24 February 2015

The most expensive works of art in the world and their histories (or lack thereof)-Part Two

by Marc Masurovsky

(Note: Absent are works of art that post-date 1945: Alberto Giacometti, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and the ubiquitous Pablo Picasso.)

5. Dora Maar au chat, 1941, by Pablo Picasso sold for more than 95 million dollars in May 2006 at Sotheby’s. Picasso painted several portraits of his Croatian girlfriend who held no particular love for the Jews. The Germans had taken over Paris in mid-June 1940. Since his return from the port city of Royan to Paris on August 24, 1940, Picasso’s relationship with a number of German officers and officials had evolved, especially young officers from the Propagandastaffel who cultivated ties with intellectuals and artists in the capital. He also knew a number of art dealers who had chosen to feather their beds with the German occupiers, including Martin Fabiani and Paul Pétridès.

According to the Sotheby’s catalogue entry, Pierre Colle, a Paris art dealer and collector and specialist of Surrealist art, held the painting “as of 1946.” During the years of German occupation, Colle had been in business with another art dealer, Maurice Renou.  Together they recycled a number of modern works, signed by Salvador Dali and Max Ernst, which German agencies had seized from British nationals and Jewish owners. It is not clear when Mr. Colle acquired the Dora Maar portrait, assuming that we are speaking of an acquisition. The painting could have been left with him on consignment. Furthermore, Mr. Colle and Mr. Picasso had an on-and-off relationship which dated back to the pre-war years.
Dora Maar
Pablo Picasso

Dora Maar au chat, 1941, Pablo Picasso
Several hypotheses come to mind about the early years of ownership of the painting.

a/ it could have remained in Pablo Picasso’s studio on rue des Grands-Augustins in the 6th arrondissement of Paris until he was ready to part with it after the Liberation of Paris in late August 1944.

b/ Picasso might have sold it to Mr. or Ms. X before 1946. Hopefully that X person was not of Jewish descent because that might have affected the fate of the painting should Mr. or Ms. X be arrested by the Germans or their French collaborators of whom there were many in the German-occupied French capital.

Pierre Colle apparently sold Dora Maar au Chat to Leigh and Mary Block of Chicago and hung on to it until 1963. Then, the Gidwitz Family, also from Chicago, bought the painting through Berggruen and Cie which acted as “agents for the Blocks.” They ended up selling it in early May 2006 to a “mysterious buyer” dressed in jeans and “appearing to be in his mid-40s” according to Carol Vogel of the New York Times.

6. A Chinese 18th century Qianlong porcelain vase sold for 85 million dollars on November 12, 2010 at Bainbridges, a small British auction house. The family who sold it had discovered the vase quite by accident in the attic of their parents’ house.

Qianlong vase, 18th c.

Experts said it probably once belonged to Chinese royalty but was most likely taken out of China at the end of the Second Opium War in 1860 when imperial palaces were ransacked.

In a bizarre twist to this already unusual story, the buyer, after making an initial deposit on the vase to secure it, never followed up on paying the rest of the hefty sum to Bainbridges and the sellers. Apparently, that led to a breach of contract and, two years later, Bonhams sold the vase again for less than 83 million dollars to a Hong Kong dealer.