Four Seasons Clutches Curtain

Though Vivendi has already made $12 million by putting the Seagram art collection on the block, it may be disappointed

Though Vivendi has already made $12 million by putting the Seagram art collection on the block, it may be disappointed with the sale of the collection’s largest work (in terms of both proportion and price): the stage curtain that Pablo Picasso painted in 1919 for Sergei Diaghilev’s ballet, Le Tricorne .

But help may-emphasis on may -be on the way from the regulars of the Four Seasons restaurant, where the curtain has hung since the power-lunch spot opened in 1959.

According to a source familiar with the situation, Christie’s, the auction house that has been commissioned to sell the objet d’art, has priced the 22-foot-high tapestry at $8 million-an amount far higher than the winning bids brought in by the two works considered to be the Seagram collection’s masterpieces, Mark Rothko’s Brown and Blacks in Reds and Roberto Matta’s Endless Nudes . The Rothko sold for $6.7 million at Christie’s Postwar and Contemporary sale on May 14, and the Matta is expected to garner up to $1.5 million at the auction house’s Latin American sale on May 28.

The Picasso currently hangs in the hallway that links the Four Seasons Pool Room to the Grill Room, where it’s visible to passers-by on Park Avenue. The restaurant’s owners and a number of its patrons can’t see it anywhere else-and perhaps the art world agrees. “As a matter of fact, I met somebody from [Vivendi] who is planning to auction it off, and he said there is no interest at all,” said the Four Seasons’ co-owner, Julian Niccolini. “Nobody has come to see it at all. It’s a dead issue. Who wants it?” One source familiar with the situation said that, so far, only one potential buyer has contacted Christie’s.

Christie’s spokeswoman Margaret Doyle said she couldn’t comment on any private auctions and that the auction house was “focusing on the live auctions this spring.” She also wouldn’t confirm the price of the work. When asked what would happen if the Picasso didn’t sell, Ms. Doyle said: “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Picasso experts and dealers John Richardson and Richard Feigen have said that the drably colored curtain is far from being one of Picasso’s best works. The black borders have faded to a dull orange, and the refurbishing efforts to restore portions damaged by water stand out against the more worn background. Since the curtain was originally used as a functional piece of art, as a stage prop, “it isn’t art for art’s sake,” said Mr. Feigen. Mr. Richardson said he wasn’t even sure of the curtain’s authenticity.

Mr. Niccolini says the only place the painting works is in his restaurant, where it has hung since 1959. “It should just stay here,” he said. “Leave it in the setting where there’s temperature control and people take care of it. It’s a spectacular location for a painting like that.”

Since the curtain went up for sale at the beginning of the year, Mr. Niccolini says he has gotten dozens of phone calls from different customers who say the work should stay in the restaurant, and many have offered to raise money to keep it there.

Mr. Niccolini said he wasn’t “that optimistic” that a patron purchase of the curtain could be orchestrated. Nonetheless, he said that different customers have told him: “If we have to make a contribution to keep the painting there, please count me in.” To that end, Mr. Niccolini said he’s planning to launch a campaign to get the restaurant’s regulars to pitch in and save the Picasso. Mr. Niccolini said that former Random House publisher Alberto Vitale, fashion-publishing czar John Fairchild, Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke and Lazard Frères senior managing director Vernon Jordan are among those who have already expressed interest in chipping in for the cause. Other customers he said would be likely to contribute: former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, fashion designer Arnold Scaasi, former GQ editor in chief Art Cooper, Condé Nast owner Si Newhouse, real-estate magnate Jack Rudin, architect Philip Johnson, writer Lally Weymouth, investment banker Steven Ratner, former PaineWebber chairman and chief executive Donald Marron, former Rolling Stone publisher Joe Armstrong, The View co-anchor Barbara Walters and CNN anchor Paula Zahn.

“I would definitely offer to help, but I’m sure I couldn’t give anything close to what they’re selling it for,” architect and Four Seasons regular Robert A.M. Stern told The Transom. Mr. Stern called the Picasso sale “a tragedy” and said that the restaurant was the only place where the curtain would be visible to the public, even more so than in a museum. “[Vivendi] should never have sold it,” he said.

“I offered to contribute,” said Mr. Vitale, “but my contribution would be a hell of a lot more modest than many others.” Still, he said, “I’ve known that painting for decades, and it’s part of New York. The setting is perfect. It’s perfect because it sits there-the wall is the right size. It enhances the lobby of the Seagram building.”

“Where else can it go?” asked another regular, Mr. Armstrong, who has also offered to pitch in. “I guess maybe to the [United Arab] Emirates or Saudi Arabia. That’s the only place with living rooms high enough.” Mr. Armstrong thought that if Vivendi was going to sell it, they should be responsible for replacing it with something else. “Shouldn’t they do something?” he asked. “Don’t they have some hit movie out?”

There is one stumbling block to the plan, however. “The problem is, though, that it will be hard to pay these people back,” Mr. Niccolini said. “Maybe offer them free lunches and dinners for the rest of their lives”-a comment that could very well give Mr. Niccolini’s partner, Alex von Bidder, a coronary.

Mr. Niccolini said he thought the best possible outcome would be if Vivendi were to donate the stage curtain to the Four Seasons, just as the French gave the Statute of Liberty to the United States. “I think it would really be important,” he said, “a tremendous gesture from the French to the Americans.”

Four Seasons Clutches Curtain