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  • Salivating Over The Next Big Van Gogh Sale
    22.04.2006 NEW YORK.
    By HILARIE M. SHEETS

    Van Gogh's "Arlesienne, Madame Ginoux," which will be auctioned on May 2. It is expected to fetch an impressive price, as other van Gogh portraits have.

    In the auction business, Vincent van Gogh is the magical name. With fewer than a dozen of his portraits in private hands, the two significant ones to have sold in the last 16 years achieved spectacular prices: $71.5 million for "Self-Portrait Without Beard" in 1998 and $82.5 million for "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" in 1990, the record for van Gogh at auction. So there is great anticipation about what "L'Arlesienne, Madame Ginoux" will bring on May 2, in the Impressionist and Modern Art sale at Christie's New York.

    The portrait comes with a back story, one that touches on van Gogh's final year of life but also involves the adventurous artistic tastes of the young couple who brought this van Gogh to America in 1929.

    In 1890, just months before killing himself, van Gogh painted this portrait of the proprietor of the cafe he and Gauguin frequented in 1888 during their fruitful collaboration in Arles. Both artists had sketched and painted Madame Ginoux in 1888, before van Gogh attacked Gauguin and was institutionalized, ending their painting sojourn.

    Revisiting the subject two years later, van Gogh modeled this portrait of the cafe owner on a sketch by Gauguin, and used a softer palette, more typical of his friend's.

    It was a kind of peace offering. On June 17, 1890, van Gogh wrote to Gauguin, "It gives me enormous pleasure when you say the Arlesienne's portrait, which was based strictly on your drawing, is to your liking." He goes on to say, "It is a synthesis of the Arlesiennes, if you like; as syntheses of the Arlesiennes are rare, take this as a work belonging to you and me as a summary of our months of work together."

    After van Gogh's death, the painting passed to his brother Theo, and then to Theo's widow. Elsa Tischner-von Durant bought it in 1912, and in 1928 it went to the Galerie Thannhauser in Lucerne, Switzerland, which sold the portrait in 1929 to Ruth and Harry Bakwin. The Bakwins were young pediatricians who traveled to Europe every year, with their four little children in tow, buying works by Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso, among others, to display in their Manhattan town house.

    "It's staggering that an American family at that point was collecting paintings — including 'L'Arlesienne' — of such importance," said Guy Bennett, head of Christie's department of Impressionism and modern art. It is equally unusual, he added, for a van Gogh to remain in one family so long.

    The couple's eldest son, Edward Bakwin, who inherited the painting in 1987 and is offering it at Christie's, said its five-figure price in 1929 made it the most expensive oil his parents bought for many years. Alfred H. Barr Jr., founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, borrowed "L'Arlesienne" and Cezanne's "Portrait of a Girl" from the Bakwins that year for the museum's first show.

    But only a few years earlier Harry and Ruth Bakwin had been novices in collecting what was then radical and unpopular art. "My parents were doing postgraduate medical work in Vienna and Berlin," said Mr. Bakwin, whose mother was an heir to the Chicago meatpacking fortunes of the Armour and Swift families. "The classes were in the morning, and people drank beer in the afternoon. My parents weren't beer drinkers, so they took up looking at art instead."

    They found a mentor in the art critic Walter Pach, a family friend, who advised them to go to the estate sale of John Quinn, a Tammany lawyer and a sponsor of the 1913 Armory Show in Manhattan. The Bakwins bought four paintings: by Derain, Gauguin, Matisse and Rouault. They honed their taste and confidence with museum and gallery visits in Europe, aided by the painter Ben Shahn, Harry Bakwin's high school friend, who was little known at that point and lived in Paris.

    Shahn introduced the Bakwins to many artists, including Chaim Soutine, who came to be one of their favorite painters. (At one point the Bakwins had the largest collection of Soutines in America.) Through Pach, the Bakwins also met and befriended the notoriously temperamental Parisian dealer Ambroise Vollard.

    In an unpublished memoir written in 1983, Ruth Bakwin recalled the exasperating maneuvering Vollard required. "He liked to run things in his own way," she wrote. "He would only bring out what he wanted to show you. If we saw something that we liked, Harry and I would go away and talk about it. Many times when we came back, Vollard would say he didn't have that painting anymore, but we could see it sticking out of the end of the closet. We'd then come back another day when he was more agreeable."

    The Bakwins purchased works by Maillol and Renoir from Vollard, but it was the medicinal cream Harry Bakwin prescribed for Vollard's chronic back pain that helped him warm to the couple. "It was simply a common ointment, but Vollard claimed it was the only thing that had ever helped him," Ruth Bakwin wrote. "After that, whenever we called to see a painting, Vollard had us come right over and asked Harry to bring more of that fabulous ointment."

    Another American doctor, the voraciously acquisitive Albert Barnes from Philadelphia, was a fierce competitor at times. Mrs. Bakwin describes finding a Raoul Dufy painting at a small gallery in Paris and going to lunch before making a final decision. "We thought we had told the dealer we were interested in it, but Dr. Barnes came in and bought it right out from under us," she wrote. "He thought he was so clever about it all," she added, before noting that they all returned to America on the same ship, where her husband and Dr. Barnes became friends.

    Pach also introduced the Bakwins to Maurice de Vlaminck, a painter whom they visited in Normandy whenever they went to France. Vlaminck's bete noir was Picasso, who could be mentioned in Vlaminck's presence only in the most denigrating manner. Vlaminck, convinced his own work was underrated, always charged more for his pictures than his art dealer did.

    Yet he was clearly susceptible to flattery. Ruth Bakwin described how their son interpreted his father's losing to Vlaminck at chess: "This was unusual because Harry rarely lost a game of chess. Pete concluded that Harry lost if he wanted to buy a painting; Vlaminck would be so pleased to have won a game that he would sell for a much lower price."

    In the 1930's the Bakwins spent time with another major artist, Diego Rivera, who visited their country home in Ossining, N.Y. He related a story about the paternity of Maurice Utrillo, an artist they also knew well and collected. As recounted by Ruth Bakwin in her memoir, he told them that after Maurice was born illegitimately to Suzanne Valadon, she went to Renoir, for whom she had modeled nine months previously. Renoir looked at the baby and said, "He can't be mine, the color is terrible!" Next she went to Degas, for whom she had also modeled. He said, "He can't be mine, the form is terrible!" At a cafe, Valadon saw an artist she knew named Utrillo, to whom she spilled her woes. The man told her to call the baby Utrillo: "I would be glad to put my name to the work of either Renoir or Degas!"

    For the Bakwins, all these stories and connections made their collection more meaningful. Mr. Bakwin emphasizes that his parents' collection — some 100 paintings and sculptures — was not enormous but was consistent in its quality. He and his three siblings each inherited a major painting at the time of their father's death in 1973 and another after their mother's death in 1985, when he received "L'Arlesienne."

    "It was a very major decision of mine to sell it," says Mr. Bakwin, 78. "The risk of damage of any kind or robbery just felt a little too high. Much as I would have loved to continue holding it, it seemed to me too important to have hanging in a modest apartment in Chicago."