wondrous tales of the art world

We would like to share with you some of the recent wondrous tales of the art world – this time from the US.

The Weird and Wonderful

Famous US actor Steve Martin is also a keen art collector. Amongst one of his treasures is iconic US artist Edward Hopper’s “Hotel Window” for which he paid US $ 12 million some years ago. Martin put it recently up for auction with estimates of US$ 10 – 15 million – which means he was prepared to take a loss, considering vendor’s and buyer’s premiums involved in both transactions. After a frenetic round of bidding, Steve Martin won’t be just window shopping now, as the painting reaching a lofty US$ 26.89 million including buyer’s premium.

Another iconic US artist is Norman Rockwell. His work “Breaking Home Ties” did indeed break a few ties after an incredible home run. In 1960, Donald Trachet, an artist himself and neighbour of Rockwell, purchased the work for US $ 900, yes nine hundred dollars only. In 1970, Trachet painted a copy of the work and hid the original in a secret room behind a movable wall in his home – he was going through a divorce at the time…

The copy, which was thought to be the original, was exhibited several times over the years. However, many experts were puzzled by slight differences between the exhibited painting and an early cover image on the Saturday Evening Post – but they put the differences down to the fact that the work may have been overcleaned.

Last year, Trachet died. One of his sons noticed an odd space in one of the wood panels in the deceased artist’s home. Upon pushing the panel, it slid open and revealed the original Rockwell painting. As these things go, the work was put up for auction with an estimate of US$ 4 – 6 million – bringing home US$ 15.416 million and setting a new auction record for Norman Rockwell.

The Wicked

The dark side of the art market is the theft of – often – invaluable works of art. In order to help identify and find stolen works, the Art Loss Register, an international database, was set up in 1992 – and it has proved once again a powerful instrument.

As a result of an Art Loss Register (ALR) recovery, Robert Mardirosian, a lawyer who tried to sell £20 million of stolen pictures, has been arrested by the FBI. If convicted Mardirosian, aged 72, could face up to 10 years in prison.

In 1978 seven pictures including Paul Cézanne’s “Fruit and Jug” and two works by Chaim Soutine were stolen from the house of the collector Michael Bakwin in Massachusetts. There was no trace of the pictures until 1999 when Lloyd’s was approached to insure their movement from Russia to London for valuation and sale.

The Art Loss Register negotiated on behalf of Mr Bakwin for their return. Those holding the paintings demanded $50 million while refusing to reveal their identity or the provenance of the pictures. In cooperation with the FBI the ALR negotiated an arrangement over ten months in which the Cézanne was returned in exchange for the other six pictures.

The Cézanne was subsequently sold on behalf of Mr Bakwin for £18 million at Sotheby’s in 1999. Julian Radcliffe the Chairman of the ALR continued negotiations to recover the other six paintings on the basis that they could not be sold since the agreement had been entered into under duress, was void and the pictures were still registered as stolen. The holders demanded $500,000 payment which the ALR considered a ransom and would not pay. Negotiations were terminated in 2001.

In 2004 four of the stolen pictures were consigned to Sotheby’s by Paul Palanjian acting as agent for Mardirosian. Mr Bakwin and the ALR initiated legal action in London to seize the paintings which are expected to be returned shortly. Paul Palanjian has been granted immunity from prosecution by the FBI in return for his cooperation. The ALR will pursue the recovery of the last two pictures held by Henri Klein a friend of Mardirosian’s in Switzerland.

Julian Radcliffe Chairman of the ALR said: “The lessons of this case are clear. The ALR will pursue those who steal or trade in stolen pictures for their recovery and for all costs whether they are lawyers, agents or dealers. We have the capability to do this for as long and wherever is necessary. Anyone who touches stolen art will be held to account.”

If you are interested, the book “Museum of the Missing – the High Stakes of Art Crime” by Simon Houpt, 2006, provides you with many more sad stories of stolen and / or mistreated artworks.

Sources: Art Daily and Rehs Galleries, New York

Written by

Brigitte Banziger

Hi, my name is Brigitte Banziger and I am an art consultant and manager at Banziger Hulme Fine Art Consultants, Australia's art valuation and art advice experts. We specialise in art valuations for insurance purposes, for family division, deceased estates, superannuation funds and market values, and advise clients regarding purchase and sales of art (art brokerage). Our services are sought by private clients, companies, public galleries and councils alike. Our aim is to provide professional service with friendly, approachable manner.

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