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Eakins' 'Wrestlers' takes a winding road to LACMA

National Academy Museum sold it first. Two other institutions and a private collector also once owned it.

December 25, 2008|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | ART CRITIC

The National Academy Museum in New York has been under fire recently for selling off art from its collection to pay debts. It turns out the museum has deaccessioned paintings before -- the first time in the 1970s with a work that, after a long and circuitous route, became the gain of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

LACMA last year acquired Thomas Eakins' terrific 1899 painting "Wrestlers" as a gift from the Cecile and Fred Bartman Foundation. Ilene Susan Fort, senior curator of American art at the museum, confirmed the painting was deaccessioned by the National Academy in the 1970s. She also said something surprising: "It's a painting that has been deaccessioned not once before but twice."

Eakins painted the work for the National Academy as his so-called diploma painting when he was inducted into membership. Seven decades later, the academy sold it to raise funds for conservation of its paintings collection. (Fort didn't know whether the conservation work had ever been carried out.) A bustling market for 19th century American art had only emerged in the 1960s, and a picture by arguably the century's best painter was valuable enough to raise a significant amount of money.

The Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio bought it. Then, in 2005, Columbus sold it to buy a collection of American Regionalist and Surrealist paintings from the 1930s, which made a better fit with its early American Modernist paintings. (The museum owns another Eakins, an 1891 portrait of singer Weda Cook.) Unlike the National Academy, which required the sale be made to a museum, Columbus sold it on the open market.

Adelson Galleries in New York bought it, then sold it to a private collector. Not long after, Adelson bought it back -- and that's when LACMA came into play. Cecile Bartman, a longtime docent, made the purchase possible. LACMA has owned the oil sketch for the painting since 1927, when the museum was in Exposition Park -- another study is in the Philadelphia Art Museum -- and the two now have been happily reunited on Wilshire Boulevard.

In fall 2010, "Wrestlers" will be the late-career star of an exhibition Fort is preparing on the subject of Eakins' sporting paintings.

I've got a feeling that its deaccession days are over.

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christopher.knight @latimes.com

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