An oil painting by Wisconsin impressionist Francesco Spicuzza was the highlight of the first Milwaukee auction held by Chicago auction house Leslie Hindman on April 14, commanding ten times its pre-sale estimate and setting a record for the artist, who was born in Sicily in 1883 and lived in Milwaukee from 1891 until his death in 1962.
“Splash,” an oil-on-board featured on the auction catalog cover, brought $23,180, far above its estimate of $1,000 to $2,000. “We’ve been told it’s the highest-selling Spicuzza to date,” says Heidi von Hagke, the auction house’s director of development.
The painting, owned by the Milwaukee Art Museum, was one of a number of works donated by the artist’s daughter, Marguerite Spicuzza Hambling, who died in her nineties in 2010. (See Plenty of Horne, “In the Galleries,” Feb. 13.)
In a surprise twist, the painting was immediately donated to the Museum of Wisconsin Art by the purchaser, identified as the James and Karen Hyde Foundation, Inc. of Wales. “Yes we do in fact have the Spicuzza painting that you’re inquiring about,” says Andrea Waala, registrar of the West Bend institution.
According to a relative of the artist, who declined to be identified on account of not having discussed the matter with family members, Hambling donated a large number of works to the Milwaukee Art Museum with the anticipation that some of them would be displayed by the institution.
When reached by Plenty of Horne at the time the sale was announced, the family member expressed concern about the use of the proceeds by the Milwaukee Art Museum. These concerns were allayed, the family member says, by an assurance from William Rudolph, curator of American and decorative art, that the funds would be restricted to educational programs and scholarships for art students, in accordance with the terms of Hambling’s gift.
In a statement Monday to Plenty of Horne, museum spokesperson Kristin Settle said:
The terms of the bequest were that the Museum could accession whatever we chose and distribute the rest in any manner we deemed appropriate; with the proviso that any monies that were raised from the sales of artworks be used for visual arts scholarships and Museum art education programs. Accordingly, we accessioned three works of art last year (we have 13 works by Spicuzza in the collection) and the rest are being sold to create those scholarship funds.
The sale is a victory for Hindman, whose commission on the painting’s sale will exceed $7,000, from a 10 percent commission based on the hammer price and a 22 percent buyer's premium, included in the reported price. Her first Milwaukee auction since opening here in September 2011 drew a full house to the Mason Street gallery. The Spicuzza brought by far the highest price of any of the 200+ lots. Only a few other items topped the $1,000 mark, with the vast majority selling for less.
The sale is also a plus for the Milwaukee Art Museum’s coffers, as well as its scholarship programs. “We are very thrilled that students will benefit from Mrs. Hambling’s unrestricted generosity to the Museum and the community,” Rudolph said.
The museum assured the Spicuzza relatives that its holdings would be liquidated in an orderly fashion and not dumped on the market in a single sale. It remains to be seen how the other paintings will fare. Two others in the sale from the museum’s collection, both of considerably less significance, drew only a few hundred dollars.
But the real winner is likely the Museum of Wisconsin Art, which changed its name from West Bend Art Museum in 2007 to emphasize its specialty.
The sale also brings into relief the Milwaukee Art Museum’s complicated relationship with Wisconsin artists. Its predecessor institution, the Layton Gallery of Art, established a Wisconsin Artists Gallery in the 1920s. The Milwaukee Art Institute, also a predecessor institution, featured Spicuzza in group exhibitions in 1922, 1927, 1930 and 1932.
The Milwaukee Art Museum, then the Milwaukee Art Center, also was the home of the Milwaukee Journal Gallery of Wisconsin Art for many years, and as late as 1986 the museum included a commercial gallery selling the works of Wisconsin artists. (This gallery drew the ire of commercial art dealers in the city who feared it was taking business from them.)
However, the Wisconsin artists galleries are long since closed, with the museum’s holdings of Wisconsin art either integrated into its general holdings, or, far more commonly, kept in storage.
Beginning around 1970, with the gift of the “priceless treasure” of Peg Bradley’s collection of modern art (which led to the construction of a 1975 addition to hold the donation), the institution has focused on providing a general survey of art. Perhaps confusing Regionalism with Provincialism, the museum cut its ties to the Wisconsin Art tradition, leaving the field open for the former West Bend Museum, which had as its nucleus the works of West Bend native Carl Marr. Its holdings have since grown considerably, and construction began in March on a new addition, to be opened in 2013.
In October 2011, the Museum of Wisconsin Art opened MWA on the Lake, an outpost in Milwaukee to provide residents of this city an opportunity to see the works of Wisconsin artists, a large number of whom were active here. The gallery is located in the south tower of St. John’s on the Lake, 1800 N. Prospect Ave. and is currently showing a retrospective of the works of Charles Winstanley Thwaites, whom Graeme Reid of the MWA calls “one of America’s most overlooked artists.”
The James and Karen Hyde Foundation had assets of $1.2 million at the end of 2011. The foundation gave $23,000 to the MWA in 2011 out of a total $57,000 donations. James S. Hyde is a professor of biophysics at the Medical College of Wisconsin and the director of the National Biomedical EPR Center.
NOTE: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the terms of the Hindman auction house's commission.