NEW YORK—Last month the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, acquired, through gift and purchase, the complete set of Irving Penn’s 1950 photographic portraits of blue-collar workers, “The Small Trades” series, from the artist. More recently the Getty purchased a circa 1775 alabaster bust by Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-83), The Vexed Man, as well as a medieval illustrated Romanesque manuscript of the life of Jesus Christ, Vita Christi.
The Vexed Man was one of 69 heads found in Messerschmidt’s home in Bratislava at the time of his death, carved in alabaster and cast in lead or tin. The heads were not created to be exhibited or sold. After Messerschmidt’s death, all 69 heads became the property of his brother Johann Adam, who eventually allowed them to be displayed and sold. Since 1783, 26 of the heads have disappeared.
Antonia Bostrom, senior curator of decorative arts at the Getty, did not disclose the price of the Messerschmidt, noting only that it had been purchased privately, through a German dealer, and had received an Austrian export license.
The highest auction price to date for a Messerschmidt head was the $4.8 million given in 2005 by the Louvre Museum, Paris, at a Sotheby’s sale. Most of the artist’s sculptured heads are in museums in Austria—16 are in Vienna’s Baroque Museum of Austria.
The Vita Christi consists of more than 100 illuminated manuscripts that were created in England in the 12th and 15th centuries. As with the Messerschmidt bust, the Getty would not reveal what it had paid for the Vita Christi, stating only that it had been purchased privately.