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.
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.
“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.”
Nearly $208 million worth of art was sold in just one night at Sotheby’s May impressionist and modern art auction, the sale featuring Dora Maar au Chat. The amount was more than twice the $91.3 million in sales at the auction the year before. The auction house’s contemporary art sale also fared extremely well this year, taking in $128.8 million, compared with $68 million last year. Combined auction sales of Christie’s and Sotheby’s soared to nearly $5.9 billion in 2005 from $3.2 billion ten years ago. It is now hard to believe that Sotheby’s sales were just $16 million in 1958 (the equivalent of $112.7 million today). But much has changed in the art world.
Flash back to the 1980s-the manic decade when junk-bond dollars and Japa-nese yen flooded the art market, producing the biggest art boom in history and superinflated prices. Japanese speculators, in particular, were active in the 1980s, snatching up impressionist works at the auction houses for astronomical prices. Meanwhile, money-obsessed Wall Street types were also paying unimaginable sums for Warhols and Lichtensteins, as well as for works by lesser-knowns like Julian Schnabel and Eric Fischl, whose popularity soared in that decade.
The idea of collectors buying works of art for investments rather than for the genuine love of art did not originate in the 1980s, but it certainly proliferated in those years. Consequently, speculators drove up prices to the point of unraveling, and the market bottomed out by the early 1990s, only to rebound again by the end of the decade.
Today the art market remains buoyant, thanks to the surging stock market and real-estate boom, and the explosion of new foreign buyers enriched by the global economy. According to Artnet’s Fine Art Auctions Database, more than 1,650 artists set new auction highs this past May alone-half as many as the entire year before, which saw 3,100 price records. And that is only counting sales at auctions, which are public. Many more sales are made privately and quietly, barely making a public ripple.
And as in the 1980s era, today’s Young Turks, with nearly bottomless pocketbooks, continue to treat the art market as if it were Wall Street. “Some people are buying art like they’re buying pork bellies,” says Milton Esterow, the editor and publisher of ART- news. Richardson, Picasso’s biographer, adds: “None of them have the foggiest idea of what they’re buying. They’ll buy a big, flashy apartment or an enormous house, but they don’t know what to hang on the walls, except for the name Picasso.”
Just how beholden the art business is to the new class of collectors is difficult to say, but experts note that even a handful of wealthy collectors can greatly influence the market. Consider Dora Maar au Chat. To many in the art world, the sale of that painting represents a market that is spiraling out of control. The $95.2-million sale price is a sharp increase from the $106,000 (or $704,930 in today’s dollars) that the Gidwitzes originally paid for the painting in 1963-a 135-fold increase, or a total rate of return of about 89,270 percent, excluding Sotheby’s commission. “It’s grotesque,” says Richardson, of Dora’s near-nine-figure price tag. “I think it’s absolutely absurd. In my view, it’s by no means one of the best Dora Maars. It’s just bigger than most of them and a bit flashier than most of them and therefore appeals to hedge-fund tastes.” (Or, maybe, in this case, Russian oligarchy tastes.)
Auction houses have become the trading floors of choice for collectors’ art portfolios, a fact that has attracted some criticism within the art world. Jerry Saltz, the art critic for The Village Voice, recently described art auctions as “bizarre combinations of slave market, trading floor, theater, and brothel,” where “consumption becomes a sort of sacrament [and] art plays the role of sacrificial lamb.” Saltz quotes Amy Cappellazzo, of Christie’s postwar and contemporary art department, as saying, “Some people prefer to spend $500,000 at auction on something they could buy privately for $50,000.” Paul Herring, a prominent New York art dealer who works with some of the world’s biggest art buyers, including Ronald Lauder, thinks that auction prices often far exceed those in galleries because art auctions are, basically, “a macho thing, where rich guys . . . get up there and show themselves and others how rich they are.” Of Dora Maar au Chat, he says, “There’s not a dealer in the world who could find anybody who would pay $95 million for that Picasso.” Even Sotheby’s officials were shocked by Dora’s final sales price. Norman says: “When you expect a picture to go for, maybe, $55 million, and it hasn’t hammered down at $84 million, at some point, you’ve kind of lost it, like, ‘What’s going on?’
” After the 1960s, money ruined everything,” the great pop artist Robert Rauschenberg once remarked to the Tribune’s Alan Artner during an interview. Rauschenberg, says Artner, was referring to the commonly held feeling in the art world that the art market began to change in the sixties, when art came to be treated less like precious works and more like tradable commodities that come and go.
One aspect of the inevitable fallout from changes in the art business is that museums have largely become priced out of the art market—their annual acquisition budgets chicken feed compared with the sums superwealthy collectors can pay for art. And as the buying power of museums has diminished, they have had to become even more dependent on the largess of benefactors. “There’s no question people find out, ‘Gosh, this picture is worth a zillion dollars—I don’t want to leave that much to the Art Institute,’ ” says John Bryan, the institute’s chairman.
“There are different priorities today,” adds Elizabeth Smith, the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art. “The art market is strong, and people may have different ideas about what they want to do with their works. It’s something that all of us deal with as a reality of the art world today.”
When Chicago started making its way as a major city just over a century ago, many collectors and other civic lights held that art collected in the city should stay in the city. Charles L. Hutchinson, one of Chicago’s leading bankers and a central force behind the establishment of the Art Institute in 1879, led early efforts to transform a prairie city into a place more like the other great cultural capitals of the world where, he said, “art treasures of many generations have been gathered together to delight, instruct, and inspire.” Hutchinson’s father, Benjamin, a powerful grain speculator, once mocked his son’s purchase of a French painting of a sheep meadow by exclaiming, “Think about him—a son of mine! He paid $500 a piece for five painted sheep and he could get the real article for $2 a head!”
But over the years, many other Chicago business leaders followed the younger Hutchinson’s example of cultural goodwill—the Ryersons, Palmers, McCormicks, Swifts, Armours, and Fields, to name just a few. In previous generations, says Artner, “people felt they owed something artistically to the city.” Chicago’s early benefactors, he says, wanted to be more than just captains of industry: “They didn’t want to be remembered as simply the people who made their money being hog butchers. They wanted to be remembered as families that built libraries and museums, and treated them as if they were some counterparts to cathedrals.”
Today some art insiders argue that civic and cultural patronage may have declined. The basic question for art collectors, according to Artner, is: “Do you have a responsibility to the city in which you made your fortune, or not?” The short answer, he concludes, is: “It’s a matter of conscience.” He adds, “If you don’t feel the guilt in going to Sotheby’s and watching the gavel slam down when you’re making 25, 50, 100 percent on your investment, if you don’t feel it, there’s nothing anybody can do to instill it.”
But should collectors or their heirs feel guilty about doing whatever they want with their privately owned art? “Why should they?” asks Richard Gray, the art dealer. “Other people who have got all kinds of money and all kinds of valuable assets are not being called upon to give them away to a public institution when they die. It’s just art.”
But imagine if Frederic Clay Bartlett had not donated to the Art Institute his sizable collection, which included Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, now one of the institute’s marquee attractions. Or what if Joseph Shapiro, Edwin Bergman, and the handful of other local collectors had not launched the Museum of Contemporary Art in an old Streeterville bakery building-providing money and artwork from their private collections for the upstart institution?
“I think you have to understand that it’s a whole different ballgame, completely, than it was when museums like the Art Institute or the Met, or these major museums, formed their collections,” says Hubert Neumann, a prominent New York art collector whose late father, the mail-order magnate Morton G. Neumann, amassed one of the most coveted art collections in Chicago. “Basically, there was real patrimony on the part of patronal families.”
When the elder Neumann died in 1985, he left his collection to his family, not to the Art Institute or the Museum of Contemporary Art, both of which had courted him for many years. Likewise, Hubert Neumann has no intentions of giving away anything in the 500-plus collection, either. He has loaned works to museums over the years, but he says there are few incentives now for collectors to donate art works. For example, Neumann says that in 1998 his family offered to donate 65 works of art to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in lieu of millions of dollars of estate taxes that the family owed. Neumann appealed to Congress, which, by law, has to approve such special tax breaks. He recalls that the negotiations on Capitol Hill quickly broke down; certain members of Congress, he says, refused to cut tax deals for one family. “Politicians in Washington today aren’t interested in the patrimony of our country,” Neumann says. At one of
the meetings, he recalls an official telling him that he collected Beanie Babies, to which Neumann replied, “Sir, we’re talking about Picassos.”
Neumann points out that for years U.S. tax laws have discouraged even the most philanthropic givers from donating works to museums. In 1986, Congress changed the method for figuring tax deductions for works of art donated to museums, allowing donors to deduct only the price they had paid for the work instead of the market value at the time of the donation. So, if a collector paid $100 for a painting in the 1940s, he could deduct only $100 from his taxes, even if the work had appreciated substantially. Not surprisingly, donations to museums plummeted, and even though the laws have since become more advantageous, collectors still cannot take full tax deductions. Collectors can almost always come out better selling art works than giving them away. In August, new changes to federal tax rules were enacted that make it harder for collectors to make so-called partial gifts, wherein collectors give away fractional ownership of artwork to museums, and over time, the institution comes to own the artwork entirely.
Even museums themselves are cashing in on the overheated market. As art prices have shot up, a growing number of museums have turned to pruning their permanent collections, a practice called deaccessioning, though the money is usually used to buy other works. Potential benefactors may think twice about giving their beloved artwork if they think that some future museum administration could wind up selling it. “I hate the idea of deacquisition,” says the socialite and author Sugar Rautbord, whose late aunt Ruth Kaplan, a longtime Art Institute benefactor, donated a Monet gem, Water Lily Pond, to the museum at the time of her death earlier this year. “I love knowing that when you go into the Art Institute, you’re going to see Aunt Ruthie’s Monet,” Rautbord says. “That’s part of the familiarity and the experience, and frankly, I’d be horrified if I saw her Monet hung up on some big Russian oilman’s wall.”
Aunt Ruthie’s Monet currently hangs in gallery 206-joining a fine portfolio of other works recently donated to the museum by other Chicago benefactors. Indeed, despite the exile of many notable pieces of art, Chicago’s hometown museums continue to receive sizable gifts from local collectors. For example, in 1998, under the direction of John Bryan, the Sara Lee Corporation gave away 40 works of art, then valued at about $100 million, to 20 U.S. museums, including 12 major pieces by the likes of Gauguin and Matisse to the Art Institute.
And in 1992, Lindy Bergman lent the Art Institute 77 surrealist works that she and her late husband, Edwin, a former president of the Museum of Contemporary Art, had collected. About ten years earlier, the Bergmans had donated 37 boxes and collages by Joseph Cornell to the institute, making the museum one of the greatest repositories of Cornell’s work. “Chicago is our home, and we felt very loyal to Chicago,” says Lindy Bergman. “We just decided that was where we wanted them to be.”
In fact, the institute had a near record 1,095 acquisitions last year. “Obviously the Art Institute is pretty well stocked,” says John Bryan, the museum’s chairman. “We’ve got a lot more in storage than we’ve got out of storage.” He continues: “The Art Institute doesn’t just say to the world, ‘Bring us your art.’ It has to be something that the curators want, because we have to store it, we have to conserve it, tend to it, and all. We don’t take just anything that comes along.”
Still, the Art Institute-and to a lesser extent, the MCA-cannot simply rest on its laurels; the fate of several major Chicago art collections is still in question. Most of the city’s prominent collecting pioneers are now gone-their collections have been sold off, passed down to heirs, or given away. And many of the city’s most avid collectors are graying, and in some cases, no longer collecting art as actively. Only three local couples-Gael Neeson and Stefan Edlis, Anne Dias and Kenneth Griffin, and Elizabeth and Harvey Plotnick-were listed in ARTnews magazine’s annual estimate of the world’s top 200 art collectors. By comparison, ten collectors made the list in 1991, the first year of its publication.
Museum officials and local dealers insist that there are more collectors in the city than ever before; they’re just not as visible as in older generations. Naturally, curators at the MCA and the Art Institute are fiercely wooing these collectors-cajoling them, visiting their art-laden homes, wining and dining them, or flat-out begging. Rautbord recalls how her aunt, Ruth Kaplan, used to love all the attention that the museums seeking her Monet lavished on her. “She knew what she had, so when she was younger, instead of swaying her hips, she was showing off her Monet,” Rautbord says. “I think she was very coquettish about it; knowing that so many great museums wanted it gave her a sense that she was never wanting for suitors because of this beautiful picture.” Sometimes museum officials just come right out and ask for gifts. “If the museum curator really wants it, it’s no more complicated than saying, ‘Gosh, I hope you’ll leave me a couple of these,’ ” says Bryan. “It’s kind of a compliment that their taste was approved by a museum.”
But probably the most effective persuasion tactic used by museum directors and curators is to appeal to people’s sense of loyalty-making the case that great art works should stay in the city. “People in Chicago have a civic pride in their institutions,” says Elizabeth Smith, of the MCA. “It’s usually quite a powerful argument to make to people that works should be shared with the public or seen by the public, and the best repository for a major work of art is in a public institution.”
The fate of the real Dora Maar was far more complicated than that of the collectors who have owned the painting-and profited from it. The story of Picasso and Dora Maar ends around the mid-1940s, when the couple’s stormy love affair could no longer endure the strains of the war or the clash of their own volatile personalities.
After Picasso ended their relationship in 1944 and began a new affair with Françoise Gilot, Maar suffered frequent bouts of depression. The critic James Lord writes, “Her friends thought she might go mad, commit suicide.” After several frightening incidents and public outbursts, Maar was taken to a psychiatric hospital and put in the care of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who supposedly once said of Maar that he would have to put her either in a straitjacket or into the arms of the church. “It was the arms of the church that won out,” says the historian Mary Ann Caws. Maar became devoutly religious. She would send Picasso religious books; in return, he would send Maar painted toilet seats. Yet, over the years, Caw says, Maar never completely broke free from Picasso, forever enamored of his greatness. She is famously quoted as having said, “After Picasso, only God.” Explains Caws: “After somebody this intense, and this all-englobing, and all-mastering, who in the world else could there be?”
Anyone looking for examples of civic patrimony in Chicago need only go to any of the city’s art museums or other cultural institutions and look at the countless wall markers listing the names of our great and many benefactors, dead and alive. Or they can look no further than Pablo Picasso. In 1963, Picasso was commissioned by the City of Chicago to create a maquette for a grand sculpture that would be the centerpiece of the plaza outside what is now the Richard J. Daley Center. The 50-foot-tall sculpture he designed was installed in 1967; it was the first monumental modern sculpture to be publicly displayed downtown, and, as all Chicagoans know, it has become a city icon. What they might not know is that the sculpture was, in fact, a gift. In a gesture of civic generosity, Picasso refused to be paid his contracted sum of $100,000, instead donating the work to the city-and the people-of Chicago.