Scandal for Sale

In a sale tinged by scandal, Christie’s auction house on June 9 offers a treasure trove of Old Master paintings

In a sale tinged by scandal, Christie’s auction house on June 9 offers a treasure trove of Old Master paintings that have appeared nearly as often in court papers and tabloids as in art-history textbooks and museums. Many works, at fire-sale prices, are from the inventory of disgraced Upper East Side art dealership Salander O’Reilly; another was originally from the collection of actor Sylvester Stallone-who famously sued his art adviser for selling it to him.

Christie’s won the right to sell the stock of art dealer Lawrence B. Salander, in a sale ordered and okayed by U.S. Bankruptcy Court. But unhappy creditors defrauded of more than $120 million by Mr . Salander are unlikely to get much satisfaction. The works are at low estimates, often much less than Mr. Salander himself paid for them, and many are of average quality at best. 

Earlier this year, Mr. Salander pleaded guilty in New York State Supreme Court to fraud and grand larceny charges: He admitted to selling the same painting to more than one buyer, and to selling art he didn’t own. He often delayed payment or simply didn’t pay dealers and clients, one of whom was actor Robert De Niro. Following his arrest and the confiscation of his stock in 2007, the sorting out of exactly who and what was owed took years to unravel. Christie’s was awarded the remnants of Mr. Salander’s stock with the results to be divided among his creditors.

“I do think that scandal does make the pictures more attractive,” noted Nicholas J. Hall, director of Christie’s Old Master department. “Salander had something of a reputation…this is just a supposition, but he might have offered that ‘Studio of El Greco’ Agony in the Garden as an autographed El Greco for $6 million. It’s a perfectly good picture in very nice condition, estimated now at $200,000-$300,000. Likewise the Palma Vecchio. It’s what everyone wants in the artist – a sexy image of a Venetian courtesan. One in fabulous condition would be worth many millions.”

Given the art dealer’s history, buyers might be worried about clear title. Christie’s thought of that; according to the catalog, the works have “not been the subject of an ownership claim or any such claim has been satisfactorily resolved. As such, by order of the bankruptcy court, no new parties may come forward and assert an ownership interest.” In an unusual move, as an added bonus, each purchase comes with Art Title Protection Insurance issued by ARIS Title Insurance Corporation.

Leafing through the catalog, one can easily see why no claimants were found, as the quality of most of the 130 lots ranges from middling to poor, with many-though not all-offered with no minimum bid or reserve. Among the remains are a handful of works that are securely attributed, i.e., the name of the painter is known and not in dispute. These include an unusual Théodore Géricault of Rooster, Three Chickens and a Guinea pig (estimated price, $200,000 to $300,000) and a Peter Paul Rubens oil sketch Allegory of Fortitude that failed to sell a handful of previous times it appeared at auction, according to records. But the majority are by pupils or imitators of artists such as El Greco, designated as such in the catalog with coded insider descriptions such as “Workshop of,” “School of” or “Circle of” (they might as well read “in the 5,000-mile vicinity of”).

A “Studio of Rubens” Ceres with Nymphs that Mr. Salander bought at Sotheby’s for $102,000 in 2005 is now estimated at a fraction of that, $25,000 to $35,000. An attractive early-16th-century Flemish  Portrait of a Lady was sold by Sotheby’s the same year for $60,000, from the “Circle of The Master of The Female Half-Lengths.” It is now offered as from a “Follower of The Master of The Female Half-Lengths” (one notch less authentic, in Old Master auction parlance). It’s estimated at $3,000 to $5,000. Many of the pictures appear to be speculative purchases by Mr. Salander that didn’t pan out. A 16th-century male portrait “Attributed to Bartolomeo Veneto” was stripped of its over-paint, revealing a brutally damaged (but still perversely attractive) panel with a third of its surface scrubbed bare (estimated at $6,000 to $8,000). 

To be fair, Christie’s regular sale of Old Master and 19th-century pictures on the same day features a number of fine pictures, including Gerrit Dou’s A Hermit Saint Reading in a Cave (estimated at $200,000 to $300,000) and a superb Théodore Chassériau Le Souvenir. It shows a young woman draped in dramatic mourning over a grave in a wooded glade (estimated at $20,000 to $30,000). Not the most cheerful subject, perhaps, but something for a collector who favors quality over subject matter. But most attention will likely center on another powerful and beautiful 19th-century monument to grief: William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s 7-foot-high Pieta-though not for the reasons the artist intended. 

One of the most important (and atypical) pictures by a painter best known for his popular canvases of coquettish little girls, the Pieta was bought in 1988 by Sylvester Stallone. He purchased it on the advice of his art adviser, Barbara Guggenheim, for $1.7 million, sight unseen. The actor subsequently learned that the picture belonged to a friend of Ms. Guggenheim’s, New York collector-dealer Stuart Pivar, who had reportedly unsuccessfully offered it around for years-both Michael Jackson and Madonna were said to have turned the picture down. 

Distressed to discover that the canvas had been torn, and unevenly restored and repainted, Mr. Stallone filed a $5 million civil fraud suit in 1989 against Ms. Guggenheim and Mr. Pivar. It was quietly settled in 1994 when Mr. Pivar agreed to swap the Pieta for another important Bouguereau from his collection. He swapped the Alma Parens, an imposing allegory of an enthroned Mother France surrounded by clamoring infants. As for the Pieta, Mr. Pivar consigned it to Hirschl and Adler Galleries at a price of $1.75 million. Subsequently bought by a Texas collector, it is now estimated by Christie’s at $1.5 million to $2 million.

As in his Rocky films, Mr. Stallone wound up the victor, selling Alma Parens at Sotheby’s New York in 1998 for a then record for the artist, $2.6 million.



Scandal for Sale