German agencies had seized from British nationals and Jewish owners. It is not clear when Mr. Colle acquired the Dora Maar portrait, assuming that we are speaking of an acquisition. The painting could have been left with him on consignment. Furthermore, Mr. Colle and Mr. Picasso had an on-and-off relationship which dated back to the pre-war years.
Dora Maar
Pablo Picasso


Dora Maar au chat, 1941, Pablo Picasso
Several hypotheses come to mind about the early years of ownership of the painting.

a/ it could have remained in Pablo Picasso’s studio on rue des Grands-Augustins in the 6th arrondissement of Paris until he was ready to part with it after the Liberation of Paris in late August 1944.

b/ Picasso might have sold it to Mr. or Ms. X before 1946. Hopefully that X person was not of Jewish descent because that might have affected the fate of the painting should Mr. or Ms. X be arrested by the Germans or their French collaborators of whom there were many in the German-occupied French capital.

Pierre Colle apparently sold Dora Maar au Chat to Leigh and Mary Block of Chicago and hung on to it until 1963. Then, the Gidwitz Family, also from Chicago, bought the painting through Berggruen and Cie which acted as “agents for the Blocks.” They ended up selling it in early May 2006 to a “mysterious buyer” dressed in jeans and “appearing to be in his mid-40s” according to Carol Vogel of the New York Times.


6. A Chinese 18th century Qianlong porcelain vase sold for 85 million dollars on November 12, 2010 at Bainbridges, a small British auction house. The family who sold it had discovered the vase quite by accident in the attic of their parents’ house.


Qianlong vase, 18th c.


Experts said it probably once belonged to Chinese royalty but was most likely taken out of China at the end of the Second Opium War in 1860 when imperial palaces were ransacked.

In a bizarre twist to this already unusual story, the buyer, after making an initial deposit on the vase to secure it, never followed up on paying the rest of the hefty sum to Bainbridges and the sellers. Apparently, that led to a breach of contract and, two years later, Bonhams sold the vase again for less than 83 million dollars to a Hong Kong dealer.


The most expensive works of art in the world and their histories (or lack thereof)-Part One

by Marc Masurovsky

Our collective jaws routinely drop when we read about a work of art selling for sums of money that most of us cannot comprehend or even perceive. And yet, there exists an informal club of men and women who are capable of spending such sums.

We won’t waste time wondering whether or not they actually enjoy the art objects on which they lavish huge sums. Their investment redefines what is meant by “priceless.” Is priceless an unattainable sum for the common mortal? Is it a sum that is beyond the reach of a billionaire? Or is it a sum that does not exist?

No matter.

“Transparency”, read less opacity, is the operative principle pertaining to research into the history of art objects even when they fetch sums symbolized by figures that contain eight or nine Arabic numerals.

Let’s take a look at some of these objects for which their proud owners spent at least 60 million dollars.



1. Bassin aux Nympheas, 1919, by Claude Monet sold for 66 million dollars at Christie’s on June 24, 2008.
Bassin aux nymphéas, 1919, Claude Monet-Source: Christie's

It belonged initially to the famous Paris art dealing family of Bernheim-Jeune who then sold this dreamy painting to a member of the Durand-Ruel family, another Parisian art dealer, from there to Sam Salz, Norton Simon, an owner in Indiana and then the Millers whose estate sold it off in 2008. This information is accessible through the Christie’s catalogue.


2. The massacre of the Innocents, 1610, by Peter Paul Rubens sold for 76 million dollars in July 2002 through Sotheby’s. Originally misattributed to Jan van den Hoecke, it remained in the same family for close to two centuries. Then it changed owners either before or right after the First World War (1914-1918), fell into the hands of an Austrian family whose patriarch did not like it, thinking it was “ugly” and consigned it to a monastery until the 89-year old heiress of said Austrian family had a change of heart and decided to put it up for sale.
The Massacre of the Innocents, 1610, Peter Paul Rubens



3. Le Moulin de la Galette, by Auguste Renoir, sold for 78 million dollars on May 15, 1990 at Christie’s. The smaller of the two versions that Renoir painted, no one knows for certain whether it was painted before or after its more famous larger version which Renoir completed in 1876. It went through the now defunct New York art gallery, Knoedler’s, where John Hay Whitney acquired it in 1929. It remained in the Whitney family until 1990 when it was auctioned and sold to a maverick Japanese businessman, Mr. Saito. He later ran out of money and was forced to sell off his assets including this Renoir painting and one by Van Gogh. Rumor has it that this less ambitious version of “Le Bal du Moulin de la Galette” ended up in a private Swiss collection. 
Le Moulin de la Galette, n. d., Auguste Renoir

4. Portrait of Dr. Gachet, 1890, by Vincent van Gogh sold for 82 million dollars on May 15, 1990 at Christie’s. Its history carries with it the taint of Nazi cultural policies aimed at works that were deemed objectionable because of their content and execution. This painting by van Gogh changed hands a number of times in the early 20th century, through the Paul Cassirer gallery in Berlin then Galerie Druet in Paris before ending up in the permanent collection of the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. Following the rise to power of the Nazis on January 30, 1933, museum officials there tried their best to shield their “degenerate” works from the prying eyes of the Nazis. Unfortunately, “Dr. Gachet” was a well-known work and van Gogh did not whet the esthetic appetites of the new barbarians clad in brown and black uniforms. Pursuant to official Reich policies, the painting was de-accessioned in 1937 and joined other captive works in the ever-expanding collection of Reichmarschall Hermann Goering. With the help of Joseph Angerer, art historian and art dealer in the pay of Nazi officials, Goering sold “Dr. Gachet” to a German banker, Franz Koenigs, who then allegedly turned around and sold it or relinquished it to Siegfried Kramarsky. The Kramarsky family fled to New York just in time with the van Gogh. The painting was placed on long-term loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as of 1984. Thereupon, the Kramasky heirs decided to sell it. Mr. Saito, a Japanese businessman who boasted of possessing a vast fortune, spent a small fortune on the van Gogh, breaking all records to date for a painting by the tortured Dutch master.
Portrait of Dr. Gachet, 1890, van Gogh

Then, the painting disappeared from view. It did not help that Mr. Saito went into such exponential debt that, no doubt, “Dr. Gachet” was sold in a private sale. But to whom?

Charles Goldstein, executive director of the New York-based Commission for Art Recovery (CAR), was quoted as saying that, one way or another, the title to the painting is clouded and resale will be difficult. Which would explain why the painting has not resurfaced in the past two decades. Condemned, due to a tainted title, to remain in the global parallel art market of sub rosa transactions. This will not help the Koenigs heiress to recover the painting that she claims was not sold consensually to Kramasky. Or so it would seem.

See the fascinating book by Cynthia Saltzman, “The Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a Van Gogh Masterpiece, Money, Politics, Collectors, Greed, and Loss” which takes the story of Dr. Gachet up to Mr. Saito.





The cult of the object


When will you marry? Paul Gauguin 1892
by Marc Masurovsky

In the hyper-inflated art market that we witness nowadays, sums are being spent on works of art equal to the annual budgets of municipalities around the world.

Works of art, especially paintings and the occasional decorative object, have become part trophy, part idol, poor excuses for conversation pieces, to be worshipped and paraded in the privacy of one’s estate until the current owner becomes bored with it and unloads it on the private art market or as a gift or loan to a public institution that can afford the insurance payments.

What work of art could be worth 300 million dollars? Of course, we are thinking about “Nafea Faa Ipoipo-When Will You Marry?", painted by Paul Gauguin in 1892.

Sure, it’s a beautiful work not unlike many of Gauguin’s other works which chronicle his sexual and quasi-mystical adventures and mishaps in Tahiti. But three hundred million one-dollar bills?

300,000,000 x
It defies any reasonable person’s imagination that such prices can be paid. But there you have it. As a member of the incredulous public, I read the news of such a transaction and my emotions shift from perplexed to thoroughly disgusted; I end up experiencing a mixture of sadness, anger and bewilderment, at the impervious behavior of the world’s billionaires who use art to make statements about themselves. 

Is it really about them, their cronies and their vision of life? We do share the same planet, but we definitely do not share the same world. The ecosystems in which we live are mutually exclusive. Those who write for mass media outlets tend to cater to the whims of the hyper-wealthy by hatching uncritical paeans to these hyper-spenders. They wrongly assume that we, the general public, cannot wait to hear about these people’s foibles and follies.

Spending 300 million dollars on a Gauguin painting is not likely to make me like him any more than if someone had spent 1 million or 10 thousand dollars on his work. The money spent on art does not induce me to “appreciate” art any differently, for better or for worse. If I don’t like the object, no amount of money will make me like it more or unlike my “unlike” (to use Facebook-type language).

Not all members of the media were thrilled about the acquisition and its message to the world about "great art." Read the following:

“How many people have $300 million to spend on a great work of art?” Frances Beatty, president of Richard L. Feigen & Co. gallery in New York, said in an interview. “That’s where you start from. It wouldn’t be worth $300 million if there wasn’t a small group of people out there with billions to spend on works of art as opposed to roads, vaccines, whatever.”

The price paid for a work of art should never serve as a bellwether for taste and esthetics and it certainly should not be used as a factor in judging its worthiness.