Metropolitan Museum of Art

In recent art world news, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (“Met”) announced last Thursday that visitors will have to pay a $25 mandatory admission fee if they reside outside New York State under a new policy that goes into effect on March 1, 2018.  The Met’s existing “pay-as-you-wish” policy will continue for state residents, but such individuals will be required to present address identification when the new policy begins—those without it will not be turned away and will be asked to bring it on their next visit.  The existing policy will also continue for students from adjacent states, Connecticut and New Jersey.  A full price admission ticket will be valid for three consecutive days at the Met’s three locations, which include the Met Breuer and the Cloisters.

The change is said to reflect the museum’s efforts to create “a reliable, annual revenue stream after a period of financial turbulence and leadership turmoil, particularly given what the Met describes as a sharp decline in people willing to pay the current ‘suggested’ admission price, also $25.”  In particular, the change is intended to provide the museum with

a predictable source of revenue at a time when institutions all over the country face competition for private donations and patrons’ leisure time; declining membership; and dwindling public dollars.”

As one of the most prestigious art institutions in the world, the Met has long distinguished itself from other such institutions, among the likes of the Louvre, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim, by not charging a mandatory admissions fee.  The museum has long sustained itself through a combination of private donations and public dollars (the city provides operating support each year since it owns the Met’s building on Fifth Avenue).  The city’s allocation (currently about $26 million), however, is subject to changing economic conditions and the discretion of the Department of Cultural Affairs.

Tellingly, over the past 10 plus years, even when Met attendance had risen from 4.7 million to 7 million visitors, the museum had observed a sharp decline in the proportion of attendees who paid the full suggested admission fee (from 63 percent to 17 percent).  The museum admission fees account for 14 percent (or $43 million) of the Met’s $305 million operating budget.  The figure is expected to increase to 16 or 17 percent (or $49 million) with the new policy change.

For further information on the Met’s new admissions policy and for art critics’ reactions to same, see “Met Changes 50-Year Admissions Policy:  Non-New Yorkers Must Pay” and “The Met Should Be Open to All.  The New Pay Policy Is a Mistake[,]” published online by the New York Times on January 4, 2018.

 

In March 2016, a US auction gallery sold an Old Master oil painting (a sketch of an old woman) for $27,000. The sale price was nearly double the high auction estimate of 15,000.  However, when the same painting was recently sold by Sotheby’s London in a July 2017 sale as an authentic Peter Paul Rubens, it achieved a hammer of £416,750 (close to $550,000 USD), which is nearly 20 times the original purchase price.

It has been reported that the appraisers at Sotheby’s London relied on certain clues to authenticate painting and attribute to Peter Paul Rubens himself. For example, Rubens had painted this old lady before, and there were examples of Rubens work with the old women at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Lichtenstein museum.  Interestingly, the work was consigned to Sotheby’s after it had been properly cleaned and restored. The restoration work revealed that the sketch had been overpainted, and this overpainting is likely the reason why the work was not properly attributed in the first place.   Importantly, this is not the first time an authentic Rubens was late discovered. In 2015, a portrait deaccessed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art was later determined to be an authentic Rubens and fetched $626,500 at auction (over 20 times its original high estimate of $30,000).

As the Washington Post reports, authentic Rubens are valuable – even if they are mere sketches and not final oil portraits. Rubens value has increased. For example, last year a Rubens painting, Lot and his Daughters, set a new record for an Old Masters sale fetching £44.8 million ($58.1 million USD).

Unfortunately, the value and popularity of Rubens make his Old Master works a prime target for forgery. This heightened concern can move an appraiser to conservatively attribute paintings to “school/student/studio of” an Old Master rather than the Old Master himself.  This recent Rubens auction sale demonstrates that sometimes the caveat emptor/buyer beware mantra can benefit the buyer in more ways than one. In this case, taking the extra step to invest in restoration and cleaning paid off exponentially for the original auction buyer.

In recent art world news, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has turned over another antiquity to prosecutors in Manhattan after one of its curators had raised concerns about the ancient object after researching it last year.  Prosecutors have taken custody of the ancient artifact, the head of an ancient marble sculpture of a bull, on loan to the Met Museum, due to concerns that it had been looted from a Lebanese storage area during the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980s.

The prior owners of the 2,300 year old marble object claim they have clear title to the antiquity and have taken legal action against the prosecutors for its return.  The prior owners are also pursuing legal action against Lebanon’s antiquities directorate in connection with a federal lawsuit in which they argue that “neither the Lebanese government nor the Manhattan prosecutors have offered convincing proof that the [antiquity] was stolen.  The lawsuit also cites property rights, cultural patrimony laws, statutes of limitations and jurisdictional issues as grounds for the sculpture’s return to them.”

The prior owners purchased the artifact from an art dealer in London back in 1996 for over $1 million and then sold it to a collector in 2010 who is the current owner.  The current owner loaned the antiquity to the museum that year, but has since asked the prior owners to take the artwork back and compensate him after becoming aware that Lebanon was disputing its provenance.

The prior owners’ attorney said in a statement that he and his clients believe the “district attorney’s position is ill-founded” and added that the prior owners are “bona fide purchasers with clean hands.  By contrast, for more than 50 years, Lebanon has failed [to] take any action domestically or internationally to report any theft of the bull’s head.”

The Met Museum released the following statement:  “Upon a Met curator’s discovery that this item on loan may have been stolen from government storage during the Lebanese civil war, the museum took immediate action.  We contacted the Lebanese government and the lender, we took the item off display, and we have been working with federal and state authorities, which recently involved delivering the head of the bull to the Manhattan D.A. upon its request.”

The antiquity has a deeply rooted history.  According to museum and Lebanese authorities, the artifact was “first catalogued in 1967 by a Swiss archaeologist excavating the Temple of Eshmun in Sidon, Lebanon.  It is believed to be of Greek origin, was warehoused in the city of Byblos, the site of a looting spree in the 1980s.”

This is the second time in recent weeks that the museum has been asked to turn over an antiquity to prosecutors in Manhattan with different circumstances in each case.  As discussed in our recent blog post last week, the Met Museum returned an ancient vase that it bought at auction back in 1989 due to concerns that it may have been looted from Italy.

For more information on this latest antiquity provenance dispute, see “Met Museum Turns Over Another Relic With Disputed Past to Prosecutors,” published online by the New York Times on August 1, 2017.

In recent art world news, an ancient vase known as a krater, prominently displayed in the Greco-Roman galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for decades, was quietly seized by U.S. prosecutors from the district attorney’s office in Manhattan after the issuance of a warrant last week.  The vibrantly painted krater dates back to 360 B.C. and depicts Dionysus, god of the grape harvest, sitting in a cart pulled by a satyr.  The antiquity is attributed to the Greek artist Python, who is considered one of the two greatest painters of that time.

A warrant was issued to the Met after investigators reviewed photos and other evidence sent to them back in May by a forensic archaeologist based in Europe who has been tracing looted artifacts for over a decade.  The museum had hand-delivered the vase to prosecutors the following day and expects that it will be eventually returned to Italy.  The vase was seized based on evidence that it had been looted by tomb raiders in Italy in the 1970s.

The recent seizure of the krater is similar to the removal of another terracotta vase, known as the Euphronios Krater, from the Met back in 2008 after evidence revealed that the object had been illegally excavated from an ancient burial ground in Italy.  Both law enforcement and museum authorities believe that the vases passed through Italian art dealer, Giacomo Medici, who was arrested in 1997 and convicted in a Rome court in 2004 for conspiracy to traffic in antiquities.

Medici, who has since been released from prison, has denied any role in connection with the recently seized vase.  The Met purchased the vase at a Sotheby’s auction in 1989 for $90,000.  Sotheby’s has said it did not have any knowledge of provenance issues with the object at the time it handled the sale.

While its significance does not rise to the level of the far larger Euphronios Krater, which the Met sent back to Italy after a 30-year dispute, the newly confiscated vessel is a remarkably intact survivor of an age when the Greeks colonized Paestum, a Mediterranean city in the Campania region south of Rome, and created temples and artworks of legendary beauty.”

The forensic archaeologist in Europe who traced the krater said that his evidence suggested that the object was disinterred by looters from a grave site in southern Italy and eventually ended up in Medici’s possession.  Many of the antiquities that went through Medici ultimately ended up in museums throughout the world.

This latest case appears as “more and more museums are being pressed to scour their collections for items trafficked by known antiquities smugglers whose goods originated in Italy, Greece, Turkey, Cambodia, India, and Egypt” and other countries long affected by looting.

For more information on this story and the forensic archaeologist’s evidence resulting in the seizure of the krater, see “Ancient Vase Seized From Met Museum On Suspicion It Was Looted,” published online by the New York Times on July 31, 2017.

 

The New York Times has reported that the estate of a German businessman has sued the Metropolitan Museum of Art last Friday to claim one of its valuable Picassos, “The Actor” (1904-05), alleging in the court filing that the museum does not hold title to the painting because the businessman was forced to sell the work for a low amount after fleeing the Nazis in the late 1930s.  The treasured oil on canvas depicts an attenuated male figure making hand gestures that signaled the beginning of Picasso’s interest in “the theatrical world of acrobats and saltimbanques” during the artist’s Rose Period.  The painting is estimated to be worth more than $100 million said lawyers for the estate in the court filing.

In the court filing it is alleged that the museum “did not disclose or should have known that the painting had been owned by a Jewish refugee, Paul Leffmann, who had disposed of the work only because of Nazi and Fascist persecution.”  The lawsuit alleges that the sale of the painting was made under duress to a collector of Picasso’s work and Picasso’s dealer for $13,200 in 1938.  In 1941, Thelma Chrysler Foy bought the painting through a New York art gallery for $22,500 and eventually donated it to the Met in 1952 where the painting has been continuously displayed since.  The lawyers for the estate said that they had conducted negotiations with the Met while the claim was being investigated by the museum, but the parties had never been able to reach a settlement.

In a statement, the Met “strenuously denied there were grounds for the claim, asserting that the 1938 sale had been for fair market value and had not been made under duress.”  The museum added that the German businessman and his family did not make any claim on the painting after the war when trying to reclaim property they had been forced to sell.

The lawyers for the estate have criticized the museum claiming that for a number of years it had given an “erroneous provenance” for the painting until being corrected in 2011.  The Met indicated that the provenance was not erroneous as it was based on the recollection of the buyer at the time.  The provenance reflected that the painting was owned by a German in Switzerland and was updated as further information became available, according to the museum.

The suit is Zuckerman v. Metropolitan Museum of Art, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 16-07665.