Sotheby’s 2015 Impressionist and Modern Art Auction: The Joy of a Making-Believe Billionaire

Lot 40 Property from the Collection of Anthony Goldschmidt Claude Monet Le Palais Ducal Signed Claude Monet and dated 1908 (lower left) Oil on canvas 22 ½ by 36 ¼ in. 57 by 92 cm Painted in 1908. Est. $15/20 million Sold for $23,098,000

Lot 40. Property from the Collection of Anthony Goldschmidt. Claude Monet, “Le Palais Ducal.” Oil on canvas. Painted in 1908. Sold for $23,098,000.

Art from the collections of Jerome H. Stone, a Chicago entrepreneur, Lola Sarnoff, the Samuel Goldwyn family, and Anthony Goldschmidt led off Sotheby’s spring auction. The latter included a Monet looted from Jacob Goldschmidt by the Nazis in 1941. It was restituted to his grandson Anthony in 1960. Many items, including Van Gogh’s spectacular L’allée des Alyscamps, however, belonged to one of scores of unidentified sellers. Its $66 million hammer price was the most expensive item of the Sotheby’s evening.

If I were rich I would be an art collector. Going to auction viewings is a perfect fantasy. More realistically, it allows the viewer to experience art that, like Brigadoon, the Scottish village that appears one day every hundred years, briefly emerges from one private collection only to disappear into yet another. And as opposed to the steep prices of museum admission, these events are free.

Money plays an increasingly important role in art. Most of the items Sotheby’s auctioned off this May were acquired at a time when great art was almost affordable. A Matisse bought in 1948 for $13,580 sold for over $6 million! The owner of the top-selling Van Gogh changed hands in 1985 for $11+ million! Astronomically high prices unfortunately do affect the “life” of artwork. Instead of cashing in, owners more commonly used to donate their treasures to museums.

Sotheby’s must have been excited about its 2015 sale. It decorated its elevator doors with facsimiles of some of the best works of its current sales. There were many masterpieces. Jerome H. Stone, a Chicago entrepreneur and the founder of America’s Alzheimer Foundation, bought much of his art in the 1950s. His taste was exquisite. He favored Fernand Léger. La Roue Bleue, from 1920, is a symphony of elements derived from the mechanical world: a portion of a wheel, pipes, buttresses, valves and metal cogs. Two other Légers, versions of the artist’s Pêcheurs (fishermen) series, are more representational. Their soft colors make them lyrical, even though the lines are hard-edged and the fishermen presage those of a Lego set. A version of Albert Giacometti’s Bust of Diego was also an aesthetic and financial winner. The bust is typically elongated. A delicate, almost two-dimensional head, precariously attached to an elongated neck, contrasts with a massive base.

The Goldwyns, father and son, also bought safe modern art, including Henri Matisse’s Anemones et grenades, from 1948. The master colorist arranged delicate red and purple anemones in a vase, ringed by the dark red fruit. A black square filled with an abstraction of a fern-like plant occupies the upper left corner of the picture, a nod to the artist’s penchant for including patterns. The Goldwyns also did well with a 1948 Picasso portrait of Françoise Gilot and several David Hockneys.

With several works for sale, Monet had a big day. The Stone estate included a Nymphéas that fetched $54 million. The previously mentioned Anthony Goldschmidt estate sold the painter’s Palais Ducal. Monet painted it in 1908 in Venice, where he had gone at the urging of the painter John Singer Sargent. Its subject matter is simple: A Moorish style pink palace fronted by water, lit by the Mediterranean sun. There are few details. The three wooden boat-mooring posts that occupy the foreground add depth, and the outline of a gondola floats on the shimmering sea.

Lola Sarnoff’s collection also originated in Germany. Her maternal grandfather started it in Frankfort, and through inheritance and marriage it coalesced with the Dreyfus and von Hirsch collections. The collection safely survived the art holocaust in Switzerland. In 1978 most of the collection was sold, but considerable material remained. I was much taken with the wise-looking ceramic owl by Picasso that contrasted with the artist’s very different sculpture of a bronze cat.

As I left I wished that some of this wonderful art trove would end up in a public collection. Not everyone, however, feels that way. John Quinn (1870-1924), one of America’s great collectors of modern art, stipulated that his beloved collection be sold at auction because he did not want it to stagnate in a museum. Instead he wanted it to provide the pleasure of the chase to other collectors. Nevertheless the art lovers of the time, including Abby Rockefeller and her friends, were so shocked by the loss of the collection that it reinforced their conviction that New York needed a modern art museum. They founded MoMA in 1929. I don’t know how Quinn would feel today, when owning some art has become a status symbol that can only be afforded by billionaires. Fortunately, there is much art to enjoyed by ordinary folks and much of it is quite affordable. All you need is confidence in your own taste, a bit of self-education and a love of art.

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Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series

Jacob Lawrence: The Great Migration

(Photo by Suzanne Loebl)

Jacob Lawrence, whose entire epic Migration Series is now on display at MoMA, was wonderfully gifted, hard-working and fortunate. In 1941, Edith Halpert, the owner of the avant-garde Downtown Gallery, went to Harlem to explore the work of then totally ignored African-American artists. During that expedition she came across Lawrence’s Migration of the Negro, a series of narrative paintings illustrating the journey from the agrarian South to the industrialized North. Then as now the tiny images deliver a powerful message.

Lawrence, then only twenty-three, had spent months at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library researching the history of the migration and developing barebones captions for his future paintings. The first caption reads: “During the World War there was a great migration North by Southern Negroes” (Panel 1). Each one of the sixty captions is poignant: “Child labor and lack of education was one of the reasons for people wishing to leave their homes” (Panel 24). “And the migrants kept coming” (Panel 60). (Text of the original 1941 captions, which were clarified and updated in 1999.)

The sixty paintings that accompany the captions are as fresh today as they were eighty-five years ago. They have the power and charm of the medieval stained glass windows that narrated the Bible to a population that was mostly illiterate. Lawrence’s images are sparse, each displaying only a few colors, people, scenes, or objects. The series begins with a mass of black people waiting for trains to take them to Chicago, New York and St. Louis. There are no details. Lattice panels, separating the crowd from trains, provide the painting with depths. A few dabs of yellow brighten the somber greens, blacks, brown and reds of the migrants.

Panel 5 depicts the upper portion of a locomotive rushing north, silhouetted against a deep blue sky, belching steam and clanging its stridently yellow bell. Lawrence shows us the landscape of the abandoned South, the hardship of the less than welcoming North, the starkness of their new homes, the drama of a funeral. His vocabulary is simple: A bare flight of stairs, the windowless walls of a Chicago slaughterhouse, a slab of meat… Because Lawrence worked simultaneously on all sixty panels, the colors and style of the entire series is coordinated. No wonder that Edith Halpert was impressed.

Surprisingly the art world recognized Lawrence’s genius. Even before his show at the Downtown Gallery, Fortune Magazine published twenty-six images of the Migration Series in its November 1941 issue. Fortune was the first mainstream magazine to pay a major tribute to an African-American artist. The show, as well as the reproduction of the work in the magazine, was a big success, even though the latter had to compete with the bombing of the American fleet in Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941. Edith Halpert also managed the sale of the series. Lawrence wanted the series to remain intact; in the end MoMA bought the even-numbered paintings and the Phillips got the odd ones. Each half-series is wonderful, though we are fortunate that sometimes we can view the entire series at once.

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Returning to Brussels, the City That Saved My Life 70 Years Ago

Naomi and Suzanne at Comme Chez Soi

Naomi and Suzanne at Comme Chez Soi

My family has always traveled on its stomach. So it was no surprise that when in March 2015 I took my granddaughter, Branching editor Naomi, to revisit my Belgian roots, we would eat well.

Our culinary exploits started well. After an overnight flight from New York, our rooms at the Sandton Pillows Hotel in Brussels were not ready. Faute de mieux, as they say in French, we searched for breakfast at the nearby Grand Place. The medieval square had lost none of its majesty. Ornate and gilded guildhalls, the city hall and the Maison du Roi ringed the smallish Sunday flower market.

Cafe on the Grand Place

We found a likely café, whose log fire and delicious food warmed our hearts and lined our stomachs. Our omelets were flawless and reminded me of the perfection of ordinary Belgian food. Our croissant was crisp, as was the crust of the apple tart. I savored the latter’s lemon-flavored glaze.

The café itself unleashed Proustian memories. I might even have eaten here, 70 years earlier, during one of the eatery’s previous incarnations. In 1945 my cousin Jerry, a member of the victorious U.S. army, took me to the Grand Place for a luxurious black-market feast of steak and French fries. To my great embarrassment Jerry argued with the proprietor about his exorbitant bill, which they settled after a colorful argument. The owner apparently was not perturbed by the dispute since he gave me a huge wink as we left, suggesting, I suppose, that the next time I picked up an American soldier I should again bring him to his establishment.

Nuetnigenough

Unbeknownst to me, Naomi had decided to explore Belgian beer and went about it in her usual thorough manner. That evening she and her iPhone found us the Nuetnigough brasserie, which served a great variety of brews. She had the first of her ten unusual beers, and a fabulous steak. I savored carbonade à la flamande, a Belgian national dish consisting of equal parts of beef and onions stewed in beer. I concluded that my homemade version is creditable.

The next evening we dined at Comme Chez Soi, peacefully glistening under its two Michelin stars. Georges Cuvelier founded it in 1926 to escape his coal mining future in the Belgian Borinage, whose bleak landscape and inhabitants van Gogh immortalized during the 1880s. Georges’ son-in-law put the restaurant on the culinary map and subsequent family members maintained the standard.

Comme Chez Soi

“I’ve never been in a place like this,” Naomi gasped after we entered the flawless elegance of the Art-Nouveau dining room. I loved the stained glass windows, shimmering silver, starched tablecloth, mirrors and the huge bouquet of flowers standing in front of the window. We ordered the prix fixe menu. On the menu the description of each of our four courses—veal flavored with tarragon, cobia flavored with fennel, lamb flavored with juniper berries, and caramel-milk chocolate dessert—took up three lines. There is no chance that I could duplicate in writing any of these haute cuisine creations or their intricate sauces and accompaniments.

We experienced other culinary delights. A perfect vol-au-vent (pastry-shell) filled with a veal ragout, the classic Belgian dish of moules-frites, a marzipan-wrapped pastry potato stuffed with a delectable cream, paté de campagne, countless chocolate truffles, scallops grilled to perfection, and a ton of double-fried French fries. I missed out on boudin-noir, one of my Belgian favorites. Naomi got her beer. In Bruges, near where it is brewed at a cloister, she found the one rated “the world’s best.” Even there it is rare, but she managed to find five bottles, which we took home. They arrived unbroken at Kennedy Airport.

Cantillon Gueuze

In 1944, while hiding from the Nazis, I was helping a Madame Grosfils care for her four small children. The family lived in a spectacular Bauhaus-type home on Brussels’ upscale Avenue de Tervuren. At the Grosfils, I was as happy as I could be at the time. I loved the children; compared to previous ones, my job was easy; the Grosfils were nice, and most of all it was clear that the Allies were winning World War II and that I had survived.

A few years ago Yves Mattagne, a leading Brussels restaurateur, turned the landmarked mansion into Yume, an Asian fusion restaurant. I invited Jean-Pierre—the now-75-year-old “little boy” I had cared for in that very same house—and his wife to dine with us. From the outside the Grosfils abode is unchanged, and so is the entrance hall with its sweeping staircase and the door to the living room, now the main dining room, where each evening my boss would invite me to listen to the clandestine BBC.

In the entrance hall of Yume, where I

In the entrance hall of Yume, the restaurant which was once a house where I hid from the Nazis in 1944.

The rest of the house is much different. We dined in the former playroom. The sweetbreads with Hollandaise that I ordered and the sushi were excellent. However, the excitement about good food was dwarfed by my emotions of being there with my granddaughter and my friends. Was it really me who lived here wearing a white governess’s uniform, worrying about small, everyday pleasures and slights?

Am I grateful enough to have escaped the flames of the Holocaust? Do I appreciate that life has fulfilled many of its promises?

Life never lets you get too comfortable. The afternoon before the dinner at Yume, my wallet had been stolen as I boarded one of my hometown’s trusty buses. I had not been careful enough and had trusted the safety of the city that had preserved my life. My pickpocket did well. He got $300 as well as my credit and bankcards! Somehow the incident did not mar my pleasure at the trip, but the words of an old English folk song, popularized by Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, floated in my mind:

How can there be a cherry that has no stone,
How can there be a chicken that has no bone,
How can there be a baby with no crying,
How can you tell a story that has no end?

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‘Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey’ at Columbia University

From Romare Bearden’s A Black Odyssey. (Photo by Suzanne Loebl)

While thousands traipsed to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to view Henri Matisse’s epoch-making Cut-Outs, fewer made it to Morningside Heights to enjoy the equally charming collages of Romare Bearden. There are similarities and differences, though the works of both artists gladden the heart. Matisse’s work simply celebrates color and shape and sresses the pleasure of surrounding oneself with beauty. Bearden chose the story of Homer’s Odyssey to illustrate African-Americans’ struggle to become respected U.S. citizens.

During my Jewish childhood in anti-Semitic Germany there was no TV, highly visible sports teams, or other distractions. Homer’s Greek hero tales were a crucial part of my life. I knew that it took Odysseus ten years to return from vanquished Troy, located in what is now Turkey, to Ithaca, his hometown. I was very familiar with the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis, Poseidon, the ruler of the oceans, Circe, a seductress, and the other trials he underwent as he and his faithful crew voyaged home.

From Romare Bearden's A Black Odyssey. (Photo by Suzanne Loebl)

From Romare Bearden’s A Black Odyssey. (Photo by Suzanne Loebl)

Romare Bearden’s series faithfully adheres to Homer’s story. His collages are small and detailed. Bearden is a master colorist. Specific colors dominate each work. White is used sparingly. Figures and animals, cut out of black paper, are silhouetted against vivid primary colors that impart a joyous Mediterranean or Caribbean air to his collages, even though the depicted events might be scary. Compositions vary. Sometimes a large battling group fills the canvas; sometimes it is occupied by a single figure. Poseidon awes the viewer with his black face, slit eye, protruding teeth; his famous trident bisecting the entire image. Circe too, seductively dressed in multicolored robes, and accompanied by a lion, a snake, and two birds is alluring and scary. Odysseus, however, manages to survive the ordeals and returns home chastened but unvanquished.

Like his near contemporary Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden is a powerful storyteller, narrating tales of African-American life in delicious small images. Both artists dispensed with details. During their formative years both lived in Harlem. Lawrence became famous early in his life when MoMA and the Phillips Collection in Washington bought and divided his 60-picture migration series. To celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the Great Migration, MoMA will exhibit the entire reunited series from April 3 to September 7, 2015.

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Every So Often, You Fall in Love With a Painting: Jamie Wyeth’s ‘Iris at Sea’

Iris at Sea by Jamie WyethEvery so often I fall in love with a painting. Most often the object of my desire is in a museum, on someone else’s wall, or too expensive, but once in a while it is within reach. So it was with Jamie Wyeth’s Iris At Sea, a single flower silhouetted against a white Maine lighthouse. I saw it in a gallery on Monhegan Island, Maine, half an hour before I was to catch the ferry that was to carry me back to the mainland. The 1999 print cost $2500, too much money for me to spend on a whim. I never forgot the painting. I toyed with the idea of calling the gallery, but didn’t. The print became very popular and my heart bled each time I saw it or its reproduction. Then, one day the print, beautifully framed in gold, appeared for sale in a tiny frame shop near my home in Brooklyn Heights. This time I did not let it get away. My husband gave it to me for my birthday. The big picture, measuring three by five feet, dominates my small office, but somehow it unites my two worlds: through my window I see a tower of the Brooklyn Bridge; when I swing my chair around by 180 degrees I am in Maine.

It is thus with great pleasure that last September I visited Jamie Wyeth’s first comprehensive retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was a marvelous show, filled with realistic, unconventional pictures lacking the angst that fill so many contemporary canvases. Jamie Wyeth and I share a passion for Monhegan, Maine, a two by one mile island that sports the East Coast’s highest cliffs. He also is passionate about animals. Gulls, crows, ponies, geese, a wild ram, a yellow lab with an natural eye patch, and Scotties share the museum’s walls with rocks, cliffs, floating pumpkins, and a handful of famous and not so famous humans.

As far as painters go, Jamie Wyeth was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Not only did he bask in the reflected glory of the laurels America had bestowed on the heads of N. C. Wyeth, his grandfather, and Andrew Wyeth, his father, but he also inherited their talent. He painted at his father’s side from the time he was a small child.

Wyeth had other mentors. As a young man he entered Andy Warhol’s famous Factory, befriended Lincoln Kirstein, the dance impresario, and Rudolf Nureyev, the fugitive Russian star dancer. These sensitive images, which hung in the MFA show’s first gallery, earned Wyeth a commission to paint a posthumous portrait of John F. Kennedy. The portrait, painted in 1967 when Jamie was twenty-one, remained in his possession until he partially donated it to the MFA.

My heart beat faster as I entered the next gallery filled with images of Monhegan: peaceful gulls assembled in front of the island’s small schoolhouse, gulls fighting with one another, gulls devouring a lobster, painter Rockwell Kent’s house, now owned by Wyeth, perched on a field of rocks, near the sea. A canvas filled with a black-faced sheep with white eyes pierced by rectangular yellow pupils mesmerized me. It is also reminiscent of American Folk Art. Elsewhere I saw another version of “my” lighthouse dwarfed by “my” single blue iris. The image of an oversized pumpkin suspended midair between Monhegan’s cliffs over a wildly churning blue and green sea was almost surrealistic.

There was also some ephemera: sketches for a White House Christmas card showing Ronald Reagan’s two Scotties, and doll-house like models of La Côte Basque a fashionable New York restaurant frequented by Lincoln Kirstein, Truman Capote and the like and another of Warhol’s famous Factory. I left with the show with a smile on my face, happy to have indulged my whim.

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Golden Gate Park and My Son’s Birthday

David's bench

David’s bench in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. (Photo by Niles Dolbeare)

This week a San Francisco friend sent me a picture of a visit he paid to the bench my husband and I donated to Golden Gate Park in memory of our child. The inscription reads:

David Albert Loebl

2-19-56 to 5-24-93

Your love of life is with us always

The spot, near a small lake, is magic. A month before he died of AIDS, David and I picnicked near the future bench. I remember the gusto with which he bit into his pastrami sandwich and devoured the ketchup-drowned fries!

Even though I lost him, for me February 19th remains a joyous day of remembrance. See my blog, The Gay World As Navigated By a Straight Mom, for this year’s memories.

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On the Measles Outbreak: Does the ‘Modern’ Anti-Vaccination Movement Remember Smallpox?

The Cow-Pock by James Gillray

The Cow-Pock, by British satirical cartoonist James Gillray.

I wonder whether the parents of the unvaccinated would consider doing away with traffic regulations or traveling by horse and buggy? Societal living needs written and unwritten rules and regulations.

It was humanity’s good fortune that Edward Jenner (1749-1823), an English country doctor, listened to a milkmaid who told him that she could not catch smallpox because she had had cowpox. Smallpox is a very ancient disease that killed Ramses V more than three thousand years ago. It has a mortality rate of 30% and, because it is airborne, it is infinitely more infectious than Ebola. Toward the end of the eighteenth century it killed 30,000 Englishmen annually. Many of those who survived were permanently disfigured.

Jenner tested the milkmaid’s folk remedy, and proved its veracity. In people cowpox is a mild disease. Dairy farmers whose scratched hands came in contact with the serum that oozed from a sick cow’s pox, caught cowpox and thereafter proved immune to smallpox. In 1796 Jenner harvested a bit of matter (serum) from a human pox that had formed on the hand of another dairymaid. He rubbed it in a scratch he had made on the arm of eight-year-old James Phipps. The boy developed a big pox, but remained fit. Six weeks later Jenner tried his very best to infect James with smallpox. But the boy was immune. Jenner called the process vaccination, a term derived from vacca, the Latin name for cow.

Then as now, some people were skeptical. In 1802 James Gillray published the above cartoon that illustrated the “cowyfying” effects of this vaccine. Nevertheless the vaccine has saved billions of lives.

The world quickly adopted vaccination. Within a few years Napoleon had his entire army vaccinated. In 1799, 23-year-old Thomas Jefferson traveled to Philadelphia to have himself vaccinated; soon thereafter he saw to it that his entire household was similarly protected. The discussion of whether or not to make vaccination compulsory has waxed and waned ever since. There was however enough worldwide legislation to force compliance, and in 1980 WHO declared smallpox an extinct disease.

It took many decades to understand the nature of infectious diseases, how diseases were transmitted and why Jenner’s vaccine worked. It took even longer to develop drugs and vaccines to treat these.

Most of the vaccines to treat common diseases—chicken pox, mumps, polio, yellow fever, influenza, some forms of pneumonias—date from the twentieth century. The discovery of each took gifted, hard-working scientists. They had to identify the causative agent, most often a virus, grow it, and then weaken it so that it could be administered to patients without causing the full blown disease. The measles virus was particularly difficult to grow and tame. The task fell to John Enders and his team at Harvard. It needed live cells to grow in and it took Enders years to develop the so-called tissue culture technique required to grow certain picky viruses. Enders’s technique was so world-shaking it earned him a Nobel Prize in 1954. Jonas Salk and Sabin used Enders’s technique to develop the polio vaccine in 1952. It would take Enders another six years to develop the measles vaccine. In its heyday measles was an especially bad disease, killing some of its victims, frequently causing blindness, encephalitis, heart disease in others. Even in 2011 it caused 158,000 deaths in underdeveloped countries. It had practically vanished in the United States. The reason that it is important to vaccinate the great majority of the population is that infectious agents survive by infecting susceptible hosts. When they can’t find a susceptible host they vanish, as the smallpox virus did.

Yes, I believe that the government or other agencies have the right and the duty to require its citizens to be vaccinated. We do need certain laws to keep functioning. Like most everybody else, I hate too much government interference, yet I expect those I elect and pay, to see to it that my water is clean, that they see to it that my neighbor and I dispose of our garbage, and that they do what they can to keep my children and me healthy. I also hope that scientists discover more vaccines. Who would not love one against cancer, AIDS or Ebola?

Suzanne Loebl’s first book, Fighting the Unseen: The Story of Viruses, was published in 1968.

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