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Going, Going… | Chicago magazine | Chicago Magazine November 2006

Going, Going…

After a locally owned Picasso portrait of the artist’s mistress Dora Maar was sold at auction for $95.2 million, the deal raised profound questions about the loss of the work and the future of the city’s museums.

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When Picasso’s portrait of his mistress Dora Maar sold at auction for a staggering $95.2 million, some members of Chicago’s art elite wondered why the masterpiece had to leave the city

photography: courtesy of Sotheby’s
The buyer of Dora Maar at Sotheby’s still remains unidentified.

A standing-room-only crowd filled the seventh-floor salesroom at Sotheby’s Manhattan headquarters this past May 3rd for the spring auction of impressionist and modern art. The evening promised excitement: Sotheby’s was offering a Picasso masterpiece, Dora Maar au Chat (Dora Maar with Cat), a brightly colored 1941 portrait of the painter’s onetime lover seated regally with a black cat perched mischievously, or perhaps menacingly, on her shoulder. Few of the art connoisseurs in the show room had ever before seen the large canvas. For the past 40 years, it had hung in the Highland Park home of Adele Gidwitz and her late husband, Willard, who made a fortune in the family business, Helene Curtis hair care products.

The auctioneer, Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s worldwide head of contemporary art, opened the bidding at $38 million, and the frenzied battle over Dora began. “The initial bidding went really quickly- bang, bang, bang-at a million dollars a pop,” recalls Charles Moffett, a vice chairman of Sotheby’s. “There were bids coming from all over the room and on the phones. It was wild.”

One bidder, in particular, stood out among the rest of the art-savvy crowd. Identified only by his paddle number, 1340, the middle-aged man with dark hair was seated in the rear of the salesroom, dressed in a blue blazer and a cream-colored shirt. By several accounts, he spoke with a Russian accent. “The guy was a complete unknown-out of nowhere,” says Richard Gray, the Chicago art dealer, who was in a skybox above the salesroom bidding by telephone for a client.

The odd stranger waved his paddle wildly to catch the auctioneer’s attention, apparently unfamiliar with the more genteel auction-house etiquette. Meyer, the auctioneer, played the bidding slowly but, Moffett says, the man kept raising his paddle without hesitating, even as the bids hit stratospheric levels-$50 million, $60 million, $70 million. At $80 million, the contest came down to the stranger and an unidentified telephone bidder being represented by Moffett.

On the floor, Moffett recalls, “you could hear a pin drop” with every million more-$81, $82, $83, $84 million. But when the bidding hit $85 million-$95.2 million with Sotheby’s buyer’s commission-the telephone bidder paused for a long moment. Finally Moffett asked his client, “Shall we go one more?” But the man, widely rumored to be Leslie Wexner, founder of the retail chain The Limited, bowed out. And when the hammer finally fell, the audience burst into rousing applause, as the mystery man was quickly whisked out of the room like a pop star with camera flashes popping.

Dora Maar au Chat went for the second-highest price ever paid for artwork at auction, topped only by another Picasso, Garçon à la Pipe, a 1905 painting that sold in May 2004 for $104.2 million. (In June, the cosmetics magnate Ronald S. Lauder paid $135 million in a private sale-the most on record for a work of art-for Adele Bloch-Bauer I, a 1907 portrait by Gustav Klimt. The painting is considered one of Klimt’s masterpieces, and Lauder acquired it for the Neue Galerie, the museum of German and Austrian modern art he founded in 2001 in Manhattan.)

Sotheby’s will not identify Dora’s new owner (it is assumed that the bidder at the auction was representing someone else), and since that May evening, the international art world has been wrapped up in a titillating whodunit. Speculation has swirled over the buyer’s identity, focusing mostly on assorted Russian tycoons. The Web magazine Artnet named Viktor Vekselberg, the Russian industrialist who grabbed the attention of the art world in 2004 after he spent $100 million for Malcolm Forbes’s Fabergé egg collection. Vekselberg will not say whether he was indeed the winning bidder, but Marc Spiegler of New York magazine suggests that the more likely candidate is not Vekselberg but Boris Ivanishvili, a mining magnate from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.

The mystery remains, however, and overshadows another question more relevant to Chicago: Why did the painting leave the city?

Great works of art have moved around for centuries, with the pace accelerating frantically in the past 30 years or so as the art market has boomed. But Chicago, whose rich, civic-minded collectors a century ago made the Art Institute of Chicago one of the world’s outstanding museums, seems to have been particularly hard hit. Just the night before Dora was sold, Christie’s auctioned off a monumental painting by Vincent van Gogh for $40.3 million. The consigner was Edward M. Bakwin, a Chicago businessman who had inherited it from his mother, Ruth Bakwin, an heir to the Armour and Swift meatpacking fortunes. Masterpieces with local ties, painted by J. M. W. Turner and Cy Twombly, were also auctioned off recently. Then last November, through Christie’s the heirs of the late Chicago philanthropists Bette and Neison Harris auctioned a group of 13 blue-chip works, including La Blanchisseuse, an exceptional portrait of a red-haired laundress painted by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec that fetched $22.4 million, the highest price ever for a Lautrec. The summer before, the painting had been one of the centerpieces of the Art Institute’s blockbuster exhibition Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre, and its loss was undoubtedly a blow to the museum. “You don’t get everything you’d like to have,” says John H. Bryan, the chairman of the museum’s board. “There wasn’t any gnashing of teeth, or anything like that. These things happen.”

While most Chicago art connoisseurs regret the drain of great art from the city, it is hard to find a consensus of what causes it or what is to be done-or even if anything should be done. At the very least, says the Chicago Tribune’s art critic Alan Artner, who has followed the local art scene for more than 30 years, members of the city’s art establishment-collectors, curators, and even dealers-should discuss the “rightness” or “wrongness” of privately held art leaving Chicago. “When I began writing here, there were collectors of a couple generations ago that used to at least talk about it,” says Artner. These days, he continues, it seems that whenever there are major defections, there is no mourning, no soul-searching, and no loud objections. “There used to be a kind of congratulations because you were building the cultural life of the city,” says Artner. “Nowadays, I think there’s a tacit-or, not so quiet-spirit of congratulations if you bought, say, a Jeff Koons for $100,000, and it sells for $4 million. It’s more like, Look how shrewd you were for buying it at that price and unloading it now.”

The story of Dora Maar au Chat provides a vivid illustration of how a masterpiece changes hands, growing in value until it is worth so much that it can hardly stay put. The story begins one January evening in 1936 in Paris. As the tale goes, Picasso spotted Maar, a young photographer, seated alone at Café des Deux Magots, a gathering spot for artists, poets, and avant-garde writers. Strikingly attractive and fashionably dressed, Maar was hard to miss. “She was beautiful, with a strong, straight nose, perfect scarlet lips, the chin firm, the jaw a trifle heavy and more forceful for being so, rich chestnut hair drawn smoothly back, and eyelashes like the furred antennae of moths,” the art critic James Lord wrote in his 1993 book Picasso and Dora.

And if her beauty was not enough to catch Picasso’s eye, Maar, whose real name was Henrietta Théodora Markovitch, had removed one of her black-lace embroidered gloves and was stabbing a sharp penknife between her fingers until they were bloody. “She wanted to attract his attention,” says Mary Ann Caws, a literary critic and art historian who wrote the book Picasso’s Weeping Woman: The Life and Art of Dora Maar. “And I think her ferocity was incredibly attractive to him.” They left together that evening. At 55, Picasso was 26 years Maar’s senior-and still married to Olga Khokhlova and involved with another mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter; still, he and Maar became lovers six months later and remained together until 1944, when Picasso found a new mistress, the 21-year-old Françoise Gilot.

It is hard to find a consensus of what causes the drain of great art from the city or what is to be done-or even if anything should be done.

Picasso painted Dora Maar au Chat, a canvas 51 by 38 inches, sometime in 1941, most likely in his studio at 7, rue des Grands-Augustins, on the Left Bank. By then, war had engulfed Europe, and Paris was occupied by the Germans. Maar, who had strong political beliefs, piqued Picasso’s interest in politics. As events worsened, Picasso withdrew to his studio, working almost obsessively. Maar, his constant companion, was one of his primary subjects. Picasso’s numerous portraits of her are considered some of his best, if also the most disturbing, works of that period of his career.

“The war had a very depressing effect on him,” says John Richardson, the acclaimed Picasso biographer. “So much of his work during the war evokes a terrible feeling of claustrophobia, like you’re in a prison cell. And so many of his images of Dora at the time reflect the war; they’re in gray, gloomy colors, and they tend to be rather more deformed.” Using his signature cubist techniques, Picasso often twisted Maar’s beautiful oval face with high cheekbones into an unrecognizable, misshapen caricature. For Picasso, Maar became the personification of the war, and he so frequently depicted Maar crying that she became known as the “Weeping Woman.” “That side of her-that sort of tragic side-is the side Picasso wanted to see and certainly emphasized,” says Caws. “Of course she wasn’t always weeping. He just saw her as this sort of tragic heroine.”

In her memoir, Françoise Gilot quotes Picasso as saying: “For years I painted [Maar] with tortured shapes. This was not because of sadism, but not because of any particular pleasure either. I was simply obeying a profound vision that had imposed itself on me.” But Maar did not share the artist’s vision. Lord writes that she once told him: “All his portraits of me are lies. They’re all Picassos. Not one is Dora Maar.”

The provenance, or ownership history, of Dora Maar au Chat dates to 1946, when records show the painting belonged to Pierre Colle, an influential art dealer in Paris whose gallery exhibited the work of the top European masters as well as emerging surrealist artists, including Salvador Dali. Provenance is hardly an exact science, and it is unclear how, when, or from whom Colle acquired the painting. He might have bought it directly from Maar, who was a friend. “People were constantly coming to look at her work, the dealers were always after her,” Lord observed in his book. Colle could have also gotten the work directly from Picasso. During the war years, Picasso was not allowed to exhibit, but he managed to have paintings sold.

Records show that in 1947, Dora Maar au Chat arrived in Chicago and was put on display at the Art Institute, having been acquired by the Chicago collectors Mary and Leigh Block, who by then were well on their way to amassing a world-famous private collection of modern and contemporary art. (Leigh Block, a scion of the Inland Steel fortune, became a trustee of the Art Institute in 1949 and was the museum’s president, and later chairman, from 1970 to 1975.)

A few clues suggest how the Blocks may have acquired Dora. Leigh Block, who died in 1987, had recorded oral histories of some of the paintings he and his wife collected. Then 80 years old, Block recalls buying a Picasso painting of a “three-faced lady"-"the one with a very queer hat"-in the 1940s from Valentine Dudensing, one of the best New York art dealers of the day. Of course, Block might have been referring to a different work by Picasso; he had quite a few in his collection. Dudensing’s gallery closed decades ago, and Sotheby’s could not confirm that the painting had passed through the dealer’s hands. But it is also possible that the Blocks acquired the painting on one of their art-hunting trips to Europe. “Leigh and Mary bought many of their major pictures in Paris,” says Richardson, who knew the couple. “All those sorts of rich Americans used to go over to Paris after the war to buy art because there was so much great stuff appearing.” In his oral history, Block also tells of buying Picassos from Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the artist’s first and primary dealer, as well as Heinz Berggruen, another prominent Picasso trader of the time.

Dora’s stay at the Art Institute was temporary. At some point, the Blocks took back the picture and hung it in their Gold Coast home on Astor Street. And by the 1960s, the Blocks were selling or giving away more works than they were buying. Though the family donated large chunks of their holdings to the Art Institute, Richard Feigen, the Manhattan dealer who began selling art in Chicago in the 1950s, recalls that Leigh Block was becoming frustrated by the museum board’s unwillingness to elect him chairman. Feigen notes that when Block was passed over for the spot in 1966, he started spitefully selling off some of his best works, including two masterpieces by van Gogh- Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe and The Town Hall of Auvers on Bastille Day-as well as a great Matisse, The Young Sailor (II). “My impression
was he sold a lot to teach them a lesson,” says Feigen.

The Blocks sold Dora Maar au Chat sometime in the early 1960s, using Heinz Berggruen, then a young dealer based in Paris, who had become friends with Picasso and was buying and selling his work. In relying on Berggruen, Block bypassed his sister, Eleanore Saidenberg, the Manhattan gallery owner who represented Picasso in the United States from 1955 until his death in 1973. Asked why, Saidenberg’s son (and Leigh Block’s nephew) Robert says: “I don’t think Leigh ever bought anything from or through my mother. They were a little bit rivals.” He adds: “My mother didn’t get into buying art till the late forties. Leigh had been buying all along. I don’t think he took her very seriously. He looked at it more like a hobby, which, I think, my mother resented.” Berggruen, now nearly 93 years old and retired, is also baffled as to how he came to possess Dora Maar au Chat. “It is a total mystery,” he says by telephone from Berlin, where he lives. “I don’t remember Leigh Block coming to see me. All I know is, I sold this picture. And I was happy to sell it; I was a very young dealer-it was a big deal to me.”

On a visit to Paris in July 1963, Willard and Adele Gidwitz stopped by Berggruen’s gallery in the Left Bank. Before he died in 1981, Willard ran the day-to-day operations of Helene Curtis, the hair care giant that his brother Gerald cofounded in 1927. Willard and Adele were part of Chicago’s elite, but outside of business, they were less devoted supporters of the city’s cultural institutions than other members of the Gidwitz family, and they were not widely considered among Chicago’s top art collectors of the time. Nor were they particularly passionate collectors, according to the people who knew them. But they were highly selective, and above all they wanted a Picasso.

ON THE BLOCK Works with Chicago connections auctioned in the past year

L’Arlésienne, Madame Ginoux
by Vincent van Gogh
Sold at Christie’s for $40.3 million

Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio
by J. M. W. Turner
Sold at Christie’s for $35.8 million

La Blanchisseuse (The Laundress)
by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Sold at Christie’s for $22.4 million

Untitled (New York City)
by Cy Twombly
Sold at Sotheby’s for $8.6 million

“My husband and I had been looking for one that we really liked,” recalls Adele Gidwitz in a brief interview that she cut short. “We told [Berggruen] what we were looking for, and he gave us some transparencies to look through.”

Thumbing through the photographs, Gidwitz says, she was shocked to find the portrait of Dora Maar was for sale. She recalls asking Berggruen: ” ‘How can you have this? I just saw this hanging at the Art Institute.’ ” (There is no record of the painting’s being on display at the museum around that time; it is certainly possible, however, that the Blocks could have loaned it to the institute without its being logged in the museum’s curatorial file. Records indicate that the picture was showcased in a 1962 exhibition of Picasso’s later works at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, but Adele Gidwitz says she is sure she saw it at the Art Institute.) “They didn’t want to just settle for any Picasso,” says Moffett, of the patrons, who he would not confirm were the Gidwitzes. “When they saw the transparency, they knew they had their picture.”

The Gidwitzes bought Dora Maar au Chat on July 1, 1963. “I sold it for $106,000-which is quite a bit less than $95 million,” Berggruen says with a chuckle, then adds, jokingly (or perhaps seriously), “It would be nice if they would give me a commission; I would be happy with 5 percent.”

So, why did the Gidwitzes sell Dora? The family won’t say. “We’re a very private family,” explains Susan Gidwitz, the couple’s daughter, who lives in North Carolina. She adds, “It’d be nice if this would just go away.”

Officially, Sotheby’s is declining to comment on any of the financial details surrounding the sale or the family’s reasons for selling. But according to several reports in the press-confirmed in interviews with art-world insiders familiar with the deal-the sale of the painting may have started off simply as part of a routine estate appraisal, a service offered by the big auction houses. For some time, Christie’s had been working with the Gidwitzes, helping them with assorted valuation and insurance matters. But sometime last February, the family decided it would get a second opinion. A Gidwitz heir called Sotheby’s to appraise the painting’s auction potential.

Charles Moffett was dispatched to Adele Gidwitz’s North Shore home to view the painting. He was so smitten with it that he immediately e-mailed a digital photo of the painting to his colleagues in New York. One of them, David Norman, a cochairman of the impressionist and modern department, which organized the May 3rd auction, flew out the next week to see Dora for himself. Upon seeing it, Norman says, he was “absolutely gushing-I could have run home instead of waiting for my plane.”

Sotheby’s had recently lost out to arch-rival Christie’s for the Bakwin family’s van Gogh of Madame Ginoux, and it was not about to be bested again with Dora. Sotheby’s higher-ups offered the Gidwitzes a strong inducement to go with them: a guaranteed sum, said to be at least $50 million, possibly $60 million, regardless of the outcome of the sale. Norman would not confirm the amount, but he says Sotheby’s arrived at its estimate by comparing Dora Maar au Chat to a similar Picasso portrait of Maar, Seated Woman in a Garden, which the auction house had sold in 1999 for $49.5 million, then a near-record price for a Picasso.

Guarantees are risky and can, of course, backfire. But Norman says they had confidence in the artwork and the ever-ascending art market. “We had such belief that this painting would ignite fireworks in the salesroom,” he says. “We were willing to put our money where our mouth is and show the owners just unrestrained enthusiasm. It was really all of our gut feelings that led us to be so bullish.” The tactic paid off. A few weeks later, a member of the family called Sotheby’s and sealed the deal, much to Christie’s chagrin. Norman and his colleagues were elated. “It sounds corny, but for me, I literally leaped into the air like on a TV sitcom,” he says. “When I first saw that painting I just thought, I can’t live without this picture-we’ve got to be the ones who get it.”