Months after fending off a sale of its collection in Detroit’s bankruptcy, seven key Baroque paintings at the Detroit Institute of Arts will be pulled from the walls before November to be sold at auction.
The works in question are all long-term loans from the late DIA board member and donor A. Alfred Taubman, whose entire private art collection will be sold by Sotheby’s in four auctions starting Nov. 4.
“If they’re on loan to the museum,” said Taubman family spokesman Christopher Tennyson, “they will be removed for sale.” Tennyson added that Sotheby’s will exhibit all 500-odd works in the Taubman collection, said to be worth more than $500 million, in New York this October.
Auction proceeds will go to settle estate taxes, with the remainder funding the A. Alfred Taubman Foundation.
The museum has no fewer than seven Taubman pieces on display, including 17th-century religious works by Guercino, Pietro da Cortona, Giovan Battista Caracciolo, Valentin de Boulogne, Matthias Stom and Hendrick Maertensz Sorgh. Only one painting, by Domenico Beccafumi, is from the 16th century.
The Baroque was a period of lush, detailed European artistry from the late 1500s through the 1600s.
“It’s a great loss that Taubman didn’t leave some of his collection to the museum — at least, the pictures he loaned the DIA,” said R. Ward Bissell, an expert on the Italian Baroque who’s a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan.
“It’s certainly unfortunate and unexpected,” he added. Of the paintings, the loss of the Guercino — “Penitent Magdalene” — might be the most important if, he said, stressing that he’s not certain, “it’s a mature Guercino.”
Five of the paintings hang in the first European Old Masters gallery in the museum’s A. Alfred Taubman Wing, adjacent to the Woodward Avenue entrance on the second floor.
As you enter the gallery, five Taubman loans are among the 10 works on the right-hand side, surrounding one of the most important pieces owned by the museum, Caravaggio’s “Martha and Mary Magdalene.”
Sorgh’s “Musical Company,” an example from the Dutch Baroque, is on the third floor in the Dutch Golden Age galleries.
“God, I can picture every one of them,” said Cranbrook Art Museum Director Gregory Wittkopp, when told the paintings will be leaving. “They’ll certainly be missed by the entire cultural community.”
In Detroit’s bankruptcy, the museum — city-owned until November — risked having its treasures sold to pay creditors. The “grand bargain” that resolved the bankruptcy terminated city ownership and saved the collection.
Some argue the loss to the museum of the Taubman-owned works might be less grievous than it appears. Bissell notes that you have to figure out whether these are great examples from the artists in question, or minor ones — questions he couldn’t answer without studying the works in detail.
Tennyson notes that the Taubman Foundation, which funds education, medicine and the arts, will continue to support the DIA as one of its core interests.
Indeed, Jeffrey Abt, a Wayne State art professor who wrote a history of the DIA, points out that it’s still unclear what promises, if any, Taubman may have made to the museum.
“Museums like the DIA often need general-operating funds more than acquisition funds,” he said. “There may have been an understanding that the sale of these works would result in an unrestricted gift.”
Tennyson said he was unaware of any specific promises.
Still, the former chair of Wayne State’s Art & Art History Department, Mame Jackson, says it’s important to consider the whole ensemble in a given gallery, and what story the curator is trying to tell.
“Paintings aren’t just hung willy-nilly,” she said. “They’re hung in such a way that they speak to one another. Paintings may be individually important, but they’re also part of a whole. It’s a conversation.”
For DIA patrons, time is short to eavesdrop on that conversation.
Wittkopp’s already making plans. “I may head down this weekend to take one last look,” he said.
His advice to other art lovers? “Run, don’t walk — before they leave the walls.”