Edsel & Eleanor Ford House to sell rare Cezanne watercolor, priced at $25M

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

A Cezanne painting bought by Edsel Ford in 1933 will be auctioned at Christie's in New York Oct. 6, the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House announced Wednesday — a work that was included in the very first show at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1929.

Christie's estimated price was priced at $25 million. In 2012, another Cezanne watercolor, "Card Player" — not owned by the Ford House — sold at the auction house for $17 million.

All proceeds from any sale will build up the endowment of the Ford House, which owns the watercolor - part of the art collection bequeathed by Eleanor Ford on her death in 1976.

The Edsel and Eleanor Ford House is selling Cezanne's "Nature morte avec pot à lait, melon et sucrier" (Still life with milk pitcher, melon and sugar bowl) to raise money for its endowment.

The work on paper, "Nature morte avec pot à lait, melon et sucrier" (Still life with milk pitcher, melon and sugar bowl), is fragile, so it has been safely tucked in a custom safe in the basement of the Grosse Pointe Shores National Historic Landmark since 2013.

 A high-quality reproduction took its place where it had previously hung.

The House also sold a Cezanne oil painting in 2013. As with "Nature morte," it's all about bolstering the house museum's endowment.

"Eleanor was very clear the House was never to be a burden on the community," said its President and CEO Mark Heppner, "and the successors take that responsibility very seriously. The board didn’t want to hold their hands out for contributions. So they looked for places to cut costs and make the endowment grow."

Were the Ford House an art museum — which it is not — selling artwork for any reason other than to buy a superior piece would be considered an ethical transgression. But as a privately operated foundation, they're on a different footing.

"We are members of the American Alliance of Museums and the American Association of State and Local History," said Heppner, referring to the field's principal professional organizations,  "but we’re not accredited, which was a conscious choice by the institution  years ago. So we’re not bound by the same policies and procedures that some of my museum colleagues are."

In 1929, "Nature morte" formed part of the inaugural MOMA exhibition, titled "Cezanne, Gauguin, Seurat, Van Gogh."

Cranbrook Art Museum Director Andrew Blauvelt praised the work.

"The artist’s watercolors, and in particular his still lifes, are considered among his best works," he wrote in an email. "I particularly enjoy the sketchiness of this rendition; for me, its incompleteness only strengthens its impressionistic qualities. What is there is evidence of his mastery of this elusive medium."

The painting will be one of the highlights of Christie's October auctions of 20th and 21st-century works. In early September, "Nature morte" will go on an international tour, first appearing at Christie's Hong Kong and then the auction house's London branch, before returning to New York.

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