Museum finds stored artwork is Picasso worth millions; plans to sell it | Arts & Culture
It's a story straight out of Antiques Roadshow. The Evansville Museum recently discovered that a work of art sitting in storage for nearly half a century was a rare and valuable work created by Picasso.
It won't be here long, however.
The cost of caring for such a piece is too great for an institution with a limited budget and the board of trustees on Monday decided to sell it through a New York auction house. The board’s action was approved by the museum’s members at a meeting held Tuesday. The trustees voted to sell the piece through Guernsey's, a New York auction company that was trying to track it down.
"The value is well into the millions," said Guernsey's President Arlan Ettinger.
“Seated Woman with Red Hat” (“Femme assise au chapeau rouge”) c. 1954-1956 – had not been identified as a Picasso in documentation provided to the museum when the piece was gifted in the 1960s. It has been in the museum’s storage area for nearly 50 years.
“Seated Woman with Red Hat” was created using a layered glass technique called gemmail (plural: gemmaux). Gemmail uses individual pieces of colored glass overlapped and joined together with clear liquid enamel and then fired. When illuminated from behind, gemmail produces a result that modulates color and captures light through many layers and textures of glass. Although Picasso was less-known for this art form, he produced 50 or more gemmaux masterpieces during his two years of study at the Malherbe Studio in France.
Picasso gave one half of his collection to the Malherbe family in return for their expertise, training and collaboration, and kept one half for himself. The pieces in Picasso’s portion of the collection were sold to private collectors.
Raymond Loewy, an internationally known industrial designer, purchased “Seated Woman with Red Hat” in the late 1950s and gifted the piece to the Evansville Museum in 1963. Loewy’s connection to the Evansville Museum was through Siegfried R. Weng, the museum’s director at the time.
When the Evansville Museum received the gift, associated documentation indicated that the piece was created by an artist named “Gemmaux” – confusing the name of the technique with the artist’s name – and was a design inspired by a Picasso painting, which is how it was cataloged by museum staff. It was noted that the piece was signed by Picasso. The piece was placed in museum storage and never displayed. Earlier this year, Guernsey’s in researching Picasso’s gemmaux works, contacted the Evansville Museum about the gift from Raymond Loewy. It was this contact from Guernsey’s that revealed the significance of the piece, prompting further research and study.
R. Steven Krohn, the president of the museum’s board of trustees, named a special advisory panel to determine a course of action regarding the piece that is proper and best for the museum. After extensive due diligence and many discussions with Guernsey’s, the panel recommended selling the piece because of the expense and added requirements to properly secure a piece of potentially great value.
“Now that we have a full understanding of the requirements and additional expenses to display, secure, preserve and insure the piece, it is clear those additional costs would place a prohibitive financial burden on the museum,” Krohn said. “It is in the best interest of the Evansville Museum to sell this work of art.”
John Streetman, executive director of the Evansville Museum, described the piece as “extraordinary” and said, “It sparkles like a jewel.” Streetman added, “It was undoubtedly a unique set of circumstances that uncovered this treasure within our museum. This was a difficult but prudent decision to move forward with deaccession.”
The estimated proceeds from a sale are unknown, and the museum will make no immediate decisions about utilizing funds from a successful sale.
“While we are optimistic about the potential additional funds a sale might bring to the museum, we will continue to rely on the support of individuals, as well as our business community, who so generously contribute through memberships, endowment gifts and grants to sustain and continue the museum’s inspiring and educational programming and exhibitions," Krohn said.
The gemmail, signed by Picasso, is 36 inches high, 28 inches wide and 3 inches deep, and is in a wood support. The piece is a portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, the French mistress and model of Picasso from 1927 to about 1935, and the mother of his daughter, Maya Widmaier-Picasso.
The word gemmail comes from the French words for precious stone and enamel. The gemmail technique was developed during the 1930s by French painter Jean Crotti. Gemmaux are works made from irregularly sized pieces of colored glass that have been joined together by the application of clear liquid enamel, which is then baked to a temperature that causes the entire construction to bond.
Gemmaux have a three-dimensional quality due to the varying depths of the colored glass used.
Picasso worked in the Malherbe Studio from 1954-1956, when gemmail was still considered a primitive technique. His gemmaux masterpieces toured prominent museums, including the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Corning Museum of Glass. The pieces in Picasso’s portion of the collection were sold to private collectors, including the Emperor of Japan, Nelson Rockefeller and Prince Rainier of Monaco.
The piece is encased in a deep wooden shadow box, which is illuminated from behind, emphasizing its light-filled dimensions. The Malherbe family in France, who were from a long line of physician-inventors, helped successfully develop and perfect the process of gemmail at the Malherbe Studio, where Picasso created his works.
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