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Acquiring with a little help from their friends

Out-budgeted by private collectors and outbid at auction, museums are turning to faithful donors to help land those high-profile works.

January 14, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

IN 1961, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York rallied its supporters and snapped up an important Rembrandt painting at auction for $2.3 million. Los Angeles industrialist Norton Simon, then a fledgling collector, also planned to buy "Aristotle With a Bust of Homer," but he didn't have a chance. He was prepared to spend up to $1 million. Bidding opened at $1.5 million.

In 1978, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art scored an auction victory, buying Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte's trademark painting, "The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe)," for $115,000. The museum had extremely limited resources, but it tapped a fund established by patrons and purchased what has become a highly prized possession -- currently the centerpiece of the critically acclaimed exhibition "Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images."

In 2007, times have changed. As the art market has heated up and ultra-rich individuals have plunged into collecting, it might appear that museums can't buy anything -- least of all at auction, where prices can unexpectedly skyrocket.

"We always get those auction catalogs," says J. Patrice Marandel, curator of European art at LACMA. "They are like boxes of candy that we cannot eat."

The museum world's aching sweet tooth isn't exactly a new development.

"In my experience, museums don't go to auction very often," says John R. Lane, who has logged 24 years as director of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and, since 1999, the Dallas Museum of Art. "It's a marketplace that doesn't fit with the institutional governance and protocols that we have to work with, including approvals from an acquisitions committee and, in many cases, from a board of trustees.

"Also, when you go through the museum process of deciding to bid on a work, you have to put a ceiling on what you are willing to bid," he says. "The governance has to approve that. You don't just send a curator or museum director to the auction house who sits in the room and holds up a paddle until the party is over. There is a defined limit that doesn't enable you to respond to any action in the room. That is a disadvantage."

Nonetheless, many museums persevere.

"It's tricky," Marandel says, "but we do manage."

Take LACMA's "Portrait of Jean-Pierre Delahaye" by Jacques-Louis David, purchased for $2.7 million last summer in a Paris auction with funds from the Ahmanson Foundation.

"With the David, there was a happy set of circumstances," Marandel says. "Our conservator, Joe Fronek, happened to be in Europe, so he could examine the painting there. Our director, Michael Govan, was also in Europe on other business but went to see the painting. And the Ahmanson Foundation was wonderful at helping us out on short notice. It was late June; it was hot in Paris. I think people were asleep. When they woke up, they realized the painting was sold at a price which most people said was below the market value. We were very lucky."

Such luck doesn't help museums pay breathtaking auction prices for 20th century classics by artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Willem de Kooning. Or to deal with market phenomena, such as the craze that enveloped five works by Gustav Klimt confiscated by the Nazis, restituted to heirs of the original owners and put up for sale last year. Cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder bought the prize "gold portrait" in a private deal, reportedly for $135 million, and put it in his New York showcase, Neue Galerie. The four other Klimts went on the block and were sold to private collectors for an additional $192.5 million.

As Charles L. Venable, deputy director of collections at the Cleveland Museum of Art, puts it: "We wouldn't have bid on the Klimts at even half of what they sold for."

But the Cleveland museum doesn't shy away from auctions. In 2003, it snagged "Celebration," a prime 1960 painting by Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner, for $1.7 million at Christie's New York. "We were prepared to go a bit higher," Venable says.

And last year, the museum bought an African plank mask, created by Bembe people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for $87,000 at Sotheby's New York. The ceremonial mask -- made of a plank of painted wood, probably in the early 1900s -- is thought to be the only one of its kind in American public collections.

Some museum collections are distinguished by periods of spectacular auction activity. After his 1961 Rembrandt defeat, Simon had considerable success at auction. Results are displayed at his museum in Pasadena. The J. Paul Getty Museum went on a buying spree, including multimillion-dollar auction purchases, in the mid-1980s and 1990s while preparing to open its new showcase at the Getty Center.

But at most major museums, auction buying happens occasionally as opportunities arise -- often in affordable areas that may not attract much notice.

"In the long term," Venable says, "the market is always hot in some areas and less so or even depressed in others."

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