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Wallis Collection Goes on the Block : LACMA Loses Out as Foundation Readies Sale of Impressionist Art

Times Art Writer

A Los Angeles collection of Impressionist art, coveted by the County Museum of Art and put on long-term loan there two years ago, will be sold May 10 at Christie’s New York. The group of eight canvases, collected by the late film producer Hal B. Wallis, is expected to bring between $20 million and $30 million.

“We had hoped to get the collection, and we are very upset that the pictures are being put on the market. They are very distinguished and important works of art,” museum director Earl A. Powell said. But the upcoming auction “is not a violation of any trust. The paintings were not promised to us,” he said.

Christie’s will host a public preview exhibition of the Wallis collection--and other Impressionist, modern and contemporary works slated for auction--on Monday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the Century Plaza Hotel’s Santa Monica Room.

Wallis, who died in 1986, was a trustee of the County Museum of Art for 20 years. He bequeathed one painting to the museum, Paul Gauguin’s 1886 “The Field of Derout-Lollichon,” and left the rest of his collection to a family foundation.

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Hopes that the museum would eventually own all the Wallis pictures were raised in 1987, when they were displayed there under an arrangement that lenders called a “permanent loan.”

“It is the next thing to an outright gift,” Powell told The Times when the loan was announced.

But as prices for Impressionist art escalated dramatically, foundation directors decided to sell the artworks and use the proceeds to benefit charities supported by the Wallis Foundation, such as the Eisenhower Hospital in Rancho Mirage.

The paintings and pastels--including one work by Edgar Degas and two by Claude Monet, valued between $5 million and $7 million apiece--are the foundation’s primary assets. “They became so valuable” that it seemed “a little risky not to sell them,” said Brent Wallis, the son of Hal B. Wallis and president of the foundation.

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The decision to sell is particularly disappointing for the County Museum of Art because French Impressionism is one of the

weakest areas of the museum’s collection, Powell said. The Wallis sale compounds the museum’s recent loss of Armand Hammer’s collection, including Impressionist paintings.

“What we are seeing is a marketplace that dictates fiduciary matters,” Powell said. Foundations established to benefit causes other than art are increasingly inclined to sell valuable artworks to fund their own interests, he said.

This development is just one aspect of a frustrating situation in which “museums are effectively excluded from the market,” Powell said. Most museums can’t afford to compete at auction and current tax laws discourage donations from collectors, so more and more works go up for sale at ever-increasing prices.

The Impressionist market will probably slow down “at some point,” because there is a “finite supply” of artworks, said Christopher J. Burge, president of Christie’s. But at the present, each Impressionist sale lures more paintings into the market, and “the quality remains very high,” he said.

Hal B. Wallis built his art collection from 1958 to 1971, when fine Impressionist works still had five- and low-six-figure price tags. He purchased “Sur la Scene,” Degas’ pastel of ballet dancers, in 1959 for $180,000. The drawing of ballerina Rosita Mauri bowing to the audience is expected to bring between $5 million and $7 million, a dramatic increase but far below Degas’ record of $13.7 million.

Wallis bought Claude Monet’s oil-on-canvas portrayal of the British Parliament at sunset in 1971 for $215,000. The glowing landscape is estimated at $5 million to $7 million, as is Monet’s floral still life, “Asters.” The record for a Monet painting is $24.5 million, set last year for “In the Prairie.”

Of the eight Wallis pieces to be sold May 10, Mary Cassatt’s pastel drawing, “Mother, Sara and the Baby,” is most likely to set a record, Burge said. It is valued at $3.5 million to $4.5 million. The record for a work by Cassatt is $4.5 million, set last May for “The Conversation.”

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Camille Pissarro’s “Esplanade Saint-Sever at Rouen” is also a strong contender for a record, Burge said. The painting of a bustling port is estimated to sell for $1 million to $1.5 million. Pissarro’s record is $1.54 million, set in 1986 for “Avenue de l’Opera, Place du Theatre, Temps Brumeux.”

Wallis displayed his Impressionist paintings and drawings in his West Los Angeles home, according to his son, a non-practicing psychologist who lives in Santa Barbara. “He took great delight in them,” Brent Wallis said, and his choices reflect his fondness for Europe, particularly France.

Though his father had no formal training in art, it was “the artistic side” and not the “deal-making” aspect of films that held the producer’s interest, Brent Wallis said. Monet’s “Houses of Parliament at Sunset” had “special meaning” for his father because of his films based on English history, such as “Anne of the Thousand Days,” he said. Hal B. Wallis produced more than 400 films including such classics as “Casablanca,” “The Maltese Falcon” and “Come Back Little Sheba.”

Hollywood collections vary in content and quality, but in the golden age of movies they often got their start because film figures were “great travelers, and artists and dealers wanted to meet them,” Burge said. The Wallis collection was assembled quietly and “chosen with great perception and passion,” he noted.

Christie’s exhibition on Monday at the Century Plaza Hotel will include about 25 pieces valued at $75 million. Along with the Wallis collection, Impressionist and modern landscapes from the collection of Daniel Crow Searle, of G. D. Searle pharmaceutical firm, will go on view. Paul Gauguin’s 1894 “Farm in Brittany,” valued at $7 million to $10 million, is the most expensive item in this $20-million collection, also slated for sale on May 10.

Among other Searle works to be exhibited are Pierre Auguste Renoir’s 1888 “Bridge at Argenteuil” ($4 million to $6 million), Egon Schiele’s 1917 “Summer Landscape” ($2.5 million to $3.5 million) and Wassily Kandinsky’s “Angel of the Last Judgment,” painted around 1911 ($1.8 million to $2.2 million).

Contemporary works by Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Willem de Kooning, scheduled for sale on May 3 at Christie’s, will also be displayed.

The Los Angeles show is the first stop in an international tour that will continue in Tokyo, Zurich and London and end in New York.

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