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."
In the last few years, the Getty has paid seven-figure prices at auction for paintings by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Hans Hoffmann and Francesco Guardi and a drawing by Vincent van Gogh. The museum also has made many auction purchases at lower prices, including drawings, photographs, Meissen porcelain sculptures and terracotta vessels from Cyprus.
"Obviously as prices go up, it's harder on everyone," says Mikka Gee Conway, assistant director for museum advancement at the Getty.
One tried-and-true way around that problem is to enlist the aid of private supporters who buy things from various vendors, including auction houses, and give them to museums. The Dallas Museum of Art has successfully used that strategy in building its collections of South Asian art, African art and European and American decorative arts.
"The South Asian collection has been developed over the last 15 years or so, largely as a partnership between the museum and a generous donor named David Owsley," Lane says. Owsley's auction gifts include a 10th century Indian sculpture of the Hindu god Vishnu, portrayed as a boar-headed deity. Other major donors have passed along auction purchases such as a figurative wood sculpture by Olowe of Ise, a renowned Nigerian artist, and a 1930s Walter Dorwin Teague-designed Modernist radio.
At LACMA, Marandel occasionally takes a different approach. If he spots a desirable painting with a relatively low estimated selling price, say $40,000 or $50,000, in an auction catalog and doesn't have time to round up the money, he might suggest that a dealer take the chance of buying the work and selling it to the museum.
"It only works for modest items, and I can't promise to buy," he says. "But I might tell a dealer if that painting is available at a good price with a very small markup, it would be of interest to us. I can find $50,000, and in the Old Master market, you can still find very good things at that price."
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Building a reputation, bid by winning bid
Auction purchases have helped to build art museum collections nationwide. Here's a sampling in the Los Angeles area:
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
1978 -- "The Treachery of Images (This Is Not a Pipe)," 1929 painting by Rene Magritte, $115,000
1989 -- "Jupiter and Danae," 1603 painting by Hendrik Goltzius, $675,000
1997 -- "Plague in an Ancient City," ca. 1652-54 painting by Michael Sweerts, $3.85 million
2006 -- "Portrait of Jean-Pierre Delahaye" (above), 1815 painting by Jacques-Louis David, $2.7 million
J. Paul Getty Museum
1985 -- "Adoration of the Magi," circa 1495-1505 painting by Andrea Mantegna, $10.4 million
1989 -- "La Promenade," 1870 painting by Pierre Auguste Renoir, $17.7 million
1989 -- "Portrait of Cosimo I de' Medici," circa 1528-30 painting by Pontormo, $35.2 million
1989 -- "La Rue Mosnier With Flags," 1878 painting by Edouard Manet, $26.4 million
1989 -- "Allegory of Fortune," ca. 1530 painting by Dosso Dossi, $4 million
1989 -- "Juggling Man," 1610-15 bronze sculpture by Adriaen de Vries, $10.7 million
1992 -- "Bullfight, Suerte de Varas," 1824 painting by Francisco Jose de Goya, $7.4 million
1993 -- "The Holy Family," circa 1530 drawing by Michelangelo, $6.27 million
2000 -- "Alexander the Great and Campaspe in the Studio of Apelles," circa 1740 painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, $2.2 million
2001 -- "Arles: View From the Wheatfields," 1888 drawing by Vincent van Gogh, $4.4 million
2001 -- "A Hare in the Forest," circa 1585 painting by Hans Hoffmann, $2.6 million
2004 -- "Agassiz Rock and the Yosemite Falls, From Union Point" (above), circa 1878 photograph by Carleton Watkins, $310,400
2005 -- "The Grand Canal, Venice, With the Palazzo Bembo," circa 1768 painting by Francesco Guardi, $7.6 million
Norton Simon Museum
1965 -- "Portrait of a Boy, Presumed to Be the Artist's Son, Titus," circa 1645-50 painting by Rembrandt, $2.2 million
1968 -- "The Pont des Arts, Paris," circa 1867-68 painting by Pierre Auguste Renoir, $1.5 million
1969 -- "The Flight Into Egypt," circa 1544-45 painting by Jacopo Bassano, $655,118
1978 -- "Branchini Madonna," 1427 altarpiece by Giovanni di Paolo, $923,500
1980 -- "Resurrection," circa 1455 painting by Dieric Bouts, $3.7 million