Yorks

New Collectors and Museum Interest Help Drive New York’s Old Master Auctions to $150 Million—a High Not Seen in Years


The latest round of Old Master sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s marked the most robust in recent seasons, bolstered by top-notch private collection offerings (each house could boast a “white glove” sale), museum interest, and to an increasing extent, fresh interest from new buyers, both crossing over from other collecting categories or bubbling up from new pockets of regional interest around the world.

Christie’s pulled in $62.8 million on Wednesday with an offering of roughly 75 works with no-reserve prices, from the fully-sold collection of J.E. Safra ($18.5 million) and the main Old Masters sale ($44.2 million).

Yesterday, Sotheby’s took in a hefty total of $86.6 million for a main Old Master auction that realized $28.8 million, as well as a “white glove” or 100 percent sold offering of the prestigious Fisch Davidson collection that brought in $49.6 million for 10 lots alone, and was the highest-earning individual auction of the week. Yet another Sotheby’s single owner sale of Dutch paintings from the Theiline Schumann collection added $8 million to the total.

Both houses also held smaller related sales of Old Master drawings, which reflected lower price points and wider circles of interest. Underscoring the serious quality and connoisseur demand at even these smaller day sales, this morning, the Rijksmuseum scooped up an early 17th-century bronze figure of an “écorché” man by Willlem Danielsz. van Tetrode for $1.5 million, while the Cleveland Museum of Art bought the bronze group of Apollo Flaying Marsyas (1691–1700) by Giovanni Battista Foggini for $882,000. More on the marquee museum purchases later.

The total for the main sales at both houses was just under $150 million ($149.4 million). While of course not an exact apples-to-apples comparison, consider that the most recent round of major sales in London last month, pulled in a combined $56 million, and that marked one of the best seasons in years. As Midnight Publishing Group News noted at the time, experiments to reinvent the category—such as developing new art historical narratives, several of which have highlighted female artists, and extensive presale touring of work—seem to be paying off.

“There were more paintings on the market this week than there had been for many years and it was hugely encouraging how many important pictures sold,” said Milo Dickinson, who recently left Christie’s Old Masters department to take on the role of managing director at Dickinson in London. “There is clearly more depth to the Old Master market than is often appreciated,” he added.

“It is always hard to say who is buying what, but there were new faces at the auction and of course some of the old faces were buying for other new faces not seen,” said veteran New York-based dealer Robert Simon. “There is little question that new buyers are beginning to recognize the fundamental value in Old Masters, especially in contrast to contemporary art.”

Further, a calendar move by Christie’s seems to have created greater cohesion and momentum. As Dickinson noted, Christie’s moved their sales back to January after “a failed experiment moving to April.” Now, both auction houses are aligned again in the sale calendar across all major Old Master sales, he said, noting it “had a positive impact on the sales as there was visibly a much better turnout from private clients, museums, and the trade during the week, and there was a renewed buzz and excitement.”

Christie’s said the Safra offering “showed the power of the no-reserve strategy,” since all works found buyers. Ten were backed by third-party, or outside bids. The highest price of $2.7 million was paid for an album containing a frontispiece and 138 illustrations for books I to VI of the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine by Jean-Baptiste Oudry. It marked a new auction record for Oudry.

Jean-Baptistie Oudrey, Album containing a frontispiece and 138 illustrations for books I to VI of the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine Image courtesy Christie's.

Jean-Baptistie Oudrey, Album containing a frontispiece and 138 illustrations for books I to VI of the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine. Photo courtesy Christie’s.

It was followed by the $1 million result for J.M.W. Turner’s The Splügen Pass (albeit it missing the low $1.5 million estimate) and the price of $945,000 paid for Joos van Cleve’s Portrait of a gentleman holding gloves, half-length.

Dickinson said that Christie’s “took a significant risk by offering the Safra collection with no reserves and although there were some low prices, Christie’s did well to ensure there was competitive bidding on all the top lots.”

The top lot of the main sale was a double portrait by Goya, Portrait of Doña María Vicenta Barruso Valdés, seated on a sofa with a lap-dog; and Portrait of her mother Doña Leonora Antonia Valdés de Barruso, seated on a chair holding a fan, that sold for a mid-estimate $16.4 million (estimate: $15–20 million), more than doubling the existing $7.7 million auction record for the artist.

Two portraits by Francisco Goya, set a new artist auction record at Christie's Old Master auction on January 25, 2023 in New York.

Two portraits by Francisco Goya, set a new artist auction record at Christie’s Old Master auction on January 25, 2023 in New York. Photo courtesy Christie’s.

The second highest price of the sale, given for another Turner, was just a fraction of that, at $4.6 million for Pope’s Villa at Twickenham. The third-highest price of $2.9 million was realized for Pieter Brueghel II’s The Kermesse of Saint George.

Meanwhile, another work from the collection of late Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen, Canaletto’s The Rialto Bridge, Venice, from the south with an embarkation, traditionally identified as the Prince of Saxony during his visit to Venice in 1740, sold for $2.7 million. It was intentionally kept back from the blockbuster Paul Allen collection sale held last November.

“Whoever bought it got an excellent painting for a fraction of the price that it would have made if it was the initial collection sale, which shows that context is very important,” said Dickinson.

In addition to the Goya and Oudry results, Christie’s set new records for Marinus van Reymerswale, Gerard de Lairesse, Thomas Daniell, Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari, and Jean Valette-Falgores, called Penot.

“The Old Masters market showed depth and strength today,” commented François de Poortere, Christie’s head of Old Master Paintings. “American bidders led the way, along with Europe and China, and strong activity from the trade.”

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s started off the morning with a bang with the aforementioned Fisch Davidson Collection—widely considered one of the most important collections of Baroque art to ever appear on the market. The entire sale was guaranteed, reportedly at high prices by both the house and various outside guarantors or third-party backers.

One such outside guarantee was for the blockbuster top lot, Peter Paul Rubens’ Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist, which sold for just under $27 million, a new auction record.

The next two highest lots scored identical prices of $4.89 million each, namely Christ crowned with thorns by Valentin de Boulogne, and Penitent Saint Mary Magdalene by Orazio Gentileschi. Both were estimated at $4 million to $6 million.

The Stockholm Nationalmuseum bought a painting of a young man asleep before an open book by an artist active in the circle of Rembrandt van Rijn, for $945,000.

Agnolo di Cosimo, called Bronzino, Portrait of a young man with a quill and a sheet of paper, possibly a self-portrait of the artist Image courtest Sotheby's.

Agnolo di Cosimo, called Bronzino, Portrait of a young man with a quill and a sheet of paper, possibly a self-portrait of the artist. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

In the main sale, one of the fireworks was a newly rediscovered and restituted painting, Agnolo Bronzino’s Portrait of a young man with a quill and a sheet of paper. It sold to a buyer in the room following a five-minute bidding contest, for $10.7 million, doubling its $5 million high estimate, and setting a new auction record for the artist. Proceeds of the sale will benefit Selfhelp Community Services, which supports Holocaust survivors in North America, and The Lighthouse Guild, a Jewish healthcare organization.

The Cleveland Museum of Art also bought Anna Dorothea Therbusch’s Portrait of a scientist seated at a desk by candlelight for $441,000. It was also previously from the J.E. Safra collection. An insider said that given that Christie’s had the lion’s share of Safra material, this may have been part of a previous consignment to Sotheby’s. Safra had acquired it from Sotheby’s London in December 1996 for $64,500 (£38,900), according to the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database.

Anna Dorothea Therbusch, A scientist seated at a desk by candlelight. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Anna Dorothea Therbusch, A scientist seated at a desk by candlelight. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

The Dutch offerings from the Theiline Scheumann collection, where eight of the 12 works on offer were sold, was led by Frans van Mieris the Elder’s A young woman sealing a letter by candlelight, which sold for $2.7 million.

Dickinson said the new influx of buyers may make for more robust sales, but also some uncertainty as to demand. “There are new buyers in the market, most of them from the United States and some from Asia, but their collecting habits are very wide-ranging and therefore less predictable than before.”

And Simon said that Old Masters are likely to continue to appeal to new and seasoned buyers alike: “With the established track record of the work of the Old Masters, many collectors find the confidence to put some of their assets into work they enjoy, with the assurance that if they wish to sell at some future time, they will likely reap some reward. One does not have to wait for an artist to be discovered and acclaimed if the artist’s work has been hanging on museum walls for centuries!”

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Don’t Miss These 6 Lots Heading to Auction at New York’s Showplace, From an Art Deco Polar Bear Clock to a Charming Raoul Dufy Seascape


For over two decades, New York’s Showplace has served as a unique shopping destination offering a wealth of fine art, design objects, jewelry, and luxury fashion, as well as a mix of vintage ephemera to in-the-know collectors. Along with selling exhibitions, Showplace also hosts a bevy of auctions each year, and this fall it is presenting Important Fine Art & Design (October 10), a 145-lot auction that brings together fine art by Jean Dubuffet, Joan Miro, and Pablo Picasso, premier design objects by Knoll and Carlo Scarpa, and much more.

The auction featured works from some esteemed New York collections too, drawing from the Fifth Avenue residence of the MacArthur Family; the Park Avenue estate of American film producer Martin Bregman; and the Fifth Avenue residence of Jill and Ken Iscol. 

While collectors can certainly bid online, those in New York are welcome to preview lots at Showplace’s newly renovated galleries on 25th Street, where the auction will take place live. Below, check out 6 lots you won’t want to miss.

 

Raoul Dufy
Saint-Adresse (circa 1950)
Estimate: $60,000–80,000

Raoul Dufy, L'entrée du port à Sainte-Adresse (circa 1950). Courtesy of Showplace.

Raoul Dufy, L’entrée du port à Sainte-Adresse (circa 1950). Courtesy of Showplace.

Raoul Dufy’s vibrant seaside oil painting L’entrée du port à Sainte-Adresse (circa 1950) stands as one of the fine art highlights of the sale. The work encapsulates the best of Dufy, with an aerial view of an energetic French waterfront filled with pedestrians, marked by his signature passages of bright blue. The work also has an impressive provenance, coming from the collection of Wally Findlay Galleries.

 

Jean Dubuffet
Three Palm Trees (1948)
Estimate: $40,000—60,000

Jean Dubuffet, Three Palm Trees (1948). Signed and dated upper left: "J. Dubuffet '48." Courtesy of Showplace.

Jean Dubuffet, Three Palm Trees (1948). Signed and dated upper left: “J. Dubuffet ’48.” Courtesy of Showplace.

This 1948 watercolor on paper work shows an abstracted trio of palm trees, brimming with character. It predates Dubuffet’s move toward the “art brut” style for which he is best know but nevertheless showcases his movement towards intense gesturalism. The work bears a Cordier & Ekstrom, Inc. (New York) gallery label on verso.

 

Rare Gem-Set Gold Clock, Vacheron Constantin
Estimate: $40,000–60,000

Art Deco revival gem set gold clock, the 18K gold case with diamonds, ebellished gold hands nestled in the upright paws of a reclining bear with ruby eyes outlined in gold.

Art Deco revival gem-set gold clock, the 18K gold case with diamonds, embellished gold hands nestled in the upright paws of a reclining bear with ruby eyes outlined in gold.

The title for most adorable lot likely belongs to this Art Deco revival gem-set gold clock featuring a reclining polar bear with ruby eyes. The bear balances the clock’s face upon its paws like a ball, while itself being perched atop a stepped onyx base, outlined in 18-carat gold trim and raised on 18-carat gold feet.

 

Diego Giacometti
Table Berceau
Estimate: $150,000–250,000

Diego Giacomett, Table berceau (designed circa 1965). Stamped signature "Diego." Courtesy of Showplace.

Diego Giacometti, Table berceau (designed circa 1965). Stamped signature “Diego.” Courtesy of Showplace.

This low, patinated bronze table is rare in Diego Giacometti’s oeuvre. The table was acquired directly from the artist by Gallerie Gianna-Sistu in Paris during the late 1970s and was subsequently imported by Hirschl-Adler, New York, for dealer Jeffrey Hoffeld in 1987. The work now arrives at auction from a private Park Avenue collection, where it has resided since 1993.

Moise Kisling
Anemones Dans Un Vase
Estimate: $30,000–50,000

Moïse Kisling, Anémones dans un vase. Courtesy of Showplace.

Moïse Kisling, Anémones dans un vase. Courtesy of Showplace.


Polish-born French painter Moïse Kisling moved to Paris at the age of nineteen and would spend the majority of his life there (aside from a few years in the U.S. during World War II). A friend and contemporary of Amedeo Modigliani, Kisling became well-known from his slightly stylized portraits of women. This charming painting, Anémones dans un vase, comes from the collection of the Wally Findlay Galleries.

 

Joan Miro
La Metamorphose
Estimate: $15,000–25,000

Joan Miro, La Métamorphose (1978). Courtesy of Showplace.

Joan Miro, La Métamorphose (1978). Courtesy of Showplace.

Joan Miro’s colorful 1978 etching and aquatint on paper titled La Métamorphose is perhaps the highlight of the print works offered in the sale, with swirling, lyrical shapes in Miro’s bold color palette of red, black, and white, plus pops of green, yellow, and blue. The print is number 17 from an edition of 50.

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Meet New York’s Latest Art Destination, Art50W, Which Offers Year-Round ‘Micro-Galleries’ to International Dealers


As the art world resumes some of its normal comings and goings, many galleries and dealers are still assessing just how the cultural terrain has shifted in the past year. That means thinking about new opportunities, new ways to do business, and new ways to tap into emerging art loci in cities around the world. 

Enter Art50W.

The in-development project from Time Equities is aiming to fulfill some of these shifting needs and capture the moment for the Lower Manhattan art community. Billing itself as something like a permanent art fair, Art50W (located at 50 West Street) will see the second floor of the 64-story, Helmut Jahn-designed condominium converted into what are being called “micro-galleries” (built-out spaces for individual galleries within a shared space, like more permanent fair booths). 

Courtesy of Time Equities.

Courtesy of Time Equities.

The development is catering to high-caliber international galleries that want to connect and maintain a presence with the New York art scene—but at a more affordable price than a stand-alone gallery.

Staffing? Art50W has that too. Specialized on-site staff will be present at all times to receive collectors, even if the gallery owner is not present, or even in the same country (plus, staffing is included in the monthly rent). 

Art50W Galleries. Courtesy of Time Equities.

Art50W Galleries. Courtesy of Time Equities.

Though the efficiency of the proposal is the main appeal, Time Equities says that it also wants Art50W to become a center for the arts community in fast-changing Lower Manhattan. Recent additions to the neighborhood include the Perelman Performing Arts Center, as well as Independent Art Fair, which has moved to the Battery Marine Building. 

Collector and ART OMI founder Francis Greenburger, the developer behind the project, has long had community-focused ambitions for the space. He believes that Art50W will be the ideal fit.  

“The Art50W galleries are an attempt to create an omnichannel approach to international art sales, merging technology with an in-person experience of the artist’s work,” Greenburger explained. “And the galleries are located proximate to the World Financial Centre, Battery Park, and the ‘New Downtown,’ which is home to thousands of high-earning, art-interested individuals. Plus, it’s just a few minutes walk to the new Tribeca gallery district.” 

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Wonder Which High-Tech Van Gogh Show to Gogh to? Here Are Photos From New York’s Dueling Attractions to Help You Decide


You cannot escape the spectacle of Van Gogh in New York right now.

Indeed, if you’ve been out walking around Chinatown or the Lower East Side recently, you may have noticed big stickers on the sidewalk directing you to “Gogh This Way.” They are aiming wanderers towards Pier 36, where the Post-Impressionist-themed light show known as “Immersive Van Gogh” is currently drawing in the crowds.

But if the company behind “Immersive Van Gogh” is particularly keen to direct traffic, something more than mere good wayfinding may be at work. It is, after all, competing with another Van Gogh-themed event, the very similarly named “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” now welcoming visitors at the Skylight on Vesey, just across from the Irish Hunger Memorial in Lower Manhattan.

Marker directing people to "Immersive Van Gogh" in Chinatown. Photo by Ben Davis.

Marker directing people to “Immersive Van Gogh” in Chinatown. Photo by Ben Davis.

There’s something comical about the two events dueling it out for the post-quarantine immersive experience dollar (in fact, across the country, no less than five different companies are competing in the Van Gogh room market). But is one as good as the next?

Judge for yourself! In the spirit of giving a sense of what each feels like, we’ve rounded up photos of both. As they say: Know before you Gogh.

 

“Immersive Van Gogh” at Pier 36

"Immersive Van Gogh" on Pier 36. Photo by Ben Davis.

“Immersive Van Gogh” on Pier 36. Photo by Ben Davis.

An enormous Van Gogh self-portrait greets visitors to "Immersive Van Gogh." Photo by Ben Davis.

An enormous Van Gogh self-portrait greets visitors to “Immersive Van Gogh.” Photo by Ben Davis.

A worker polishes one of the large mirrored sculptures in "Immersive Van Gogh." Photo by Ben Davis.

A worker polishes one of the large mirrored sculptures in “Immersive Van Gogh.” Photo by Ben Davis.

inside "Immersive Van Gogh." Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside “Immersive Van Gogh.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside "Immersive Van Gogh." Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside “Immersive Van Gogh.” Photo by Ben Davis.

<em>The Potato Eaters</em>, animated, within "Immersive Van Gogh." Photo by Ben Davis.

The Potato Eaters, animated, within “Immersive Van Gogh.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside "Immersive Van Gogh." Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside “Immersive Van Gogh.” Photo by Ben Davis.

inside "Immersive Van Gogh." Photo by Ben Davis.

inside “Immersive Van Gogh.” Photo by Ben Davis.

inside "Immersive Van Gogh." Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside “Immersive Van Gogh.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside "Immersive Van Gogh." Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside “Immersive Van Gogh.” Photo by Ben Davis.

inside "Immersive Van Gogh." Photo by Ben Davis.

inside “Immersive Van Gogh.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside "Immersive Van Gogh." Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside “Immersive Van Gogh.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside "Immersive Van Gogh." Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside “Immersive Van Gogh.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside "Immersive Van Gogh." Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside “Immersive Van Gogh.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside "Immersive Van Gogh." Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside “Immersive Van Gogh.” Photo by Ben Davis.

A credit for Lighthouse Immersive, the company behind "Immersive Van Gogh," within the experience. Photo by Ben Davis.

A credit for Lighthouse Immersive, the company behind “Immersive Van Gogh,” within the experience. Photo by Ben Davis.

A selection of Vincent van Gogh lollipops from the cafe in "Immersive Van Gogh." Photo by Ben Davis.

A selection of Vincent van Gogh lollipops from the cafe in “Immersive Van Gogh.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Trying out the augmented reality feature of "Immersive Van Gogh." Photo by Ben Davis.

Trying out the augmented reality feature of “Immersive Van Gogh.” Photo by Ben Davis.

A display in the "Immersive Van Gogh" gift shop. Photo by Ben Davis.

A display in the “Immersive Van Gogh” gift shop. Photo by Ben Davis.

A message from <em>Emily in Paris</em> star Lily Collins greets visitors in the "Immersive Van Gogh" gift shop. Photo by Ben Davis.

A message from Emily in Paris star Lily Collins greets visitors in the “Immersive Van Gogh” gift shop. Photo by Ben Davis.

 

“Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” at Skylight on Vesey

Outside of "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

Outside of “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Stairway leading to "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

Stairway leading to “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Display in the ticket hall of "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

Display in the ticket hall of “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

A giant sculpture of Van Gogh's head greets guests to "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

A giant sculpture of Van Gogh’s head greets guests to “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

A giant sculptural vase with Van Gogh images projected on it at "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

A giant sculptural vase with Van Gogh images projected on it at “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

A 3D, disassembled version of a Van Gogh's <em> Courtesan: after Eisen</em> ​at "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis

A 3D, disassembled version of a Van Gogh’s Courtesan: after Eisen at “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

A 3D recreation of <em>Bedroom in Arles</em> at "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

A 3D recreation of Bedroom in Arles at “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

One of the animated transitions in "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

One of the animated transitions in “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

One of the animated transitions in “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

<em>Cafe Terrace at Night</em>, animated, inside "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

Cafe Terrace at Night, animated, inside “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

Inside “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

The Paint With Vincent room at "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

The Paint With Vincent room at “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Visitors enjoy the virtual reality component of "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

Visitors enjoy the virtual reality component of “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Display of replica Van Gogh self-portraits at "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

Display of replica Van Gogh self-portraits at “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

The gift shop at "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

The gift shop at “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Canvasses for sale in the gift shop of "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience." Photo by Ben Davis.

Canvasses for sale in the gift shop of “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Photo by Ben Davis.

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Marlborough Reborn? How New York’s Most Troubled Art Gallery May Be Clawing Its Way Out of the Grave


The Art Detective is a weekly column by Katya Kazakina for Midnight Publishing Group News Pro that lifts the curtain on what’s really going on in the art market.

 

Walking down West 25th Street in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, passersby can see colorful abstract paintings through the windows of Marlborough Gallery, a show by Iraqi-born painter Ahmed Alsoudani. The doors are open. 

That alone may come as a surprise to many. “Once or twice a week, I hear people come in and say, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you are open,’” said director Diana Burroughs. 

A year after internal turmoil engulfed—and nearly sank—one of the world’s most esteemed contemporary art galleries, the House of Marlborough is still standing. In some ways, it’s a different gallery than it was a year ago. Its president, Max Levai, was fired by the board; many artists left; its original space on 57th Street has been vacated and a planned expansion, aborted. There are also two ongoing multimillion-dollar lawsuits underway between former staff and the gallery’s board, with allegations of fraud, defamation, and a coup d’état flying through the courts. 

Against this tumultuous backdrop, the gallery, improbably, is forging ahead: planning exhibitions and art-fair booths, signing new artists, and making significant sales. Next week, it will open a photography show by 10 Yale MFA students. Live performance-art presentations by Le’Andra LeSeur are planned for July. Come fall, two rarely seen, monumental paintings by Sam Francis will go on view alongside sculptures by Beverly Pepper.  

“There’s activity again,” Burroughs said. “Marlborough is a great, great gallery. It’s transforming.”

Installation view of "Ahmed Alsoudani." Photo: Pierre Le Hors, courtesy of Marlborough Gallery.

Installation view of “Ahmed Alsoudani.” Photo: Pierre Le Hors, courtesy of Marlborough Gallery.

The man leading the change is Doug Walla, a 70-year-old artist-turned-dealer, who was appointed Marlborough’s C.E.O. in July just as the wreckage unfolded. 

Like the rest of the art world, Walla read about Marlborough’s closing on Midnight Publishing Group News. Having worked at the gallery for seven years, until 1985, he was familiar with its internal operations and vast art holdings. For 35 years thereafter, he ran his own gallery, Kent Fine Art, cheekily named, like Marlborough, after a cigarette brand. 

He contacted his former boss and Marlborough board member Gilbert Lloyd and offered to help. 

Walla thought he would come in as a consultant to sell assets from Marlborough’s inventory. In its heyday, the gallery worked with giants such as Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon, Robert Motherwell, and Frank Auerbach. Walla estimates there are about 30,000 works in storage. 

“Other galleries may represent artists, but they were not heavy buyers,” said Walla, who used to fly to Mexico City every three months to pick up rolls of finished canvases by Rufino Tamayo. “The distinguishing characteristic of Marlborough is that they always bought a lot.”

Douglas Walla and Kaari Upson at the New Museum. ©Patrick McMullan. Photo :Nicholas Hunt.

Douglas Walla, left, and Kaari Upson at the New Museum.
©Patrick McMullan. Photo: Nicholas Hunt.

Walla arranged to start in mid-August. But on July 9, his phone and email exploded after word of his impending arrival got out. Artists wanted their works back. There was $1.3 million worth of unclaimed invoices owed to the gallery. The C.F.O. quit. Pierre Levai, Max Levai’s father and longtime head of Marlborough in New York and Spain, resigned. Most of the staff had been furloughed since April.

He contacted the board. “I said, ‘You have some major, major problems.’ They said: ‘Can you start now?’”

He spent the rest of the week working 18 hours a day. 

“I had no staff list. No keys. No exhibition list,” Walla said. “On Monday, they came back to me and said, ‘Can we hire you as the C.E.O.?’”

A period of enormous confusion ensued. By sheer coincidence, several major changes had occurred just before the pandemic hit that would have a major impact on Marlborough’s future. 

Max Levai. Photo courtesy of Marlborough.

Max Levai. Photo courtesy of Marlborough.

Max Levai, who became president of Marlborough in New York and London in 2019, decided to consolidate operations in Chelsea while closing the gallery’s original space on 57th Street and buying additional space from the newly vacated Cheim & Read gallery on West 25th Street. That acquisition was going to be paid for by the sale of Marlborough’s longtime warehouse in Brooklyn (each transaction was priced at $19 million). The warehouse inventory needed to be relocated to a new facility in Westchester. The art from 57th Street was dumped in Chelsea.  

“This all happened at once,” Burroughs said. “The 57th Street closed. The warehouse closed. And the city closed.”   

Walla’s first task was just to make sense of the chaos. He removed 10 truckloads of garbage, upgraded the computer system, and replaced the frosted street-facing windows in Chelsea  with clear glass. (The board also pulled out from acquiring Cheim & Read’s space.)

Stephen Hannock, A Recent History of Art in Southern California (Mass Moca #165) (1998–2021). Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery.

Stephen Hannock, A Recent History of Art in Southern California (Mass Moca #165) (1998–2021). Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery.

Then there were artists to deal with. Those who left, including Andrew Kuo, Jonah Freeman, and Justin Lowe, were aligned with Levai and Pascal Spengemann, vice president at the gallery, Walla said. All of their works were returned to them at Marlborough’s expense in good faith, he added.

For many of the artists, the decision to leave was personal. “My friends were fired unceremoniously,” said sculptor Tony Matelli. “I can’t really show at this gallery anymore. It’s not engaged in the art world I am most interested in.”

Meanwhile, the gallery’s former leadership and board continued to wage legal war. Levai sued Marlborough for $10 million for allegedly staging a “coup” that forced him and his father out of the family business. In its own $8 million lawsuit, the gallery accused the Levais of mishandling the business, concealing the whereabouts of valuable art, and defaming the board. Neither side would comment on the status of the fight.

In front of the curtain, however, Marlborough is moving forward. Walla and Burroughs said that they have planned the gallery’s exhibition schedule through 2022. New artists have joined the roster, including the seascape painter Ran Ortner and Deborah Butterfield, known for her sculptures of horses. In recent days, the gallery sold two paintings by Chinese painter Chu Teh-Chun for a combined total of more than $1 million. 

Sam Francis, UNTITLED (1978), © 2021 Sam Francis Foundation, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Sam Francis, Untitled (1978), © 2021 Sam Francis Foundation, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

In a significant vote of confidence, the Sam Francis Foundation in California is sending two massive grid paintings from 1978 to an upcoming exhibition—the larger one measures more than 21 feet wide.

“I am very impressed that they could take it on—and they have a space for it,” said Debra Burchett-Lere, director of the foundation. The last time the two canvases were shown together was at Gagosian in Beverly Hills in 1996. 

Marlborough has also tapped into its vast inventory to present recent exhibitions of Brassaï and Bill Brandt, whose works were among 3,000 photographs purchased 40 years ago, tucked away in Marlborough’s own warehouse, and only recently uncovered.

Installation view of "Bill Brandt: Perspective of Nudes." Photo: Pierre Le Hors, courtesy of Marlborough Gallery.

Installation view of “Bill Brandt: Perspective of Nudes.” Photo: Pierre Le Hors, courtesy of Marlborough Gallery.

“The collections were encyclopedic, comprehensive, vintage, solid provenance, and top experts in the field were equally excited,” said Walla. He ended up collaborating on the shows with Anne Wilkes Tucker, former curator of the Museum of Fine Art in Houston, and Martina Droth, the chief curator of the Yale Center for British Art.

“I needed some lead time to reformulate the legacy of Marlborough as I had experienced it under my early years,” Walla said. “I think the formula is ‘looking forward, looking back.’”

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