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L.A. County Art Museum Fetches $10.1 Million on First Day of Auction

November 03, 2005|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art rang up $10.1 million from the sale of six Impressionist and modern artworks Wednesday night at Sotheby's in New York, the first round of a controversial two-day auction intended to boost art acquisition funds.

"We were gratified by the results," said Stephanie Barron, the museum's senior curator of modern art. "They were within our expectations."

Amedeo Modigliani's "Portrait of Manuel Humbert Esteve," a soulful likeness of a Spanish landscape painter, brought the highest sum, $4.9 million, within the $4-million to $6-million estimate.

Next came Alberto Giacometti's "Figurine," a 2-foot-tall bronze sculpture of an emaciated female nude. Valued by the auction house at $1.5 million to $2.5 million, it fetched $2.7 million.

"The Sea," an abstract landscape by Surrealist Max Ernst, soared above its high estimate of $180,000, selling for $850,000. "La Mere Gaspard," a dark painting of a peasant woman by Camille Pissarro, fell far short of its $600,000 low estimate, selling for $450,000.

But the other works -- a still life by Max Beckmann, sold for $800,000, and a painting of a train station by Alfred Sisley that brought $400,000 -- conformed to predictions.

None of the buyers was identified.

Thirty-four other pieces from LACMA's collection will go on the block today. If estimated prices are accurate, that sale will give the museum an additional $2.5 million to $3.5 million.

The museum's collection is a work in process, but this week's auction is the first time in more than 20 years that LACMA has consigned a large group of artworks to auction.

"The impetus was rethinking the presentation of the collection in a new installation," Barron said, referring to the museum's expansion and renovation plans. Groundbreaking for the first phase of the $130-million project, designed by architect Renzo Piano, is planned for this fall.

"There are areas where we would like to add to our collection," Barron said. Auction proceeds will be invested in Impressionist and modern art, she added.

The sale comes at a moment when the perennial debate over de-accessioning -- the art-world term for selling works from institutional collections -- has heated up nationwide. The New York Public Library, though primarily devoted to books, not art, has come under fire for selling some of its most valuable paintings to balance its budget.

In May the library sold its best-known painting, "Kindred Spirits" by Asher B. Durand, for about $35 million to Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton. Other works from the library's collection, including a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington valued at $6 million to $8 million, will go on the block this month.

Mainstream art museums, including LACMA, adhere to the Assn. of Art Museum Directors' ethical guidelines requiring that funds from art sales be spent on art acquisitions. But sales often spark controversy, and there's plenty of fodder this season.

The Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Palm Springs Desert Museum have consigned works to November auctions. Sotheby's will offer photographs from the collection of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in February.

"Museums are the caretakers of our heritage," said Susan Ehrlich, a Los Angeles-based art historian who heads the West Coast branch of the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art. "That comes into question when they start de-accessioning. But I can understand the desire to upgrade and present the best image of an artist. As institutions become pressed for funds and art prices rise, they have to consider how to mold their collections and meet their goals."

LACMA's windfall was only part of a $130-million auction of 61 works consigned by 20 institutions and private collectors. And the Modigliani was not the star of the event. A painting of a nude woman by Pablo Picasso, valued at $3 million to $4 million, escalated to $12.2 million.

About 360 lower-priced works will be offered today. Pieces from LACMA's collection expected to bring the highest prices include paintings by Robert Delaunay and Georges Rouault and a drawing by Picasso, each valued at $200,000 to $300,000.

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