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For Museum, Long-Lost Picasso Is Too Costly To Keep

Sep 10, 2012
Originally published on September 10, 2012 2:53 pm

In the southwestern Indiana town of Evansville, people are a bit baffled after hearing that the town's Museum of Arts, History and Science has had a rare Pablo Picasso piece in storage for almost half a century. Curator Mary Bower says the work went unnoticed because of a clerical error.

"All the documentation associated with the gift indicated that this was by an artist named Gemmaux," she says, "which really happens to be the plural of the artistic technique."

That technique, gemmail, uses layered glass to create 3-D art. The work remained miscataloged for more than 40 years, until Bower got a call from Guernsey's auction house in New York. They were doing research on the special glass technique Picasso used and had tracked one of the works to Evansville.

"I thought, 'Yes, I do need to check in on that,' " Bower says.

Lo and behold, the piece in the museum's storage area was a rare gemmail, one of only 50 Picasso made. It's called Seated Woman with Red Hat, and it's iconic Picasso, with thick black lines that mimic his brushstrokes. Since its discovery in February, there has been a flurry of appraisals and meetings with the museum's members and board of trustees. They discovered that the value and rarity of the piece made it impossible for them to keep, so the board voted this month to sell it instead.

The museum enlisted Guernsey's to help it find a home for the work through a private sale. Guernsey's President Arlan Ettinger says, "To suggest that this might be in the $30 [million] to $40 million range, I think, is probably a fair assessment."

That's precisely why the museum can't keep it. With only one guard on duty in the gallery, it would be nearly impossible to provide enough security. Robert Pittinger is with the insurance company AXA Art. He won't guess at how much it might cost to insure the Picasso, but he says his company wouldn't take on the risk of insuring a piece unless it had the right protection.

"Is it hung properly? Is it in an environment where it is climate controlled? Is it in an area that is not susceptible to excess light?" Pittinger asks.

All of that protection can get expensive. At the Evansville Museum, where artwork is crowded on the gallery walls and the entire collection is valued at only $10 million, modifying the space would cost more than the actual insurance. The irony is that if the museum had the money from the sale of the Picasso now, it could probably afford to keep it.

Guernsey's won't say when the sale of Seated Woman will be finalized, but whether it takes two weeks or a month, one thing is for sure: The people of Evansville won't get a chance to see it, at least not at their local museum.

"Part of the joy of the job is to be able to share works of art with the museum community, the Evansville community and the region," says curator Bower. "So I'm disappointed. I'm sorry that it won't be displayed."

If there is a silver lining, it's that after the sale, the museum will have funds for new works and special exhibits — the American Association of Museums' code of ethics says proceeds from the sale of artwork have to be used for shows and preservation.

Copyright 2013 WFIU-FM. To see more, visit http://wfiu.org.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Now from the too much of a good thing department - an art museum in Indiana has recently discovered a rare work by Pablo Picasso. It's been sitting in storage for almost half a century. The Picasso could be worth up to four times the value of the museum's entire collection. It's so much of a good thing, in fact, that the museum can't afford to keep it. Mia Partlow from member station WFIU explains.

MIA PARTLOW, BYLINE: In the southwestern Indiana town of Evansville people are a bit baffled after hearing the town's Museum of Arts, History, and Science has had a rare Picasso in storage for almost half a century.

DIANE WESSEL: Oh, I thought, oh wow, you know. I thought how exciting.

BOB EARHART: Totally shocked.

PARTLOW: Those were Evansville residents Diane Wessel and Bob Earhart. Museum curator Mary Bower says the piece went unnoticed because of a clerical error.

MARY BOWER: All the documentation associated with the gift indicated that this was by an artist named gemmaux, which really happens to be the plural of the artistic technique.

PARTLOW: That technique is gemmail, which uses layered glass to create 3D art. It remained miscataloged for almost 50 years, until Bower got a call from Guernsey's auction house in New York City. They were doing research on the special glass technique Picasso used and tracked one of the works to Evansville.

BOWER: So, I thought, yes, I do need to check in on that.

PARTLOW: Lo and behold, the work in the museum's storage area was a rare gemmail, one of only 50 Picasso made. It's called "Seated Woman With Red Hat." It's iconic Picasso, with thick black lines that mimic his brush strokes.

Since the discovery in February, there have been a flurry of appraisals and meetings with the board of trustees and museum members. And they discovered that the very value and rarity of the piece made it impossible for them to keep it. The board voted this month to sell the work.

BOWER: Well, this is a very difficult decision for the museum's board of trustees.

PARTLOW: The museum enlisted Guernsey's auction house to help them sell the work through a private sale. Arlan Ettinger is the president.

ARLAN ETTINGER: To suggest that this might be in the $30 million to $40 million range I think is probably a fair assessment.

PARTLOW: And that's precisely why the museum can't keep it. Here, where there is only one guard on duty in the art gallery, it would be nearly impossible to provide enough security.

Robert Pittinger is with AXA Insurance. He wouldn't estimate how much it would cost to insure the Picasso, but says his company wouldn't take on the risk of insuring a piece unless it had the right protection. And that's what gets expensive.

ROBERT PITTINGER: Is it hung properly? Is it in an environment where it is climate controlled? Is it in an area that is not susceptible to excess light?

PARTLOW: At the Evansville museum, where artwork is crowded on the gallery walls and the entire art collection is only valued at $10 million, modifying the space would cost more than the actual insurance. And the irony is, if the museum had the money from the sale of the Picasso now, it could probably afford to keep it.

Guernsey's wouldn't say when the sale of "Seated Woman" would be finalized, but whether it's two weeks or a month, one thing is for sure, the people of Evansville won't get a chance to see it here. Museum curator Mary Bower.

BOWER: Part of the joy of the job is to be able to share works of art with the museum community, the Evansville community and the region, so I'm disappointed. I'm sorry that it won't be displayed.

PARTLOW: If there is a silver lining, it's that the museum will have funds for new works and special exhibits. The American Association of Museum's code of ethics says proceeds from the sale of artwork have to be used for shows and preservation.

For NPR News, I'm Mia Partlow in Bloomington, Indiana.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.