What exactly do we mean when we talk about an art dealer’s collection?
Is it the artworks they haven’t sold or is it their prized possessions?
Christie’s has announced that this October in London it will be auctioning Leslie Waddington’ s collection. The revered English dealer passed away last December and the sale estimated to raise £20 million. But when collections belonging to professionals go under the hammer, it can often be hard to tell what was stock from what was owned on its own merits.
The boundary between the two becomes much clearer when art dealers become dedicated collectors. In such cases, they usually want to write their name in the history books, to leave something to posterity.
There is no shortage of dealers who in their advancing years have expressed a desire to leave behind the art fair and gallery show circuit.
In Berlin, Heinz Berggruen (who tellingly wrote the book I Was My Best Client) sold his extraordinary modern art collection to the city – it can be enjoyed in a museum bearing his name that opened in 1996.
You probably don’t need reminding either that Ernst Beyeler, with his collection that stretches from primitive art to Rothko, created a museum in Basel in a building that bears Renzo Piano’s unmistakable fingerprint.
And then there’s the French dealer Yvon Lambert who bequeathed to the French state his collection of contemporary art in Avignon (estimated at more than 90 million euros in 2012) plus the German dealer Michael Werner who donated 127 works to the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, with a estimate value of 15.8 million euros in 2012.
And now it’s the turn of Thea Westreich Wagner and her husband Ethan Wagner who are donating 500 works to the Whitney Museum in New York and 350 works to the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
Thea Westreich who was an influential private dealer in New York retired in April 2015.
Following last winter’s exhibition of a selection of their donation to the Whitney Museum, 150 works are on view at the Pompidou Centre until next February.
The most puzzling thing about these two exhibitions is the eclecticism of the collection: from Jeff Koons to conceptual artist Rikrit Tiravanija.
Here is what the couple said when asked what their collection means (before offering their predictions about the forthcoming American elections, Ethan’s speciality):
Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner have been collecting art since the ’90s, accumulating works by Richard Prince and Ed Atkins, Diane Arbus and Danh Vo, Bruce Nauman and Pierre Huyghe.
I asked them how they arrived at the decision whether to advise their clients to buy a certain work or to keep it for themselves. The husband replied, ‘I was really annoyed by this state of affairs but clients always got first choice.’
The allocation of works between the two museums is simple: those by American artists or artists residing in the US will be kept by the Whitney while the others are going to the Pompidou Centre.
It’s the excellent director of the American institution Adam Weinberg who came up with the idea for this arrangement, which adheres to the statutes of the Whitney.
(More specifically it has to do with ‘promised gifts’ to the Whitney Museum and the Pompidou Centre Foundation, which will gradually integrate them into their public collections according to french PR. But Whitney PR declares:“The timing for when the works will formally enter the Whitney’s collection is part of the terms of the gift agreement, which is confidential.“)
The exhibition catalogue is well worth reading and is instructive about Thea Westreich’s very early discovery of certain artists. On the subject of the extraordinary Robert Gober, she says: ‘I met Bob thanks to Christopher Wool when he was working as an art installer at the Paula Cooper Gallery.’
As for Wool: ‘We went to a lot of exhibitions together, particularly the Warhol retrospective at MoMA in 1989. By getting really close to certain works, Christopher showed me how Warhol made his screen prints. I must say that my understanding of Warhol’s work and a large part of what I think about painting in general comes from those initial gallery visits with Christopher.’
Finally, as the Whitney Museum and the Pompidou Centre are impeccably well-mannered institutions, when I asked about the value of these gifts, they responded: ‘We do not comment on the value of gifts.’