Earlier this month, Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum became one of the many major European museums that began allowing visitors into its galleries after a months-long temporary closure related to the coronavirus pandemic. The cause for celebration was tempered by an unexpected shift in programming: one of the masterpieces that was once on view at the museum, a Paul Gauguin painting called Mata Mua (In Olden Times), from 1892, was no longer there—and it is possible it may never return.
According to the Spanish newspaper El País, the painting could be headed to sale—along with works by Edgar Degas, Edward Hopper, and Claude Monet—because its owner wants to offload it. That owner is the Spanish philanthropist Carmen Cervera, who was once married to Baron Hans Heinrich von Thyssen-Bornemisza (the two appeared on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list each year from 1996 to 2001), and the Gauguin painting had been on loan to Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum as part of a larger agreement with the Spanish Ministry of Culture. A representative for the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum did not respond to request for comment from ARTnews.
That deal, first brokered in 1999, saw the loan of 429 works estimated to be worth €750 million to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. Cervera gained ownership of the works as part of an inheritance from her husband, who died in 2004. The loan agreement was set to expire in 2010, and Cervera had tried to sell the works to the Spanish state at that time. Since then, the loan has been repeatedly extended, in an attempt to keep the works on view at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.
Sales of works from the collection have been rare, though they are considered major blows when they do come to pass. In 2012, Cervera sold John Constable’s 1824 painting The Lock at Christie’s in London, where it was bought for £22.4 million, provoking an outcry from the Spanish art world. “Keeping the collection here is costly to me, and I get nothing in return,” Cervera said at the time.
El País reported that Cervera has obtained permission to take the Gauguin painting abroad. Mata Mua is considered a particularly valuable painting by Gauguin, and it is one of many works by the artists that casts his Western male gaze on Tahiti, envisioning the country an idyllic land that has yet to be touched modernity. Reportedly now worth €40 million ($45.6 million), the painting set an auction record for Gauguin in 1984, when it sold at Sotheby’s to Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and Jaime Ortiz-Patiño for $3.9 million. (Thyssen-Bornemisza later bought Ortiz-Patião’s share of the painting in 1989.)
The other paintings that could potentially be sold off by Cervera are Degas’s Racehorses in a Landscape (1894), Hopper’s ‘Martha McKeen’ of Wellfleet (1944), and Monet’s Charing Cross Bridge (1899). El País reported that the Monet is worth €15 million ($17 million), but did not mention values for the other two paintings.