Edsel and Eleanor Ford are justly renowned for their contributions to the Detroit Institute of Arts, which included everything from the Diego Rivera “Detroit Industry” murals to paying museum salaries during the Great Depression.
But for all their largesse, the value of the art the Fords gave is apparently eclipsed by that given by Robert Hudson Tannahill, perhaps the institution’s greatest art patron.
Measured by a comprehensive Artvest valuation released in July as part of Detroit’s bankruptcy, DIA artwork given by Tannahill or purchased with the fund he established is now worth almost half-a-billion dollars.
By contrast, today’s price tag of high-value works donated by the entire Ford family totals about $280 million, compared to Tannahill’s $473 million.
“I’m not surprised,” said William H. Peck, author of “The Detroit Institute of Arts: A Brief History” of the Tannahill totals. In his book, Peck notes Tannahill donated 557 objects on his death in 1969, ranging from Impressionist masterpieces to African miniatures, but added in a recent interview: “An enormous amount of art has been bought since his death from the Tannahill funds.”
Despite the breadth and value of his contributions, Tannahill’s name is largely unknown in Metro Detroit. Yet he was an indispensable player in the creation of the city’s world-class collection.
“When I have colleagues come wander around the museum,” said DIA director Graham Beal, “as often as not they come and ask, ‘Who is this Tannahill guy?’ We directors pay attention to those credit lines.”
Tannahill was a nephew of Hudson’s department store founder Joseph L. Hudson, and a cousin to Eleanor Ford, whom he advised on art purchases. A volunteer ambulance driver in World War I, Tannahill was independently wealthy and served for years on the city’s Arts Commission. He acted as the DIA’s honorary curator of American art for many years, and was a co-founder of the Detroit Artists Market, one of the city’s oldest and most important galleries.
Artists Market director Matt Fry says the fund Tannahill established still accounts for 15 percent of the gallery’s annual revenue. “Our existence is made possible by his bequest,” Fry said. “There’s a lot of love for Robert Hudson Tannahill here at DAM.”
Good friends with the DIA’s first director, William R. Valentiner, Tannahill was with Valentiner in London when the latter made the astonishing discovery of “The Wedding Dance” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, one of the museum’s treasures.
The city Arts Commission bought that in 1930 for $35,000. In December, Christie’s Appraisals pegged it at $200 million as part of an earlier bankruptcy valuation that focused only on city-purchased works.
Tannahill was still dropping by the museum in the early 1960s when Peck arrived.
“He’d come in and rearrange the early American silver he gave us,” Peck said. On one visit to Tannahill’s Grosse Pointe home, Peck recalls a Matisse still life over the dining room table, a Renoir nude in the living room, and a parade of Picassos marching up the stairway.
Among works that came to the museum after Tannahill’s death were Picasso’s “Melancholy Woman” (valued by Artvest at $80 million), Seurat’s “View of Le Crotoy from Upstream” ($40 million), Cezanne’s “Madame Cezanne” ($40 million) and Matisse’s “Poppies” ($26 million).
The Fords donated or funded the acquisition of Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Postman Roulin” ($120 million), Caravaggio’s “Conversion of the Magdalen” ($40 million), “Annunciatory Angel” by Fra Angelico ($15 million), and Perugino’s “Madonna and Child” ($12 million).
The DIA wasn’t built just by the Fords and Tannahill, but it had a number of other significant benefactors, many of them with storied names from the city’s history.
Mrs. Horace E. Dodge contributed Gainsborough’s “The Honorable Richard Savage Nassau de Zuylestein” ($5 million) and his “Lady Anne Hamilton” ($6 million). Dodge was also responsible for most of the museum’s spectacular collection of French household silver, though Artvest appraised little of that.
Other key donors included seed-fortune heir Dexter M. Ferry Jr., who gave Whistler’s revolutionary “Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket” ($45 million), as well as Mr. and Mrs. Ralph H. Booth, who donated Bronzino’s “Eleonora of Toledo with Her Son” ($20 million).
The museum’s very best Rubens, “The Meeting of David and Abigail” ($10 million), came from Detroit News founder James E. Scripps.
Some of the differential between the value of the Tannahill and the Ford gifts boils down to unpredictable appreciation over time — some works have grown enormously in value, while others have not.
And the Impressionist and post-Impressionist works by Matisse, Picasso, Seurat and Cezanne that Tannahill collected have done particularly well. In addition, the Artvest report put no value on “Detroit Industry,” which might be competitive with the museum’s most-valuable works, arguing it couldn’t be moved.
The Fords, unlike Tannahill, also made large brick-and-mortar contributions, like the South Wing, largely underwritten by Eleanor.
Artvest, a New York art investment firm brought in to appraise the full collection of the DIA, put its total value between $2.8 billion and $4.6 billion. The Tannahill bequest came with a prohibition on sale of the art, according to Peck — meaning any effort to liquidate it to pay creditors would run into an additional legal hurdle.
The Artvest report isn’t necessarily comprehensive, though it tends to hit the most valuable pieces. Still, some important works are excluded, so monetary totals for Tannahill, the Fords and others likely fall short of the real figures, experts say.