Writing On The Wall? Massachusetts Museum To Sell Off More Of Its Collection

After a highly acrimonious, drawn-out court battle over the sale of several works from its permanent collection, a Massachusetts museum is headed back to the salerooms to raise more funds.

As you may know from these pages or elsewhere, the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts is in the process of reinventing itself into some sort of touchy-feely, gee-whizz, Chuck E. Cheese location. Any time you read that a museum is developing “cutting-edge technology and new interpretive techniques”, you should question the long-term thinking behind such an effort. (I have two words for you: Epcot Center.)

In order to bring about its own destruction, the Berkshire needs more funds. Having already sold several works, including two Norman Rockwells donated to it by the artist, but having failed to reach its $55 million fundraising target, the Berkshire will now send an additional nine works to Sotheby’s. Seven of these will be sold privately, and two will be sold in an upcoming auction of Asian art.

The Berkshire faces more than just the uncertainty of the market when it comes to deaccessioning pieces from its permanent collection, although it has its defenders among local newspaper columnists who know nothing about the art world. It has become something of a pariah among other American cultural institutions as a result of its actions so far, regardless of the legality of its being able to sell the works in its collection. For example, the museum has already been sanctioned by the powerful Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) as a result of the first dispersal, and part of that sanction involves the AAMD warning its members not to loan anything to the Berkshire or collaborate with it on any exhibitions. No word yet on whether greater sanctions will be imposed by the AAMD as a result of this forthcoming sale.

It’s possible that some of the works will end up in public collections, but of course there’s really no way to guarantee that when you’re arranging a sale via a third party. Current figures suggest that, even without the Calder, which Sotheby’s has not put an estimate on, the sale of these pieces should put the museum over the top in terms of its goals. However, if numbers come in at the lower end of pre-sale estimates, the Berkshire is prepared to sell off a third group of objects from its collection to make up tany remaining shortfall.

 

Among the pieces slotted to go in this round are works by several major American artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. “Giant Redwood Trees of California’ (c. 1874) by Albert Bierstadt is a misty, enveloping painting, lacking the artist’s best element – i.e., his depiction of mountain peaks – but expertly drawing the eye through the landscape to the waterfall at the base of the giant trees. My prediction is that this will probably go to a California-based collector or institution.

Bierstadt

Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s “Two Ladies in a Drawing Room/The White Dress” (1921) is, from a certain standpoint, exactly the sort of thing that collectors want when they are out to acquire a work by this artist, who was always highly regarded by other artists and architects such as James Whistler and Stanford White, but is not quite the household name that he deserves to be. Dewing’s enigmatic, quiet pictures of ethereal ladies in Edwardian dresses, who almost seem to float through the spaces which he depicts, are highly distinctive. The estimate of $400-600k is probably right, since from the point of view of art history this is a bit late for Dewing, who was at the height of his powers in the decade or two before World War I, but stopped exhibiting not long after this work was completed.

Dewing

Finally, Benjamin West’s “Daniel Interpreting to Belshazzar the Handwriting on the Wall” (1775) carries an estimate of $200-300k, which I suspect is somewhat low as West’s religious pictures have been attracting a lot of attention in recent years on both sides of the Atlantic. The painting dramatically depicts the scene usually referred to as “The Feast of Belshazzar” from the Bible, in which the Prophet Daniel is called before Crown Prince Belshazzar of Babylon to interpret some mysterious writing that has appeared on the wall just as the prince and his courtiers are enjoying a feast using the sacred vessels stolen from the Temple in Jerusalem. Daniel prophesies that Belshazzar is doomed, which makes this a rather a fitting image, I suppose, for the Berkshire’s efforts when taken in their entirety.

West

Thought-Pourri: Happy Hippo Edition

It’s been a big week for art news since last week’s roundup, gentle reader.

The very, very big news is that Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”, which I shared some thoughts about earlier this week, sold for a whopping $450 million last night at Christie’s in New York. This is by far the highest amount ever paid for a single work of art in any art auction, ever, far outstripping the previous auction record holder, Pablo Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)”, which sold for $179 million back in 2015. Despite the naysayers – and there are many – at the end of the day a Da Vinci is a Da Vinci, even if it’s a Da Vinci that’s not in especially good nick.

Meanwhile, the other big story is that rival auctioneer Sotheby’s is currently licking its chops, after the Massachusetts Appeals Court halted the sale of the Berkshire Museum’s auction of a series of paintings from its permanent collection, including two works by Norman Rockwell which had been donated to the museum by the artist himself. While the pictures in question are not of great importance in art history, the really interesting item here is how the courts will address the question of deaccession, which is always a thorny subject when it comes to art law. I’m not going to weigh in on the pro’s and con’s of the practice, but it will be interesting to see what the final result is, and whether it sets any precedents.

Anyway, on to some other, less portentous news items.

Happy, Happy Hippo

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of William, the Ancient Egyptian hippopotamus that has long been a symbol of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Met has just opened a new exhibition featuring the beloved blue beastie. In addition, William will be feted with lectures, activities, and even cookies and cocktails named in his honor. William being, of course, the best of all possible boys’ names, and my childhood wish to become an Egyptologist notwithstanding, I’ve always had a soft spot for this little sculpture; perhaps I should look into obtaining a reproduction for myself. Check the Met’s website for a full of listing of exhibition and event details.

Hippo

The Queen’s Cranach

Technology once again comes to the rescue of the art world, in identifying a lost work by one of Germany’s most important Renaissance artists. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) is perhaps best known for his paintings of naked ladies, who are so physically unappealing that it’s hard to understand why his pictures were so widely collected. He also painted portraits however, and it turns out that one of these – long thought to be a copy – was purchased by England’s Queen Victoria as a Christmas present for her German husband, Prince Albert. Personally, I don’t much care for Cranach, whose work was commissioned mostly by Northern Europeans with bad taste (probably because they couldn’t produce anything to rival what was being painted in Italy at the same time.) Nevertheless, it’s an interesting story, down to the rather grisly preparation method – pigeon tendons! – which helped confirm the authenticity of the picture.

Cranach

Clearly Contemporary Claptrap

Speaking of unappealing works of art, I’ve been saying for years that most of the Contemporary Art world is rather boring, and highly derivative in nature, since it constantly has to try to shock the viewer due to an inability to demonstrate much of anything in the way of skill and creativity. Marcel Duchamp hung a urinal on a wall and titled it “Fountain” a century ago, after all; much of what is supposedly avant-garde these days has been said by others, elsewhere, in more interesting ways. So it was particularly refreshing, in this review of a show at Turin’s brand-new OGR complex juxtaposing Ancient, Classical, and Contemporary Art, to find a reviewer who apparently agrees.

Turin

Restoring Russian Ruins

A few years after The Wall came down, we were visiting some friends in Munich who hoped to finally get back their family estate near Potsdam, which had been taken by the Soviets when Germany was divided after World War II; they eventually managed to secure the property and restore it. White Russians, on the other hand, have been waiting to reclaim their ancestral homes for roughly a century now, thanks to the Russian Revolution which broke out in November 2017. Some of these palaces were preserved, but the majority have long been ruins. This interesting piece in Art Daily is just a sampling of some of the problems faced by those trying to reclaim their family’s homes – such as, how do you get people to willingly travel hundreds of miles out in the middle of nowhere to fix up falling down old houses?

Estate

Sorolla and Stock Sale

For many years now, New York art dealer Otto Naumann has been one of the most hallowed names in the world of Old Master painting – and is certainly the most important dealer in this genre in the United States. Now that he’s retiring from the trade, Naumann has decided to sell off his remaining stock through Sotheby’s. In addition to Renaissance and Baroque religious, mythological, and still life paintings, works that will be coming to the auction block include some of what Old Master collectors would consider “Modern” art, such as this beautiful work by Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) of a Castilian peasant pouring himself a glass of water. On their website, Sotheby’s has more on Naumann, his collection, and the upcoming multi-day sale of his stock, which will take place between January 26-31, 2018. If you happen to have a few million sitting around, or know someone who does, this is a sale not to be missed.

Sorolla

Thought-Pourri: Exclamations Edition

Among my fellow practitioners of popery there have been a great many dumbfounded exclamations on social media since yesterday, when The Met announced that the theme for the 2018 Met Gala will be – wait for it – “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”. The idea appears to have been suggested by the upcoming loan of historic vestments and other liturgical garments from the Vatican, for an exhibition which will open at The Met on May 10th. I find it difficult to understand why Rome would allow itself to serve as the touchstone for a parade of tarts, gigolos, and social parasites who openly hate the Church, but then the inherent tackiness of the present occupant of the chair of St. Peter is something which has been more than apparent for years now. I hope Cardinal Dolan has better sense than to attend this event.

Now, on to some more interesting news.

Ah, Venice!

After many years of complaints from residents, art and architecture historians, and international cultural organizations like UNESCO, Italy is finally taking steps to ban jumbo cruise ships from the center of Venice. Over the next two years, the mega-liners will be diverted from the Giudecca Canal, which merges with the Grand Canal to lead into the Piazza San Marco. The behemoths will now dock at a newly-constructed facility on the North Canal at Marghera, on the Venetian mainland. While not a complete solution to the many problems faced by La Serenissima, from depopulation to pollution, hopefully scenes like that pictured below, of a tacky monstrosity looming over the historic core of the city, will soon be a thing of the past.

Venice

Bah, Berkshire!

Despite last-minute interventions by both the Rockwell family and the Massachusetts Attorney General, it looks as though the sale of the Berkshire Museum’s two Norman Rockwell paintings will be going ahead at Sotheby’s next week as planned. Readers will recall that the Berkshire decided to sell off a significant portion of its art holdings, including two paintings gifted to the museum by Rockwell himself (one of which served as the Saturday Evening Post cover pictured below), as well as a number of other significant works of art in the collection, to become some sort of experiential tourist destination. Barring some last-minute appeals, the museum is now free to reinvent itself as the nonsensical, irrelevant, lowest common denominator institution which its current leadership wants it to become. My prediction is that a decade from now, it will have ceased to exist entirely.

Rockwell

Bello, Bernini!

A major exhibition featuring almost 80 works by the greatest master of Italian Baroque architecture and sculpture, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), has just opened at the Borghese in Rome, should you happen to find yourself in the Eternal City in the coming months. What’s particularly interesting about “Bernini” (no other exhibition descriptors were thought necessary) is that, in addition to a number of the artist’s most famous sculptures, as well as a newly restored work, and drawings and models for buildings such as St. Peter’s, the show features several of his paintings – for yes, Bernini could paint, too. Note for example the wonderfully direct frankness and overall simplicity of this 1632 portrait of Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644), which is on loan to the Borghese show. I particularly like how Bernini handled the red of the garments in this picture, so as to give the viewer a real sense of it being the kind of dense, close-cropped velvet that has little or no sheen to it. “Bernini” runs through February 4, 2018.

Bernini

Golly, Guido!

Speaking of the Italian Baroque, Bendor Grosvenor – whom I read every day and you should, too – reports that the National Gallery in London has recently determined that a work presumed to be by assistants of the very influential painter Guido Reni (1575-1642) has now been determined to be, at least in part, from the hand of Reni himself. Though not quite a household name today, Reni was *the* most popular Italian Baroque artist of his day, and indeed for centuries afterwards; dozens of important artists came to study in his studio, and his pictures were widely sought after by collectors all over Europe. “The Toilet of Venus” was painted sometime between 1620 and 1625, but it has been a dark and dingy thing for many years. Thanks to a recent cleaning, it has regained the almost porcelain qualities of flesh and jewel-toned fabric for which Reni is justly famous. Intriguingly, as Grosvenor mentions in his piece, another painting that was gifted to the National Gallery as part of the same bequest was also believed to be a copy executed by Reni’s studio assistants. I suspect that the museum is now going to turn its attention to funding the cleaning and restoration of this one, since it would be just as major of a rediscovery. At this point, the painting is so grimy that you can only barely see the threatening Kraken swimming about at the lower left of the picture.

Perseus