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Peggy Guggenheim Bio Shows How Far Art Market Has Come

Mary V. Dearborn’s recently published biography Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim (Houghton Mifflin), explores the colorful life of the legendary art patron and dealer who helped launch the careers of artists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, among others.

NEW YORK—Mary V. Dearborn’s recently published biography Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim (Houghton Mifflin), explores the colorful life of the legendary art patron and dealer who helped launch the careers of artists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, among others.

Through unprecedented access to Guggenheim’s business papers, Dearborn also provides a stunningly precise picture of how the art market has soared over the past century. Included is a detailed 1942 inventory of Guggenheim’s groundbreaking Art of This Century gallery in New York that individually lists more than 150 artworks by nearly 70 artists (many of whom are now the top-selling artists of all time), the year the works were created, and the original price Guggenheim paid to acquire each work, usually directly from the artist.

The list ranges from 1937 photographs by Berenice Abbott (two bought for $14 each) to Pablo Picasso’s 1928 oil The Studio, which at $6,000 was the most expensive piece listed in the inventory.

Three works by Alberto Giacometti are included: Woman with a Cut Throat, a 1931 bronze sculpture that cost Guggenheim $250; Model for a Garden, 1932, a wood sculpture purchased for $300; and the most expensive, Statue of a Headless Woman,1934, a plaster sculpture listed at $475.

Currently, Giacometti sculptures routinely command multimillion-dollar prices at auction, with the record set at Christie’s in 2000: $14.3 million for Grande femme debout I, a 1960 bronze with brown patina.

Constantin Brancusi’s 1940 bronze sculpture Bird in Space was bought for $3,000. “Peggy paid quite a bit for the Brancusi. She had to fight to get that because the artist didn’t want to sell,” Dearborn told ARTnewsletter. Also among works in the five-figure range was a 1912 oil by Marcel Duchamp, Sad Young Man in a Train, acquired for $4,000. “Duchamp wasn’t giving her any breaks. He always did have his finger on the pulse of the art world,” Dearborn notes.

The other five Picassos listed in the inventory include The Poet, 1911, an oil that cost $4,250; Lacerba, 1914, purchased for $1,500; an oil, Still Life, 1921, bought for $3,000; and two 1937 etchings, Dreams & Lies of Franco, acquired for $30 each.

Guggenheim’s longtime lover Max Ernst also features prominently on the 1942 survey, with 13 of his works listed at prices from $100/3,000, though the majority were below $1,000.

The most expensive of three works by René Magritte was Discovery of Fire, a 1936 oil that Guggenheim bought for $175. Among six works by Man Ray are The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadow, a 1916 oil that cost her $330, and four Rayograms that she obtained for $27.50 each. Rayogram was the name given to images produced by exposing sensitive paper to different rays and then processing it. (The author notes that the spelling of artists’ names and renderings of artworks are reprinted as they appeared in the original inventory.)

Many of these artists now command six- and seven-figure prices. As Dearborn points out, “some of the works are still in [Guggenheim’s] collection, so she never realized the huge profits” that such art likely would have realized in later years. “She held on to the artworks she bought,” says Dearborn, noting that Guggenheim planned at one point to set up a museum in London. “She had set out to buy a picture a day and in some cases was buying more than one a day.”

Dearborn located the inventory at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, in the collection of Bernard and Rebecca Reis’s papers. Bernard Reis, who was Guggenheim’s close friend and accountant, drew up the inventory as part of an audited financial report for the year 1942.

Dearborn comments that the detailed inventory was somewhat unusual at the time because “this is not something you needed to have. I think [Reis] put it together because Peggy loved to look at it.” In later years, during the 1960s and ’70s, the biographer says, Guggenheim felt collectors were buying because of a sense of investment rather than love of the works: “She felt it had all gone downhill by becoming so expensive.”

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