The Stories Behind the Works in the Alfred Taubman Sale at Sotheby’s

One Picasso for sale was once owned by Gianni Versace.

Willem de Kooning, Untitled XXI,  (1976). Image: Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Willem de Kooning, Untitled XXI, (1976).
Image: Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Beginning Friday, Sotheby’s New York is holding its preview exhibition of the heavy-duty collection of its former chairman, A. Alfred Taubman.

The lineup features Willem de Kooning, Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko and numerous other white males, along with exactly two works by women artists among the 77 lots—a gorgeous Mary Cassatt pastel, estimated at just $1–1.5 million, and a Georgia O’Keeffe abstraction at $1.2–1.8 million. Price tags for works by Picasso, De Kooning and Amedeo Modigliani, on the other hand, run $25–35 million.

The collection, which is on view through October 27th, goes on sale November 4, kicking off two weeks of blockbuster sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

We’ve chosen a few of the best stories about the priciest lots, and we point out some gems at the lower end of the price range.

There’s an especially funny story about the De Kooning abstraction, Untitled XXI. The auction catalogue indicates that in 1983, when Taubman owned the painting, it was hung in a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art that was devoted exclusively to works from the museum’s collection. So what’s the deal?

As it turns out, the Whitney owns a very similar example of the painting, a Sotheby’s rep told artnet News, but at the time of the show, the canvas was on loan to the Stedelijk Museum, in Amsterdam. So the Whitney asked Taubman to loan his work for the show where it served as a sort of body double!

De Kooning was feeling strong when he painted the work, saying of his practice at the time, “I couldn’t miss. It’s a nice feeling. It’s strange. It’s like a man at a gambling table [who] feels that he can’t lose.” The gamble may pay off big: With an estimate at $25–35 million, the work is in potential record-setting range. De Kooning’s current auction high, set at Christie’s New York in November 2013, is $32 million, so even at the low end of that range, it will set a record when the house’s fees are added in.

It’s also worth noting that Sotheby’s may be taking a gamble, too; the entire sale has been guaranteed by the house to reach a total of $500 million, according to an SEC filing.

Amedeo Modigliani, Paulette Jourdain (1919).Photo: artnet

Amedeo Modigliani, Paulette Jourdain (1919).
Photo: artnet

One of the other star lots, the Modigliani, happens to be one of the last paintings executed by the artist. There’s probably no chance his dealer at the time, Léopold Zborowski, could have imagined how things would turn out, considering that Zborowski was conducting business out of his apartment, not yet having gotten up the funds for a gallery. The subject of the painting, Pauline “Paulette” Jourdain, was at first the dealer’s housemaid and later became his lover and the mother of his child.

During the first half of 1919, the year he probably painted this work, controversial Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir agreed to meet with the artist, saying, “I have heard that he is a great painter.” He caught on just in time, since Modigliani would die the next year.

Pablo Picasso, <i>Femme assise sur une chaise</i>, 1938, oil on canvas.<br>Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

Pablo Picasso, Femme assise sur une chaise, 1938, oil on canvas.
Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

Here, we’d just like to point out that this Picasso canvas sold for $5.4 million in 1999 at Sotheby’s London. Even corrected for inflation, that’s just $7.7 million, so if this painting reaches its $35 million high estimate, including fees, it will have increased fivefold in value. Oh, and the guy who sold it in 1999, when Taubman bought it, was Gianni Versace. Just saying.

Joseph Cornell, <i>Untitled (Aviary Series, Parrot With Toy Bell)</i>, ca. 1953-54, wood and glass box construction with found objects.<br>Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Aviary Series, Parrot With Toy Bell), ca. 1953-54, wood and glass box construction with found objects.
Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

When a trademark box construction by Joseph Cornell set a record for the artist at $4.8 million, at Christie’s New York in 2013, New York advisor Todd Levin, director of the Levin Art Group, called it “an impressive victory for an artist everyone knows to be historically important but who has been undervalued in the market context.”

So this beauty, priced at just $700,000–1 million though it’s been off the market for 35 years, is a bargain by any measure. The wildly colorful parrot, set against an almost exclusively white background, perches above, of all things, a plastic Wiffle ball. As the auction catalogue points out, the work offers “Cornell’s poetic alternative to the heroic painterly abstractions of postwar art.”


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