DETROIT—“I got lucky,” Kenneth Myers, curator of American art at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), told ARTnewsletter. Luck buttressed by knowledge explains his locating James McNeill Whistler’s Violet and Blue: Among the Rollers, 1893, a seascape he and other scholars knew about from letters and other records but always had considered lost. On July 7 the DIA acquired the painting at auction for $1.01 million, including the buyer’s premium—one of the highest prices the museum has paid for an artwork in the past decade.
Painted in a boat off the Brittany coast in 1893, the 7-by-10-inch oil on panel portrays choppy seas beneath a cloud-streaked sky. Its purchase, with dedicated acquisition funds for American art, enhances the museum’s collection of earlier Whistler paintings.
Myers, a Whistler specialist who was curator of American art at the Freer & Sackler Galleries, Washington, D.C., from 1999-2005, discovered what turned out to be the lost painting while reading a monthly newsletter, Fine Arts Trader. Advertised in its pages was the sale, five weeks hence, of a Whistler seascape at Cottone’s auction house, Mount Morris, N.Y. Thanks to his long experience in researching Whistler, and with the help of University of Glasgow art historian Margaret MacDonald, Myers was able to authenticate the seascape online. He dispatched DIA associate curator James Tottis to Mount Morris to view the painting, which Tottis found to be in pristine condition in its original frame.
The seascape had been purchased from Whistler’s London gallery Goupil’s in 1894 by Martin Brimmer, one of the earliest trustees of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Ten years later it was exhibited there in a Whistler retrospective under the misleading title Study of the Sea from a Boat. When Brimmer’s widow died in 1905, the painting passed to New York cousins the Wadsworths, members of the family responsible for the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Conn. For a century before its appearance at the Cottone’s auction, Violet and Blue hung, hidden, in a Wadsworth mansion in the village of Geneseo.
Presale, the painting was appraised at about $300,000, though Cottone’s anticipated it would bring much more. Initial bidding was heavy, with more than 250 would-be buyers phoning in on 15 lines. But at the $400,000 mark, all but two determinedbidders, an unidentified private dealer and Thomas Colville, representing DIA, dropped out. At $910,000, the unidentified dealer quit.