Two American Treasures, Sold

  • April 22, 2011 10:09

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Asher Durand's "Progress (The Advance of Civilization)" seen here at the Booklyn Museum in 2007
Brooklyn Museum

Everyone knows that art world players throw big bucks at Picasso, Warhol, and Monet.

Yet within the past couple of months, the typically serene and dignified field of Hudson River School art has been ruffled by the secretive sale of at least two monumental paintings, along with several lesser, but still important works.

Upwards of $100 million may have changed hands, most of it for one painting by Asher Durand and one by Thomas Cole, in what may be the highest prices ever paid for nineteenth century American art.

The Hudson River School paintings were part of the Westervelt corporate collection in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Since 2003 they have been publicly exhibited in the Westervelt-Warner Museum of American Art, nestled in a leafy subdivision just north of Tuscaloosa.

The ongoing sale of selected paintings from the collection, including works of American impressionism and modernism, was originally reported in a series of articles published in The Tuscaloosa News:

Warner's highly respected collection loses ‘Progress'

29 paintings removed from Westervelt-Warner museum

Warner museum moving from NorthRiver

Corporations have long traded in art, and The Westervelt Company has every legal right to sell theirs. What makes the Westervelt sales remarkable is the sheer stature of some of the paintings involved, the secretive nature of the private sales, and the family dynamic behind-the-scenes.

The Westervelt collection was personally assembled with corporate funds over decades by Jack Warner, former CEO of the Gulf States Paper Corporation (now The Westervelt Company).

While some corporate art collections are formed under the direction of an outside advisor, Mr. Warner was personally involved in the Westervelt collection from the beginning, often bidding on paintings himself at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York.

“Jack got to know his paintings so well that he considered them friends,” wrote Ella Forshay in a book on the collection. “According to Warner, nothing gives him more pleasure than sitting in a comfortable chair, coffee in hand, ‘conversing with my most recent acquisition.’”

Mr. Warner, now 94, ceded control of the company to his son years ago, and with it, control over the corporate art collection.

According to a press release, the corporation now views the art collection as a “non-core asset”, and the Board of Directors has authorized the sale of selected works to take advantage of a temporary tax break in a 2010 Federal Stimulus Bill.

Typically, non-profit museums deaccession objects subject to guidelines established by the Association of Art Museum Directors or the American Association of Museums. These guidelines lend some transparency to the sales and ensure that the money gained is used for future art purchases and not for institutional finances. However, because the Westervelt collection is privately owned by a for-profit corporation, it is not necessarily subject to museum deaccessioning policies.

The art is being removed from the Westervelt-Warner Museum on short notice. In one instance, museum staff were shocked when they arrived one Monday morning to find blank wall space where twenty-nine paintings had formerly hung.

It was discovered that the paintings, which included American impressionist and modern works, had been removed on Sunday and were en-route to New York. There the paintings will be offered for sale at Christie’s in its May 18th auction of American art. The Westervelt Company gave advance notice of the removal on Friday; notice has preceded all such activity, according to a company spokesman. In this instance, however, it was apparently missed by the surprised museum staff.

The blockbuster paintings, meanwhile, are being sold out of the public eye.

The first to go was Asher Durand’s “Progress (The Advance of Civilization)” from 1853. At almost four feet by six feet in size, Progress is an industrialist’s fantasy of Manifest Destiny, painted on commission not long after the idea gained public traction.

According to the Tuscaloosa News, the purchase price was reported to have been $40 million.

More recently, one of the most iconic Hudson River School paintings in existence, Thomas Cole’s “Falls of the Kaaterskill,” was removed from the museum. With its lone Native American perched high on a cliff aside a slender cascade in the Catskill Mountains, the painting is one of Cole’s greatest and earliest works. It was formerly owned by poet William Cullen Bryant.

The sale price for “Falls of the Kaaterskill” is as yet unknown, but it is likely to be at least that of “Progress”, and possibly higher.

Both “Progress” and “Falls of the Kaaterskill” were purchased by Mr. Warner in 1975. Back then, iconic paintings were still available. Their probable sale prices today reflect the fact that such historically momentous Hudson River School paintings have become almost unheard of on the art market.

I visited the Westervelt-Warner several years ago and may yet be writing under the patriotic spell that Mr. Warner's museum cast upon its visitors. Even so, I think it not unreasonable to regard the Durand, and especially the Cole, as national treasures, deserving of an exceptional degree of custodial responsibility.

There exist exceedingly few collectors of nineteenth century American art willing and able to spend tens of millions of dollars for a single painting. For now, both the broker(s) of the private sales and the purchasers are not publicly known.

The Tuscaloosa News reported that the buyer of “Progress” was neither Alice Walton nor Bill Gates, two collectors financially capable of purchasing such works.

The future of the Westervelt-Warner Museum is now uncertain. The Tuscaloosa News reported on April 22 that an offer to renegotiate the museum’s lease on its facility was declined by The Westervelt Company. The museum must therefore vacate the premises within 60 days. The Westervelt Company has indicated a desire to continue to display its corporate art collection in Tuscaloosa.

Mr. Warner may take some consolation in his personal collection of American art, untouchable by the corporation. It is currently on view at the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, Connecticut through July 3, 2011.

Given his lengthy personal involvement and pride in the Westervelt collection, however, recent events must be disheartening for Mr. Warner, to say the least.

In light of the sale of "Progress", and the potential for as yet unknown additional paintings to leave the collection, the Tuscaloosa News asked Mr. Warner if he regretted passing control of the company to his son.

“I damn sure regret it,” he replied.

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Hudson River School Stories

  • Paul G. Stein
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Behind-the-scenes vignettes of the Hudson River School, culled from the increasing abundance of online archival sources.

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