Taubman art collection on block

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Supporters of the Detroit Institute of Arts reacted with dismay Thursday to Sotheby’s announcement that it will auction A. Alfred Taubman’s legendary art collection, as that means it will not go to the museum.

Sotheby’s statement said the 500-plus works “valued in excess of $500 million” will be on the block in four auctions starting Nov. 4 in New York. The news release called it “the most valuable private collection ever offered at auction.”

Taubman, a self-made billionaire developer, longtime DIA board member and one of its most-generous donors, died April 17 at 91.

The collection ranges from masterpieces by Dürer and Raphael to modern classics by Picasso, Rothko and de Kooning. Proceeds from the sale, the release reads, will go to settle estate taxes and fund the A. Alfred Taubman Foundation.

“It was important to Mr. Taubman that the Taubman Foundation continue to be a source of support for the arts, education and medical research,” said Christopher Tennyson, a spokesman for the Taubman estate, in a statement. “His family is committed to continuing Mr. Taubman’s philanthropic tradition.”

James C. Steward, director of the Princeton University Art Museum, called the trove Taubman amassed “a collection of collections.”

Local art insiders were grieved over the upcoming auction.

“I’m not surprised — I knew this was coming,” said Ruth Rattner, art consultant and chair of the museum’s European painting auxiliary council. “But I’m so sorry the collection’s not going to the DIA. I just wish that some of the great local collections would remain in Detroit.”

Up in the air Thursday was whether the roughly half-dozen works Taubman gave the museum on long-term loan will leave Detroit. Museum spokeswoman Pam Marcil declined to identify the pieces in question comment, beyond saying it was all a “Taubman family matter.”

One long-term loan in the Dutch galleries was the 1661 “Musical Company” by Hendrick Maertensz Sorgh, according to a 2012 “Director’s Letter” from the museum’s just-departed head, Graham Beal.

Other Taubman loans included several Baroque works, Rattner said, adding, “Mr. Taubman liked Baroque paintings, and that’s pretty sophisticated.”

According to the statement the DIA released on Taubman’s death, the developer and one-time owner of Sotheby’s also was instrumental in helping the museum acquire Louis Francois Roubiliac’s “Bust of Isaac Ware,” as well as a Korean “Head of Buddha.”

Rattner, who’s seen the art in Taubman’s New York City apartment, called him an unusually discerning collector.

“He was so intelligent and had a real eye,” she said. “He bought with discrimination and knowledge and good advice. It’s an enviable collection.”

Taubman apportioned the art by category among his residences, Steward said, with “Modernism for a modernist house outside Detroit, British art for a classic Mayfair apartment in London, Old Master paintings in Palm Beach, and Old Master drawings and high Impressionism in New York.”

Cranbrook Art Museum Director Gregory Wittkopp also deplored the fact the collection will go up for auction.

“Isn’t this the story we’ve heard before in Detroit?” he asked. “These collections tend to leave the area, which is unfortunate.”

Some Detroit collectors, of course, gave huge parts of their collections to the DIA, including the Fords, Hawkins Ferry and Robert Hudson Tannahill.

Ones that got away include the pioneering Asian collection Charles Lang Freer acquired at the turn of the 20th century, now the core of the Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, and the modern collection built by Lydia Winston Malbin, which was sold.

Taubman made donations as well as loans to the DIA, including “Small Landscape with Garden Door” by Paul Klee, a chair by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and a sculpture by Raymond Duchamp-Villon, “The Great Horse.” The latter stands in the Josephine F. Ford Sculpture Garden at the College for Creative Studies behind the DIA.

Over the decades, Taubman donated millions to a variety of causes, including the DIA, the University of Michigan, Lawrence Technological University and Wayne State University. He was a leader in bringing stem cell research to Michigan and worked to fight illnesses such as ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Taubman was a significant presence in the wider art world as well, serving on the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and founding the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution.

He also played a key role in some of the region’s best-known developments. Taubman properties include Great Lakes Crossing Outlets in Auburn Hills and Twelve Oaks Mall in Novi. That list once included Fairlane Town Center in Dearborn and the Mall at Partridge Creek in Clinton Township.

In 2001, Taubman was convicted of by a federal jury for fixing prices at the Sotheby’s auction house, which he acquired in 1983. He served 91/2 months in prison before being released in May 2003.

Rattner predicts the Taubman auctions will be a big deal. “The Taubman name will bring international collectors,” she said. “This will not be a small event.”

The “Masterworks” portion of the collection is set to go on sale Nov. 4; Modern and Contemporary Art, Nov. 5; American Art, Nov. 18, and Old Masters, Jan. 27. The auction house said it would provide further details about the contents of the collection in September.



Top 5 artworks by value

■Pablo Picasso, “Femme assise sur une chaise,” 1938. Estimate: $25-35 million.

■Willem de Kooning, “Untitled XXI,” 1976. Estimate: $25-35 million

■Amedeo Modigliani, “Portrait de Paulette Jourdain,” circa 1919. Estimate: $25-35 million.

■Mark Rothko, “Untitled (Lavender and Green),” 1952. Estimate: $20-30 million

■Mark Rothko, “No. 6 / Sienna, Orange on Wine,” 1962. Estimate: $20-30 million

Source: Sotheby’s