How’s That for a Holiday Gift? Anonymous Donor Gives Virginia Museum of Fine Arts an Asher Durand Painting Worth $40 Million

The painting is part of a trove of 250 new acquisitions.

Asher Durand, Progress (The Advance of Civilization (1853). Courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts must have been very nice this year. For the holidays, it has received the most valuable gift in its history, American artist Asher B. Durand’s Progress (The Advance of Civilization) (1853), valued at $40 million, was donated by a benefactor who wishes to remain anonymous.

The painting “is one of the most frequently cited and reproduced American paintings of all time,” Taylor said. “Often described as an emblematic image of Manifest Destiny, Progress is, in fact, a highly complex and dramatically scaled representation of industrial developments and the sacrifices that come with them.”

It is rare for such a significant donation to be made anonymously, though Michael Taylor, chief curator and deputy director for Art at VMFA, told artnet News that “it happens all the time” for less monumental works. The painting is one of 250 acquisitions approved by the museum’s board of trustees yesterday.

Progress was commissioned by financier industrialist Charles Gould. Later, the painting found its way into the private collection of the late Jack Warner, former CEO of Westervelt, whose vast corporate collection was given to the Tuscaloosa Museum in Alabama, which closed this past August.

The Durand left the collection well before the Tuscaloosa Museum closed. The corporate collection sold the painting privately in 2011 to an unidentified buyer (who is the current VFMA donor) for a reported $40 million.

The VMFA’s director Alex Nyerges “and other key members of the museum’s leadership team are aware of the donor’s identity and respect their right to anonymity,” Taylor said. The only other clues that director Nyerges gave at an unveiling of the work on December 12 is that the donor is male and not from Virginia.

According to the artnet Price Database, the highest auction price ever achieved for Durand is $967,500, set in May 2017 for Mountain Stream (1848) at Christie’s New York.

But the VMFA gift is not the first time that a Durand painting has garnered such a lofty valuation. As is often the case where top works by an important artist are owned largely by institutions and major private collections, Durand works rarely come on the market, and when they do, they can command far higher prices privately, without ever making it to the auction block.

Such was the case more than a decade ago, in 2005, when Sotheby’s helped the New York Public Library sell off several major works from its collection, including one of Durand’s most famous paintings, Kindred Spirits (1849). Instead of a regular auction, interested buyers were instructed to submit the price they were willing to pay through a “sealed bid” process. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton, won the contest with a reported offer of $35 million. The painting remains in its collection today.

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