$300 Million Gauguin Painting
A sensuous Paul Gauguin painting
of two Tahitian girls has been sold from a Swiss private collection for close to $300 million, one of the highest prices believed to have been paid for an artwork, according to European and American art world insiders with knowledge of the matter.
The sale of the 1892 oil painting, “Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?),” was confirmed by the seller, Rudolf Staechelin, 62, a retired Sotheby’s executive living in Basel, Switzerland, who owns more than 20 works in a valuable collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, including the Gauguin, which has been on loan to the Kunstmuseum in Basel for nearly a half-century.
Two dealers with knowledge of the matter, who declined to be named because of concerns over client confidentiality, identified Qatar Museums, the emirate’s museum authority, as the buyer of the painting, but Mr. Staechelin declined to say whether the new owner was from that tiny, oil-rich country. “I don’t deny it and I don’t confirm it,” Mr. Staechelin said, also declining to disclose the price.
Qatar Museums in Doha did not respond to telephone calls and emails seeking comment.
Guy Morin, the mayor of Basel, was one of those who acknowledged news of the sale of the Gauguin, bemoaning its loss. On Tuesday, The Baer Faxt, an art world insiders’ newsletter, said Qatar was rumored to be the buyer of the Gauguin at $300 million, which would exceed the more than $250 million the emirate reportedly paid for Paul Cézanne’s “Card Players” in 2011. Todd Levin, a New York art adviser said, “I heard that this painting was in play late last year.” He added, “The price quoted to me at that time was in the high $200 millions, close to $300 million.”
In recent years the royal family of Qatar and Qatar Museums have been reported to be expansive buyers of trophy quality Western modern and contemporary art. The Art Newspaper said in May 2008 that Qatari buyers secured Mark Rothko’s “White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)” for $72.8 million at Sotheby’s New York in May 2007, and Damien Hirst’s 2002 pill cabinet, “Lullaby Spring,” for about $19 million at Sotheby’s in London in June 2007. Dealers have also identified Qatar as the buyer of the 1904 Cézanne landscape “La Montagne Sainte-Victoire vue du Bosquet du Château Noir,” sold in a private transaction for $100 million by the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Detroit in 2013.
In a move that jolted Basel as news of the sale trickled out, Mr. Staechelin said that his family’s trust was ending its loan to the Kunstmuseum as a result of a dispute with the local canton. He said he was searching for a top museum to accept the Staechelin collection — which also includes works by van Gogh, Picasso and Pissarro — on loan, without a lending fee, with a promise to integrate those works into permanent exhibitions.
The paintings were amassed by his grandfather, a Swiss merchant also named Rudolf Staechelin, who befriended artists and purchased most of the works during and after World War I. In the postwar years, he advised the Kunstmuseum, which accepted the loan of his collection after his death in 1946.
His grandson, Mr. Staechelin, said the works had never been hung in his family’s home because they were too precious and that he saw them in a museum along with everyone else. Now, he added, he has decided to sell because it is the time in his life to diversify his assets. “In a way it’s sad,” he said, “but on the other hand it’s a fact of life. Private collections are like private persons. They don’t live forever.”
On the last few days before closing last weekend for renovations through 2016, the Kunstmuseum opened its doors for free and drew a record crowd of 7,500, many of whom caught the last glimpse of the Gauguin work in its longtime home.
The artist’s Tahiti-period paintings are among the most admired and coveted artworks of the Post-Impressionist period. This particular work, focusing on the enigmatic interplay between two young women in a Polynesian landscape, had been painted by the artist during the first of his two spells living in Tahiti.
The painting will still be on public display at a special Gauguin exhibition opening this month in Basel at the Beyeler Foundation and then will head with the rest of the collection for shows at the Reina Sofía museum in Madrid and the Phillips Collection in Washington through the rest of this year. The buyers will take ownership of the painting in January 2016, Mr. Staechelin said.
Local institutions in Basel, which learned definitively about the loss of the collection on Thursday morning, were still trying to come to grips with the news. The Kunstmuseum issued a brief statement about how the works would be sorely missed. “We are painfully reminded that permanent loans are still loans. The people of Basel do not own these, and they can be taken away at any moment,” the statement added.
Mr. Morin, the mayor, acknowledged that the Staechelin collection “will not return.” In his statement, he said the canton sought to persuade Mr. Staechelin to bring back the collection when the museum reopens in April 2016 with the construction of a new site linked to its existing building.
But for months, behind the scenes, the canton and the family trust squabbled over an existing loan contract for the works. Mr. Staechelin said that he had sought a new contract after the museum announced plans to shut down. He wanted to send the works on a tour to other countries. When canton officials failed to budge on a new contract, he said, he canceled the existing one because of a provision that requires that the artworks must be on public display.
“The real question is why only now?” Mr. Staechelin said of the Gauguin sale. “It’s mainly because we got a good offer. The market is very high and who knows what it will be in 10 years. I always tried to keep as much together as I could. There is no financial need to sell, but it is about diversification. Over 90 percent of our assets are paintings hanging for free in the museum. It’s not a healthy financial risk distribution.”
James Roundell, a director at the London dealership Simon Dickinson Fine Art, said, “A new category of ‘super trophy’ is emerging.” He added: “These items are generally in museums and they’re being sold privately, which explains the very high prices. If they were offered at auction, would there be competition at that level?”
With the passing of new generations, the family sold some paintings, including two Picasso works in 1967 that were purchased by the canton of Basel after voters agreed in a special referendum to pay for them. Picasso was so touched that he donated four more artworks to the canton.
In recent months, Mr. Staechelin said he fielded an offer from one museum that proposed to exhibit part of the collection. But he added that he preferred to find a new home for all the works. Buyers, he said, also contact him periodically about purchasing more works in the collection, but he is fending them off — for now.
“I have a lot of paintings and a little money,” Mr. Staechelin said. “I never saw these paintings as pure investments. It’s difficult if you look at a work and only see money because then something has gone terribly wrong. For me they are family history and art. But they are also security and investments.”Doreen Carvajal