NEW YORK—Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton—the fourth-richest American, according to the Forbes 2004 list—formally announced, on May 23, her family foundation’s ambitious plans for a 100,000-square-foot museum of American art in Bentonville, Ark., slated to open in 2009. Designed by Boston architect Moshe Safdie and landscape architect Peter Walker at an estimated cost of more than $50 million, the museum, Crystal Bridges, will house the foundation’s permanent collection, currently numbering about 100 works of American art ranging from the Revolutionary period through the modern era.
The announcement came amid a swirl of controversy: Just a week earlier Walton had acquired an iconic Hudson River School painting, sold by Sotheby’s on behalf of the New York Public Library. Walton’s winning bid, reportedly about $35 million, was submitted to a “sealed-bid” auction at Sotheby’s for Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits, 1849, and outstripped a joint bid from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. The transaction touched off a storm of reaction—from dismay and anger that the Durand painting will leave New York to questions about the fairness of a sealed bidding process and whether New York institutions were given an adequate opportunity to compete for the picture. The purchase also raised eyebrows in the art world about potential conflicts of interest involving those serving as advisers to both the library and to Walton.
“I would say most people are pretty disgusted about the way it was handled,” says one knowledgeable source. “There is a lot of thought that the Met wasn’t given enough time or opportunity” to acquire the work.
On April 10 the library announced the decision to sell 19 works of art that were not part of its research collections and to set aside the proceeds as a permanent endowment. The centerpiece of the group was Kindred Spirits, Durand’s most famous painting, which depicts poet-journalist William Cullen Bryant and Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole standing together on Kaaterskill Clove. Originally a gift to Bryant, the painting was donated to the library by his daughter Julia in 1904.
On April 26, Sotheby’s says, potential buyers numbering “just over 20,” both institutional and private collectors, received a package of relevant information about the specifics of the sealed-bid process, including the confidential minimum price along with the date by which bids needed to be submitted—May 11. (The remaining 18 works will be offered at the Sotheby’s American paintings sale in December.)
In a sealed-bid auction, bidders have no way of knowing what spending limits their competitors have set. This type of sale creates the possibility that a bidder may wind up paying a price far exceeding what a competitor was willing to spend.
New York Public Library spokeswoman Anne Canty says the institution acted upon the advice of Sotheby’s in opting for a sealed-bid sale. While some observers complain that this contributed to a secretive, or unfair, process, others praise it as the best way to ensure the highest price for the seller. “You can’t fault the library for trying to maximize the price” of the work, American paintings dealer Howard Godel told ARTnewsletter.
Rationale for Closed Bidding
Why did the auction house advise the library to pursue this type of sale? The house declined to comment on how frequently this bidding method is employed, since it typically doesn’t discuss “details of private transaction sales.”
However, responds Sotheby’s spokeswoman Diana Phillips, “we have successfully used this process before, and we also wanted to take advantage of the robust current market and the May timing.”
Phillips notes that it was too late to include the painting in catalogues of works to be presented at its regular May sale of American paintings: “There are very few possible participants at this level, and while we were confident we knew all the major candidates, we were also very willing to include other qualified participants who had expressed interest.”
Sotheby’s also offered preferential payment terms to interested New York institutions, “which would have significantly reduced the overall price, and which the New York Public Library was willing to absorb,” Phillips reports.
Neither the Metropolitan Museum nor the National Gallery of Art would comment about rumors that their joint bid had amounted to about $25 million.
“The entire curatorial staff felt very strongly about the painting and its importance and made every effort to acquire it,” Morrison Heckscher, the Lawrence A. Fleischman chairman of the American wing at the Met, told ARTnewsletter.
“I’m glad it will be in a public collection, but I’m still very sad to see it leave New York,” says Linda Ferber, the Andrew W. Mellon curator of American art and department chair at the Brooklyn Museum. (Ferber will leave to become vice president and museum director of the New York Historical Society in September.)
Ferber has been working for the past five years, on a major Durand retrospective, scheduled to open at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007 and travel for a year. Kindred Spirits is both the title and focal point of the exhibit.
According to Sotheby’s, the library had requested as a condition of sale that the painting be available as scheduled for the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, “and the Walton Foundation will of course fulfill that commitment,” assures Phillips. Additionally, the Walton Family Foundation stated “that it intends to work with museums in New York City to ensure that the work continues to be shown here in the future.”
The sale of the Durand sparked further questions about a potential conflict of interest regarding the role of expert John Wilmerding, the Christopher Binyon Sarofim ’86 professor of American art at Princeton University, who is currently a paid adviser to Walton.
Wilmerding had also acted as an adviser, without pay, to the New York Public Library concerning its collection. His role as an adviser to both the seller and the eventual buyer, as well as a future trustee of a competing institution, was viewed as problematic by some observers.
“There is no conflict of interest,” asserts Wilmerding. He told ARTnewsletter that he and Carrie Rebora Barratt, a curator of American art and sculpture at the Metropolitan, had served as scholarly advisers to the library. (Wilmerding said he recommended Barratt to library trustee Neil Rudenstine, who then contacted Metropolitan director Philippe de Montebello to request permission.)
Wilmerding explained to ARTnewsletter that he met every other month or so with a subcommittee of the library’s board of directors. Barratt says she attended just two meetings. Their participation ended in the fall of 2004 after he and Barratt had identified a core group of the most important works in the collection.
Wilmerding says they had nothing to do with subsequent discussions about specific works to be sold, the method of sale or the process of appraisal.
Denies Any Impropriety
Wilmerding, who has known Walton for approximately a year, further contends that he did not bring Kindred Spirits to her attention, pointing out that she had learned of the sale on her own. Though he discussed the merits of the picture with her after she knew of the upcoming sale, he did not offer an estimation of its value, he says, and stayed out of the bidding process.
Fred Lindeberg, a spokesman for the Walton Family Foundation and Crystal Bridges, also says Wilmerding’s role “was limited to commentary about the significance and importance of American masterworks. He has not provided advice about prospective acquisitions or their pricing and played no such role regarding Kindred Spirits.” (Walton has been appointed a trustee council member of the National Gallery of Art; and, starting July 1, Wilmerding will be a trustee of that institution.) According to Mary Jane McKinven, a spokeswoman for the National Gallery, Wilmerding “did not have any role in, nor was he involved in any way in, the National Gallery’s discussions about the possible acquisition of Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits.”
Walton, 55, the only daughter of Helen Walton and the late, legendary Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, has a net worth of $18 billion, according to Forbes. Divorced, with no children, she is a watercolorist who has been collecting art and furniture, with a strong focus on American art, for the last 15 years, says Lindeberg. She currently lives on a ranch in central Texas, where she raises cutting horses; she serves on the board of the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth.
New York dealer Ira Spanierman says he has worked with Walton since she initially began focusing on American art nearly 20 years ago. Lindeberg, however, declined to reveal how much Walton has spent on American art to date.
The museum Crystal Bridges has so far revealed about a dozen works from its permanent collection. These include Charles Willson Peale’s Portrait of George Washington, 1780-82, which fetched $6.2 million at Christie’s last May; Winslow Homer’s watercolor-and-pencil Spring, 1878, which was sold from the collection of Rita and Daniel Fraad, bringing $2 million at Sotheby’s in December; Charles Bird King’s Ottoe Half Chief, Husband of Eagle of Delight, 1821-22, bought for $1.4 million, also at Sotheby’s in December; and Norman Rockwell’s Sick Puppy, 1923, purchased at Christie’s in December for $511,500.
While the largest portion of Crystal Bridges (named for a glass-and-wood design over a local stream) will be devoted to “influential American artists,” a second exhibit space will feature art by Native Americans, produced before European settlers moved into what is today Arkansas. The immediate grounds will also contain sculpture gardens featuring works by prominent American artists.