So who paid $23.8 million Wednesday night at Sotheby’s New York for David Smith’s “Cubi XXVIII,” the most expensive work of contemporary art ever sold at auction?
Surprise, it’s none other than Eli Broad.
The Los Angeles philanthropist -- who has funded a new building for contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, scheduled to open in late 2007 -- is a very public collector. He often sits up front at major contemporary art auctions and bids for himself. Business in Los Angeles kept him away from the big New York sales this week. But on Thursday Broad revealed that dealer Larry Gagosian, who fought off the competition for the Smith, was bidding for him.
“It’s putting a little dent in the household accounts,” Broad said of his latest purchase. But he’s the proud owner of the last work in Smith’s “Cubi” series, the pinnacle of the artist’s career.
Smith made 28 “Cubis” in the four years before his death in 1965, when he was widely regarded as the most important American sculptor of his generation. Known for celebrating an industrial aesthetic in spare form, he constructed the “Cubis” of welded steel cubes, cylinders and rectangular boxes. Their surfaces are burnished with wire brushes and incised with reflective patterns. The massive works, standing about 10 feet high, appear to strike a precarious balance, as if held together by magnetic force.
“I have been trying to find a ‘Cubi’ for more than a decade,” Broad said. “I was the under-bidder many years ago on another ‘Cubi,’ which I always regretted not getting. I didn’t know this one was available because it belonged to the Richardson Foundation,” he said of the Sid W. Richardson Foundation in Fort Worth. “When I last saw it, it was at a museum in Fort Worth and I thought it had been given to them. There are only a couple of ‘Cubis’ that are not in museums or committed to museums. This clearly is the best one.”
“Cubi XXVIII” is the first David Smith in Broad’s collection, but it’s not the first time the artwork has been in a Southern California collection. Norton Simon bought it from New York’s Marlborough Gallery in 1968 for $65,000. He displayed it in his corporate offices in Fullerton and in a yearlong exhibition in 1972-73 at the Pasadena Art Museum, before he took charge of the financially troubled institution and renamed it the Norton Simon Museum. Simon sold the sculpture to the Richardson Foundation for an undisclosed sum in 1982.
Broad made a second purchase Wednesday at Sotheby’s, more in line with his penchant for collecting selected artists in depth. He paid $7.9 million for a highly textured abstract painting by Cy Twombly, designated as “Untitled (Rome)” and made in 1961. Prices of the Smith and Twombly works include Sotheby’s commission: 20% of the first $200,000 of the hammer price and 12% of the rest. “We have eight other works of Twombly, one of which is a sculpture,” he said. “This is from a period we didn’t have in the collection.”
Broad, who loans works to museums and other public institutions across the country, has often stated his intention to give his collection away without revealing whom the recipients might be. One obvious possibility is LACMA, but his commitment so far is limited to funding the construction of the Broad Museum of Contemporary Art and loaning a large group of artworks for display there.
Will the Smith and Twombly go on view in the new building at LACMA?
“I hope they are going to want to borrow them,” Broad said. “We are prolific lenders. We expect to loan 200 works at the opening of the new BCAM at LACMA. What they want to borrow will be up to curatorial staff.”