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Chasing Beauty

Atheneum Must Compete With Deep-Pocket Collectors For Great Artworks

By MATT EAGAN, Courant Staff Writer

January 20, 2008

For Eric Zafran, the one that got away kept coming back to him.

Zafran, curator of European Art at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, first recognized the brilliance of the painting "An Interior With Two Ladies and a Gentleman" by Louis-Rolland Trinquesse back in the 1980s.

He was a young curator in Atlanta organizing a show of French Rococo paintings. The Trinquesse was to be a highlight, but at the final moment, the owner withdrew it.

Zafran followed the painting through decades and across continents as it was displayed in shows in Ottawa and Berlin and Vienna.

So when Paris dealer Maurice Segoura decided to put the painting up for sale at auction, Zafran knew it was a chance for the Wadsworth to bolster its collection of French masterworks and a chance for him to land a painting that had captivated him for almost 25 years.

"There are so many that don't come to fruition," Zafran says. "That was a lucky turn of events, and it became a centerpiece in 'Faith and Fortune.'"

Such triumphs are rare.

"We lose more than we get," says Elizabeth Kornhauser, curator of American painting and sculpture at the Atheneum. The stubborn truth for curators is that private collectors have deeper pockets and often buy paintings as investments rather than as art, and that makes it difficult to compete.

Curators stay in the game through preparation and guile and because some art dealers crave the prestige that comes from selling to a museum.

But the challenges the curators at the Atheneum face are sundry.

For starters, the museum's permanent collection is excellent, which means anything added has to be its equal.

"We have 18th-century European decorative arts of the highest quality," says Linda Roth, curatorial chairwoman. "We're trying to build our collection in the 19th century and 20th century, but you have to be sure [the new pieces] have the quality of what you have."

In some areas, this makes adding works nearly impossible because museums, even one with ample purchasing power such as the Wadsworth, do not have an endless bankroll.

Put another way, don't expect a new Picasso to show up in Hartford.

"There are some areas where the boat has sailed, but we study this stuff," Kornhauser says. "We try to buy ahead of the market. We try to find the stuff that hasn't risen to the forefront yet but will."

This mentality was behind the purchase of "An Interior With Two Ladies and a Gentleman," which depicts a woman listening to a male companion as she removes pins from her hat while her maid looks on and listens.

There is dramatic tension as well as an erotic subtext that causes one to wonder what kind of conversation is taking place.

The painting has won much critical praise, but it was available because Trinquesse, despite formal training, was a relative outsider.

"His work forms an important link between the earlier generation of Watteau, Boucher and de Troy and the subsequent petite Dutch manner of Boilly and Marguerite Gerard," Zafran said after it was acquired.

The risk is that it took nearly $1 million to buy the painting, a healthy chunk of the $2 million the museum usually spends in a year acquiring art.

The reward is that 75 years from now, someone will walk into the Wadsworth Atheneum and see the painting. This is the immortality curators are after, and it's a difficult chase.

Most of their acquisition time is spent poring through auction catalogs and maintaining relationships with dealers and collectors.

What would seem to be the pulse-pounding part of the task, bidding on items at auction, is usually handled by a professional bidder, well versed in game theory, who takes into account where other bidders are sitting and whether a preemptive bid might scare off enough people to keep the eventual price lower.

This doesn't mean curators are immune to the adrenaline rush of an auction. Most often Kornhauser, Roth or Zafran will sit by a phone getting play-by-play on where the other big bidders are sitting and other minute details.

But unlike Hollywood, where Cary Grant can stall the bad guys for 15 or 20 minutes, real auctions are akin to a game show's lightning round.

The preparation for that auction may have taken years from the time a curator sees an item that would be perfect for the Wadsworth's collection all the way through the museum approval process, but it's all over in seconds.

And usually, at auction, the museum is outbid by someone with deeper pockets.

"It's heartbreaking," says Kornhauser.

This is why curators attempt to do their buying before a work ever gets to the auction block, which is less glamorous but stretches the acquisition budget.

"It's all well and good to have a plan," Zafran says. "What we are really doing is being optimistic."

The challenges are different when purchasing the work of emerging artists. The prices aren't as daunting, and the competition isn't as fierce, but the wheel is still in motion, which makes it difficult to assess where it will stop.

Put another way, the Trinquesse may have been expensive, but at least everyone is clear on what an excellent French 18th-century painting looks like.

More recently, the museum purchased a large painting by local artist Peter Waite, who works in Glastonbury. The cost was, obviously, considerably less than what it paid for Trinquesse, which means the museum's risk is lower, but the patrons of the future won't know or care about that.

They'll simply look at Waite's painting next to a work by, say, Winslow Homer. The Wadsworth is betting Waite's work, already well respected, will continue to be appreciated in the future and will add a modern touch and depth to the museum's considerable collection of state artists.

The risk is even greater with the emerging artists whose work is seen in the Matrix shows.

"With emerging artists, you have to take a risk," Roth says. "You can't be afraid. The financial risk is not as great as it could be, but it's still moderate to mid-range, but you can't afford to be afraid."

And you can't be afraid to benefit from other people's generosity. Some of the best additions have come through gifts, such as the 125 contemporary photographs donated by Mickey Cartin last year.

"That was an exceptional gift," Kornhauser says. "That helped us add a dimension we didn't have. We are fortunate sometimes that people do seek us out."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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