The Art Market: High stakes

The rumour mill is grinding after the death of Greek collector Georges Embiricos, whose holdings include one of the greatest modern paintings still in private hands, Cézanne’s “The Card Players” (1902). The work is hugely important, the last in a series depicting seated peasants, deeply absorbed in their game: three of the series were recently shown at the Courtauld Institute in London.

According to a number of accounts from within the trade, Embiricos’s version might already have been sold. But to whom? There’s the question. One rumour has it that Gagosian has bought the collection (the gallery did not respond to a request for comment), while another mentions Qatar (which never comments on art acquisitions).

“The field is open,” says one private dealer. “For such a great work, there are quite a few buyers who would be desperate to get it. It’s a holy grail, and it’s worth far, far more than the current world record for any work of art.”

Aimé Maeght was one of the world’s most famous art dealers – the man who showed Miró, Calder, Giacometti, Matisse, Braque and many others in the art gallery he founded in 1945. He was also a publisher and a friend of the artists, and with them he created the not-for-profit Maeght Foundation in the south of France, which today attracts 200,000-300,000 visitors a year.

Maeght died in 1981 and – as often happens with such legacies – all is not hunky-dory in the family. Aimé’s four grandchildren run the Maeght “empire” – a gallery and publishing house, as well as the foundation. Recently one of them, Yoyo, resigned from the board of the foundation, explaining publicly that this was because of persistent disagreements with her sister Isabelle and her father (Aimé’s son Adrien).

“We don’t have the same vision for the foundation,” Yoyo told me; “I’m thinking of the future, how we can respect the past but use modern methods. The others have a different vision; they want to turn it into a mausoleum.”

Isabelle counters that the foundation should resist “commercialisation” and avoid giving too much power to sponsors. “We don’t want to make money at any price,” she says, but downplays the dissent: “All families have disputes.”

Outsiders, however, have been critical of the exhibition programme since its long-serving curator Jean-Louis Prat was sacked in 2005 after disagreements with the family. At the time, he told the French magazine L’Express: “We don’t have the same taste ... they wanted to exhibit the artists they show in their gallery, whereas Aimé did not want the foundation’s programme to reflect the gallery artists.”

Meanwhile, hanging over the Maeght estate is a long-running lawsuit with the Calder Foundation, which claims that the estate has not restituted works given by Calder on consignment in his lifetime. A Versailles court of appeal has ordered the return of seven sculptures by the end of this month, but other works remain at issue.

Without any fanfare, London’s venerable Waddington Galleries has quietly become Waddington Custot Galleries. The change came as the result of the death of Lord Bernstein; he and a trust owned half the shares in the company and they were sold to the London-based French art dealer Stéphane Custot, who is a partner in the company that organises the Pavilion of Art and Design in London and Paris. “Stephane Custot is the dealer that I like and respect the most, in my view he will be a very good partner for the future,” founder Leslie Waddington told me.

Custot, who was previously a partner in the Hopkins Custot Gallery in Paris, has ended that relationship, although “we do continue to work together and especially at art fairs. Today is a bit too early to reveal our plans for the future but I can tell you that I am absolutely delighted to be part of this new adventure!” he said.

Alex Bernstein, a member of the Granada media dynasty, backed Leslie Waddington in 1966 when he split from his father Victor and opened his own gallery in Cork Street, and remained a partner and co-owner of Waddington Galleries until his death last year.

A row over a massive metal sculpture by Sir Anthony Caro ended badly in London this week: on sale in Bonhams’ 20th-century British art auction on March 9, it was bought in at £75,000 without attracting a single bid.

Bonhams was offering “Lagoon” (1976-77), a large metal sculpture, with an estimate of £100,000-£150,000. The work had been bought directly from the artist by the Peterborough Sculpture Trust in 1984. At issue were the metal feet welded to the base of the piece; Caro said they had been added at a later date – and indeed this is confirmed by a photograph taken before 1981. The work was generally in a sorry state, with rusting and the remains of graffiti.

The sculpture trust bought “Lagoon” directly from the artist for £25,000 in 1984. According to trust member Karen Harvey, it was one of the least popular pieces on the Peterborough sculpture trail, and was sent for sale to raise money to buy other works.

As the sculpture went under the hammer, the auctioneer read out a notice declaring that, “It is the sculptor’s view that these legs are not his work. That is not the recollection of the staff of the Peterborough Trust, who were involved many years ago with the installation of the piece on site.” Peterborough Trust’s own catalogue shows the piece in 1987 without the offending appendages.

Caro feels that his work had been “massacred” by the alterations. He claimed that the trust “was trying to make a killing” on the piece – which he had sold to them for a favourable price – and also said that “the trust had failed to take care of the sculpture”, which had never been intended to be installed outside.

“It seems extraordinary,” Caro said, “that the artist has no resource to protect his own artwork once it’s been sold.”

Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper

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