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  • A Storied Rembrandt Goes to a Mystery Bidder
    1.30.2006 NEW YORK.
    By Carol VOGEL, nytimes.com

    Sotheby's "Study of an Elderly Woman in a White Cap" sold for $4.27 million.

    A mysterious collector went on a Dutch buying spree yesterday at Sotheby's, paying $4.27 million for a much-watched Rembrandt portrait and another $1.87 million for a Jan Steen and a Gerrit Dou.

    The bidder, identified only as a New York collector and Paddle No. LO179, snapped up the works in the first hour of the old master paintings sale, starting with Rembrandt's "Study of an Elderly Woman in a White Cap," from around 1640. The buyer edged out four other bidders for the portrait, which was reauthenticated as a Rembrandt only recently after a restoration in Amsterdam.

    Sotheby's had estimated it would sell for $3 million to $4 million, a conservative figure given that the last Rembrandt offered at auction went to the casino owner Stephen A. Wynn two-and-a-half years ago in London for $11.3 million. Asked why "Elderly Woman" didn't bring more, George Wachter, director of Sotheby's old master paintings department worldwide, said: "There's no question the market is selective. In the end, that's what the market decided it was worth."

    Among the other high-profile bidders were those acting for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which bought a haunting scene of Mary Magdalene and the angel by the Italian Rococo master Corrado Giaquinto for $1.3 million, and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, which acquired an Italian terra cotta relief of the Madonna and Child by Donatello for $4.4 million.

    "It is unquestionably one of Giaquinto's greatest pictures and uncommonly moving," said Philippe de Montebello, the Met's director, by telephone interview after the sale. It is the first painting by the artist to enter the museum's collection and was purchased as a gift to the museum by the New Jersey collector Mark Fisch in honor of Keith Christiansen, a curator of European painting at the Met.

    (Prices of record include Sotheby's commission: 20 percent of the first $200,000 of the hammer price and 12 percent of the rest. Estimates do not reflect commissions.)

    The Rembrandt, depicting a woman wearing a bonnet, came under study about three years ago after a collector, Howard Walsh Jr. of Fort Worth, approached Mr. Wachter about selling it. It had been listed in Rembrandt catalogs in the 19th century and in 1915 but was later deattributed by scholars.

    Mr. Wachter thought that it was a beautiful picture but that a white haze created by a varnish applied over the face made it hard to study. So with Mr. Walsh's blessing, he sent it to Amsterdam, where it was examined by Martin Bijl, a former head of conservation for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and Ernst van de Wetering, head of the Rembrandt Research Project.

    As they studied and restored the painting, Mr. van de Wetering became convinced that it not only was by the Dutch master but also was one of Rembrandt's rare studies of light.

    Cleaning by Mr. Bijl revealed that a fur collar had been added to make the sitter look more like an affluent lady and that the painting's shape had been changed from arched to rectangular. Mr. Bijl restored the panel to its original state.

    Van Gogh, Part 4

    The chiseled face of Madame Ginoux, the proprietress of the Café de la Gare in Arles, France, which van Gogh frequented on and off until his suicide in 1890, is one of the more recognizable figures in art history. She was painted extensively by both van Gogh and Gauguin, and three of van Gogh's four portraits of her may be seen in museums: the Metropolitan, the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and the Kroller Muller in Otterlo, the Netherlands.

    Now, the only one not in a museum is heading to auction at Christie's in New York on May 2. Experts there are being cautious about what it could bring, but numbers being bandied about are $40 million to $60 million.

    The painting has a distinguished past, having been part of the Bakwin Collection since 1929. Dr. Harry Bakwin, a New York pediatrician, was one of the first to diagnose autism in children, and his wife, Dr. Ruth Morris Bakwin, also a pediatrician, was an heir to the Chicago meat-packing fortunes of the Armour and Swift families. The couple began collecting shortly after their marriage in Paris in 1925, buying extraordinary paintings by artists who were by then already considered Modern masters: van Gogh, Matisse and Cézanne.

    Harry Bakwin died in 1973. When Ruth Bakwin died 12 years later, Sotheby's held a sale of works from her estate, which included several seminal pieces by Matisse, Corot and Rodin. So the fact that Edwin M. Bakwin, their son, chose Christie's instead of Sotheby's to sell his van Gogh is a coup for Guy Bennett, who was promoted to run Christie's Impressionist and Modern art department in November.

    But like all important consignments, it has financial strings attached. In this case, they come in the form of giving the seller a generous portion of the buyer's premium. Although officials at Christie's won't say how much, experts familiar with these kinds of negotiations say the seller's share generally hovers between 7 and 9 percent.

    It's a last chance to buy a major portrait by one of the great iconic artists," Mr. Bennett said.

    Van Gogh painted "L'Arlésienne, Madame Ginoux," in February 1890, five months before he committed suicide and four months before he painted the portrait of Dr. Gachet, his physician, that sold for $82.5 million at Christie's in New York in 1990.

    The two paintings are similar: intimate yet direct, with the subjects staring out at the viewer. In both cases, the sitter is at a table leaning on one hand. The artist placed Madame Ginoux against a background of floral wallpaper.

    "This is a major moment," Mr. Bennett said. "It's one of the most significant paintings and portraits to come at the auction in years."

    Getty Trustee Resigns

    Three days before the grand reopening of a villa that will house the J. Paul Getty Museum's antiquities collection, a trustee of the Getty Trust who made an undisclosed loan to a former Getty antiquities curator has resigned amid an inquiry into possible conflicts of interest.

    In a statement yesterday, trust officials gave no reason for the departure of the trustee, Barbara G. Fleischman, on Wednesday.

    With her husband, Lawrence, Mrs. Fleischman amassed a renowned collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities. In 1996, the couple sold part of the collection to the Getty for $20 million and donated the rest, worth far more.

    Days before the acquisition, Mr. Fleischman made a $400,000 loan to the museum's antiquities curator, Marion True, to help her repay a loan from a different source for a vacation home in Greece. The Los Angeles Times reported the existence of the loan in November.

    The previous month, Ms. True, who is now on trial in Italy on charges of trafficking in looted antiquities, had resigned amid accusations that she failed to disclose certain details about the purchase of the house. Ms. True's lawyer, Harry Stang, subsequently said that any implication that the loan from the collectors had any bearing on the sale and gift of their collection was false, adding that Ms. True's involvement in negotiations for the collection ended long before the loan offer was made. An internal committee appointed by the Getty board is now examining the loan and other areas of the trust's finances and practices.

    Ms. Fleischman's collection makes up a major part of the Getty Villa, the museum's antiquities wing, which opens tomorrow after extensive renovations. In a telephone interview yesterday, she declined to discuss why she had resigned after more than five years of service.

    "All I want to say at this moment is that I'm very proud of my association with the J. Paul Getty Trust," she said. "But the villa is opening, excitedly, and we're realizing Marion True's vision, and I know my late husband would be very, very proud. Now it's time for me to move on."

    In an interview last November, Ms Fleischman acknowledged that she had known about the loan to Ms. True when it was made but did not report it to the board because she did not believe it presented an ethical conflict.

    "Looking back is very easy," she said then. "At the time, I was, well, call it naïve or inexperienced." She added, "I do stand corrected, but I don't stand condemned."