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Getty Closing In on Acquiring Last Raphael in Private Hands

October 31, 2002|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

The J. Paul Getty Museum, outbid three months ago in its efforts to land a coveted Rubens painting, is one step from closing a deal to buy another Old Master: Raphael's "Madonna of the Pinks."

The 16th century painting, whose price is estimated at $50 million, is considered the last undisputed work by the artist in private hands.

Getty director Deborah Gribbon, who declined to discuss the purchase price, said the museum has agreed to buy the work from the trustees of an English estate, the 10th Duke of Northumberland Wills Trust, but still faces a review by the British government concerning whether it will let the work out of the country.

"There are no more [undisputed] Raphaels out there. This is the end," said New York-based art dealer Richard Feigen, who met with the sellers last year and was among those who estimated the painting's price tag at $50 million. Feigen has bid on works at auction for the Getty in the past, but he said he is not directly involved in the Raphael purchase.

The proposed purchase opens a new chapter in the life of an artwork that migrated from Italy to England, was dismissed as a copy and forgotten for decades, and was then rediscovered. Along with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, said Gribbon, "Raphael is certainly one of the three most important Renaissance artists. So this work would be a real keystone of that part of the collection."

"Something like this is a real treasure," said Gloria Williams, curator at Pasadena's Norton Simon Museum. Although many works are attributed to "school of" Raphael or "after" Raphael, she said, the Norton Simon owns the only other Raphael painting in the state, "Madonna With Child and Book," painted in 1502-03.

Art historians and dealers say the Getty's deal interrupts a rough patch for museums worldwide, which in recent years have often found themselves too poor to compete with a new generation of art-acquiring plutocrats.

The most recent such contest came on July 10 at Sotheby's in London. Canadian newspaper mogul Ken Thomson paid an estimated $76.7 million to outbid the Getty for Rubens' "Massacre of the Innocents." In that case, Feigen said, he represented the Getty, had a limit of $71 million, and found that three private buyers were in contention for the Rubens.

In 1998, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates outbid all others in acquiring Winslow Homer's "Lost on the Grand Banks" for $36 million, then the most paid for an American painting. Four years before that, Gates purchased Leonardo's 72-page Codex Leicester manuscript for $30.8 million from the cash-strapped UCLA Hammer Museum..

Even when they might have enough money, "it's very difficult for museums to get their act together in time to bid," said Old Master specialist Paul Jeromack, a consultant for the Art Newspaper. "They have to get approval from trustees, they have to raise money."

But the Getty's wealth sets it apart, Jeromack said.

The museum's Renaissance holdings are a relatively modest part of an overall collection whose greatest strengths are works from antiquity, 19th century painting, photography and medieval manuscripts. The Getty collection does include two drawings by Leonardo and one by Michelangelo. Its Renaissance paintings include Fra Bartolommeo's 1509 work "Flight Into Egypt" and Andrea Mantegna's "Adoration of the Magi" from circa 1495-1505.

Authorities believe Raphael painted the 29-by-23-centimeter "Madonna of the Pinks" in 1507 or 1508, drawing inspiration from a Leonardo painting known as the Benois Madonna, which now hangs in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. In the Raphael version, the Madonna is seated with the Christ child, who plays with flowers on her lap while a distant castle stands visible through a window.

For most of the 20th century, "Madonna of the Pinks" was considered an accomplished copy, until Nicholas Penny, then a curator with London's National Gallery (and now at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.), rediscovered and reassessed it in 1983. For much of the last decade, it has been on loan to the National Gallery in London, which has displayed it along with several other Raphaels.

Gribbon said that the purchase agreement follows nearly a year of talks, and that a schedule for the export-review process had not yet been set. Getty officials are hoping that the other Raphaels in the London museum's collection will help persuade British authorities that the Getty acquisition would make only a modest dent in that nation's cultural holdings.

"Works by Raphael are almost as rare as works by Leonardo and Michelangelo, so it's a great coup to buy one of these," said J. Patrice Marandel, chief curator of European painting and sculpture for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Like Feigen, Marandel said he expects the deal to survive the British government's export-license review.

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