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Friday, 2 February 2007

Gross Sting

Alice Walton: Was she set up?
Christie’s and ‘The Gross Clinic’

By Richard Carreño 01.03.2007

As a leading art auction house, Christie’s well understands the role of a dummy bidder in jacking up the price of a work. In Jefferson University's recent sale of The Gross Clinic, Christie’s consultants apparently found an unwitting dummy in the Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton. Has Philadelphia’s art community learned anything from this $68 million lesson?

The auctioneer's song: Christie's, The Gross Clinic and The Sting


Sometime later this month, if all goes to plan and following payment of $68 million raised through an ambitious community fund-drive, Thomas Eakins's The Gross Clinic— one of the greatest paintings ever executed by an American, much less a Philadelphian— will officially pass into the joint ownership of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

The transfer will also culminate in what may be the biggest scam in American art history. The perp? None other than the putatively reputable Thomas Jefferson University.

From the beginning, the deal seemed dodgy, almost as if Jefferson scripted it as a sequel to Ocean’s 11 or The Sting. The bait in this skullduggery, of course, was the 1875 Eakins masterwork, owned by the university since 1876 (when it was bought for $200 by alumni to honor its subject, the noted Jefferson surgeon Dr. Samuel Gross).

As with any Hitchcock thriller, the plot must be thickened beyond a single mere villain. Joining Jefferson as grifters are the acquisitive National Gallery of Art in Washington, Christie's auction house in New York, and— too perfect to be true!— a bumbling billionairess from Arkansas, the Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton. The caper's fall guys? Two of the nation’s premier art institutions, the Art Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy. The patsy in chief? The City of Philadelphia.

Every heist needs a moneybags. Alice Walton, the key to Jefferson's white-collar stick-up, is a character straight out of central casting. Unlike the great visionaries of America's top art galleries — Albert Barnes, Andrew Mellon at the National Gallery, Paul Mellon at Yale, the Rockefellers at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, J. Paul Getty in California -- Walton proved an easy mark. At Wal-Mart she functions as a retailer of velveteen Elvis portraits. Her idea of art collecting for her yet unbuilt museum (yes, unbuilt!) in Arkansas appears to follow the Noah's Ark principal: two of every kind.

Enter Christie's. Since the gentle days long past of the great art dealer Joseph Duveen and his ilk, most major paintings nowadays are acquired by fevered collectors through two methods: auction and theft (the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum job in Boston— which involved a rare Vermeer, three Rembrandts and several other artworks— remains unsolved). Since Christie’s is an auction house— that is, it earns commissions from buyers and sellers— one would have naturally thought that Christie's consultants would have suggested that Jefferson dispose of the Eakins by the way it knows best: at auction. Instead of an auction, a devious strategy evolved.

Instead, Christie’s consultants earned their consulting fee by devising an ingenious alternative plan. At its base was the real fear— shared by Jefferson and Christie's alike— that The Gross Clinic wouldn’t fetch on the auction block the many millions that Jefferson hoped to squeeze from the painting. As the Christie’s people astutely perceived, for all The Gross Clinic’s hallmarks of a masterwork—the inspired, classical brushstroke of a Rembrandt combined with the social narrative power of a Goya— Jefferson had long treated it like a neglected orphan. In its a virtual upstairs attic at Jefferson, it was seen by few, and ignored by many, including the Art Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy, which became— only then!— so inflamed when the painting’s sale was announced in November.

What Jefferson needed to do was establish a base retail cost, so as to avoid any quibbling over price. The result was the $68 million figure, the highest price ever set for an American painting. Discussions, if any, would begin from that base. But what sucker would pay $68 million? Enter Alice Walton, covered by the National Gallery— whose respectable involvement rendered the deal at least partially palatable to Northeast art connoisseurs.Would you buy a house under these terms?

With Walton on the hook, Jefferson had its deal all but sewn up. How to hoodwink Philadelphia into coughing up $68 million was the next detail. Here the ever pliable and naive Alice Walton unknowingly came to Jefferson's aid again. In this case, she entered into a sale agreement that contained the bizarre— maybe even unprecedented— caveat that her deal was off if another buyer offered the same $68 million within 30 days.

This rider was fantastic on its face. How many of us would buy a house subject to the same proviso? (“Sure, the house is all; yours— unless somebody else offers the same amount.”) That’s the deal Walton signed on to.And the expensive lesson of this episode is.... When the sale was announced, Philadelphia art mavens predictably whipped themselves into an apoplectic frenzy. Sputtering epithets against Jefferson, the art community belatedly recognized that The Gross Clinic should be showcased for the appreciative masses rather than relegated to a largely inaccessible cabinet at a medical school.

In that sense, of course, Jefferson did Philadelphia a favor. At long last The Gross Clinic will find its proper homes. As a side benefit, if we’re lucky, the Art Museum, the Pennsylvania Academy, and Philadelphia’s art-loving public may finally learn one of life’s basic lessons: Never pay retail.