The really big news in the art world at the moment is that billionaire Ronald Perelman plans to sell off a significant portion of his massive art collection through Sotheby’s – and the interesting question is, why?
Mr. Perelman is perhaps best known as the principal shareholder of Revlon cosmetics, and he also maintains interests in a wide variety of financial, manufacturing, pharmaceutical, and other companies. Of late however, he’s been selling off or reducing his stake in a number of these ventures, and for those of my readers who are more informed with respect to that aspect of this story, I defer to your knowledge on that subject. For my purposes however, it’s the art sell-off which caught my eye, since Mr. Perelman owns a collection estimated to be worth in the billions of dollars.
In July, two paintings purported to be from Mr. Perelman’s collection (Sotheby’s was very discreet) were auctioned off in London, although originally there were supposed to be three of his pictures on the block. “Peinture (Femme au chapeau rouge)” (“Painting (Woman in a Red Hat)”) (1927) by Catalan Surrealist Joan Miró (1893-1983), was particularly significant, as it once belonged to the artist’s friend, American “kinetic” sculptor Alexander Calder (1898-1976). The painting, which with its cobalt blue background and limited palette is a classic example of the artist’s work during the 1920’s, sold for about $28.7 million. That isn’t a bad price, although it was at the low end of the pre-sale estimate.
Another work, “Danseuse Dans Un Intérieur, Carrelage Vert et Noir” (“Dancer In An Interior, Green And Black Tiles”) (1942), a late painting by Henri Matisse (1869-1954), was expected to fetch at least $11 million, but sold for around $8.6 million. Like Miró, when I think of Matisse I think of bright primary or Mediterranean colors, strong blacks, and a sense of light and movement. There’s certainly plenty of black in this picture, and a bit of bold color with the use of orange to suggest the mahogany of the armchair, but the palette combination of a muddy yellow with a similarly waterlogged teal just doesn’t really do it for me. (Also, what idiot stands a vase of flowers on an upholstered chair?)
A third piece that was (allegedly) from Mr. Perelman’s collection, a portrait by English Modern painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992), was withdrawn before the auction. Another of Bacon’s overrated “meat” pictures, as I collectively call his work, and whose appeal I can never understand, it carried a whopping estimate of $15.1 million–$22.6 million. That wasn’t an unreasonable guess based on market values, since Bacon’s work has been fetching astronomical prices in recent years. No explanation as to why it was removed from the auction has been forthcoming, however.
As to the upcoming sales, there’s no word at the moment as to what will actually be on offer, but in addition to the Bacon, the collection is known to contain works by a number of big-name Modern and Contemporary artists, including De Kooning, Giacometti, Koons, and Rothko, among others. I daresay most of it will consist of things that I would walk past at an exhibition without glancing at for more than ten seconds, if only to engage in the usual mental checklist game I play where I spot something from across the room, and identify the artist before even reading the accompanying placard. You may not like a piece, or indeed an artist’s entire oeuvre, but it’s still intellectually useful to be able to recognize that artist’s work when you come across it in your travels.
That being said, the bigger question I have here – and I daresay many of my readers have as well – is the motivation behind this sale. In a recent email to Vanity Fair, and by all accounts this was a very rare communiqué indeed, Mr. Perelman explained that he’s been reassessing things as a result of the pandemic. “Over the past six months,” he noted, “I’ve been mostly at home like most New Yorkers. A simpler life, with less running around and more time with my family, including homeschooling our youngest children, has energized me and taught me new things.”
It’s certainly possible, of course, that there are significant, prudent financial reasons as to why these particular assets need to be sold off during a time of economic uncertainty. Yet even if that’s the case, the fact that this particular collector, who for decades has been a major figure in the world of Modern and Contemporary Art, has taken a look at what really matters to him, and decided that a lot of this stuff he has accumulated just isn’t worth holding onto, is an interesting turn of affairs. Whether self-examination was a primary or secondary reason for this sale, at the very least it’s an example of how this pandemic is having a significant impact not only on the art market, but also on the individual collector’s perception of his own values.
And now, on to some other interesting art stories from the week gone by.
A work that has been gathering dust in storage for decades may turn out to be a previously unknown portrait by the young Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). “Head of a Bearded Man” (c. 1630-40) has been in the collection of the Ashmolean in Oxford since the 1950’s, but for much of its time there the panel painting was thought to be by someone outside of Rembrandt’s circle, albeit working in a style similar to his. Scientific tests including dendochronology have now determined that the wood panel on which the portrait is painted was planed from the same tree whose wood was used for two other paintings: Rembrandt’s “Andromeda Chained to the Rocks” (c. 1630) and “Portrait of Rembrandt’s Mother” (c. 1630) by Rembrandt’s friend Jan Lievens (1607-1674). The two artists rented studio space together in Antwerp from 1626 to 1631, until Lievens moved to London and Rembrandt to Amsterdam. Determining the authorship of the Ashmolean picture will involve cleaning and removal of the old, yellowed surface varnish that currently obscures the colors and details of the panel. However, the fact that the wood on which it’s painted shares a common origin with the aforementioned paintings by both Lievens and Rembrandt himself is very exciting news for scholars.
An older contemporary of both Lievens and Rembrandt, Dutch genre painter Frans Hals (1582-1666) has remained a popular artist for centuries thanks to his often jocular images of individuals or groups enjoying themselves. Last week Hals’ “Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer” (1626) was stolen – for the THIRD time – from the currently-closed Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden Museum in Leerdam, a small town in Holland. It’s interesting to note that the theft took place on the anniversary of Hals’ death, while the recent theft of “The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring” by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)”, which regular subscribers/readers will recall that I wrote about back in March, took place at another small town museum in the Netherlands which was also closed due to the pandemic, and on the anniversary of Van Gogh’s birth. Coincidence?
While autograph books have been around for centuries, a recent acquisition by the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel, Germany has to be one of the most beautiful examples ever assembled. Known as “Das Große Stammbuch”, it’s a type of autograph collection known as a “friendship book”, which was put together by German art dealer and diplomat Philipp Hainhofer (1578-1647) over the course of many decades of travels around Europe. Filled with signatures and inscriptions from emperors, kings and queens, princes and princesses, cardinals and bishops whom Hainhofer befriended, and containing gorgeous illustrations (some of which are shown below) that surround the inscriptions or appear on the opposite sides of the pages, it was thought lost for centuries after the very same library unsuccessfully attempted to purchase the book nearly 400 years ago. The volume then reappeared on the market back in 2006, when it was sold at Christie’s for $2.3 million. With assistance from German public and private funds, the library has finally acquired the book via a private sale brokered by Sotheby’s for $3.3 million. The book will now be studied and conserved over the next three years, before being placed on public display at the library.