The museum. The cathedral of culture. A place that inspires the essential questions. What is the nature of beauty? How does one perceive the world? How many vacation homes could I buy with that? No one in the art world wants to admit it, but art and money are inseparable. To many, it may seem […]

The museum. The cathedral of culture. A place that inspires the essential questions. What is the nature of beauty? How does one perceive the world? How many vacation homes could I buy with that?

No one in the art world wants to admit it, but art and money are inseparable. To many, it may seem crass to look at a painting and see dollar signs. But anyone following the art market knows the mental energy devoted to buying and selling art certainly equals the thought and toil devoted to scholarship and commentary.

With the art market booming and records being set at auction houses, one has to wonder: Is Milwaukee sitting on an aesthetic gold mine? Which paintings in town are the most valuable?

Museum officials are wary of those questions. “There are a lot of ways to look at value,” says Haggerty Museum associate curator Annemarie Sawkins. “How valuable is it to the artistic and intellectual community – is it in demand for other shows or cited often in publications?”

Joe Ketner, chief curator of the Milwaukee Art Museum, thinks of value in three categories: historical, artistic and monetary. Sometimes, he says, a painting is only valuable in one way, such as a “portrait of a founding father that’s not really nice to look at.” But sometimes, the three come together in a single work.

The MAM’s The Cock of the Liberation is one such painting. Painted by Picasso to celebrate the liberation of France from the Nazis, it’s historically and artistically significant. It also happens to be worth a lot of money.

How much? Both Ketner and Sawkins prefer not to talk dollars. They don’t hang price tags on their paintings; they want us to look and see compositions, not commodities. But commodities they are, and their worth varies greatly.

“Many people think that art is an ethereal thing that can’t be quantified,” says Sarah Kirk, the former associate curator of prints and drawings at the MAM and now a print specialist with Christie’s in New York City. “But I do it every day. The process is a lot more scientific than people might think, and it’s surprising just how accurately the market reflects that formula.”

Auction houses like Christie’s estimate a piece’s value before the bidding starts. To do so, appraisers locate a comparable work that has recently been auctioned and adjust the price according to the relative sizes of the paintings. In other words, Monets and Picassos are like carpeting or real estate: They’re priced by the square foot.

The trick, of course, is picking the elusive “comparable” painting that’s compared to the work in question. Therein resides the expertise of the curator and appraiser.

But even the professionals cannot anticipate the behavior of the market. Last November, Christie’s estimated the value of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II at between $40 and $60 million. Then, with the drop of the auction hammer, it was worth almost $88 million. At that moment, you might say, Klimts around the world suddenly felt a little better about themselves.

There is no Klimt painting in Milwaukee. But that same, now legendary Christie’s auction featured sales of paintings by Pierre Bonnard, Salvador Dali and German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, all artists represented in Milwaukee, all with sales prices measured in millions.

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Dean Sobel, former chief curator at the MAM who now runs the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, rattles off several names that he considers likely to be among the most valuable in Milwaukee: Rothko, Braque, Léger, Diebenkorn, Monet, Renoir. Taking a mental tour of the Bradley Collection galleries, he concludes, “There are a lot of $5-$10 million paintings in that room.”

Ketner echoes some of that list when identifying the “outstanding objects” – works by Rothko, Léger, O’Keeffe, Kandinsky and Zurbarán.

Dean Jensen, a long-standing fixture on the Milwaukee art scene as both critic and gallery owner, recalls some savvy shopping in the museum’s past. In the 1960s, striving to “fill out” the museum’s modern and contemporary collection around the pieces then owned by Mrs. Harry Lynde Bradley, painting curator Jack Taylor bought up conceptual and minimalist work that she was unlikely to buy. Jensen points to an untitled piece by Cy Twombly as a particular bargain. “I think he bought that for less than $1,000,” says Jensen. “And today it’s probably priced in the stratosphere.”

Nearly all the big-ticket paintings in town are housed at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Among the most valuable (and not necessarily in order of worth) are the following:

Mark Rothko, Green, Red, Blue,1955, oil on canvas. When Joe Ketner was thinking of accepting his current position at the MAM, a friend – a Rothko scholar – told him, “Oh, they’ve got that Rothko.” It’s a nice one. Twelve Rothkos have sold for more than $5 million since 2000. Half of them topped $10 million. And David Rockefeller recently announced that he’s selling a 1950s Rothko which he bought in 1960 for $10,000. Sotheby’s auction estimate for it is $40 million. Once the gavel hits, who knows?

Pablo Picasso, The Cock of the Liberation,1944, oil on canvas. MAM. There are a lot of Picassos and a wide range of prices: Recent auctions have seen 182 sales top $1 million; 17 over $10 million; three over $50 million.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Street on the Schöneberg Stadtpark, 1912–13, oil on canvas. This is one of four Kirchners in the MAM collection, but none are “comparable” to the unique painting sold for $38 million at Christie’s, which had images on both sides of the canvas. There have been 10 $1 million-plus Kirchner sales, with one sale topping $5 million.

Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect,circa 1900, dated 1903, oil on canvas. MAM. The market still seems ripe for Impressionist paintings like Monets and Renoirs. Four Monet paintings have fetched upwards of $20 million each since 2000 and 108 have been sold for more than $1 million.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Grenouillère, 1870-71, oil on canvas. MAM. Since 2000, some 69 Renoir paintings have been bought for $1 million or more.

Fernand Léger, Study for Three Portraits, 1910–11, oil on canvas. MAM. Recent prices: 43 sales of more than $1 million and three over $10 million.

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Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park No. 16, 1968, oil on canvas. The best known of the MAM’s two Diebenkorn paintings. His work is pretty hot of late. Eleven of his canvases have sold for over $1 million since 2000, but the last one, part of another record-breaking Christie’s sale, fetched $6.18 million, nearly double Christie’s estimate.

Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1967, oil and crayon on canvas. Sales for 19 Twomblys have topped $1 million since 2000, with four topping $5 million.

Pierre Bonnard, View from the Artist’s Studio, Le Cannet, 1945, oil on canvas. MAM. According to Artnet’s online auction records, 21 Bonnards have sold at auction for more than $1 million since 2000, and five have sold for over $5 million.

Georges Braque, Seated Nude, 1906, oil on canvas. Fifteen sales of the cubist painter have cracked the $1 million mark since 2000, none of them over $5 million.

Salvador Dali, Madonna of Port Lligat, 1949, oil on canvas. One of the centerpieces of the Haggerty Museum. Since 2000, according to Artnet, 12 Dali paintings have fetched over $1 million at auction. Not bad for a picture that once hung over a copy machine at Marquette’s Memorial Library.

Wassily Kandinsky, Section I for Composition VII (Center), 1913, oil on canvas. MAM. 12 auction sales over $1 million.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Poppies,1950, oil on canvas. O’Keeffe’s have had 10 sales of more than $1 million in recent years.

Keith Haring, Construction Fence mural, 1983. While the Haggerty Museum was still under construction, it commissioned the young Keith Haring to paint a mural on a construction fence at the building site. The 100-foot long painting is still in the museum’s collection, but it’s rarely shown and hard to value because it’s so unique. Several Haring works recently sold in the $500,000 to $1 million range.

It might surprise some to see the big money in the art market is mostly devoted to modern and contemporary paintings, rather than Old Masters or even 19th century works. One of the MAM’s most beloved paintings is Zurbarán’s 17th century St. Francis of Assisi in His Tomb, a painting that is significant enough, according to Ketner, to now be at New York’s Guggenheim Museum as the “centerpiece” of the retrospective of Spanish painting there (the Haggerty’s Dali painting was also there). But as Sobel notes, there is much less trading in older works because most are securely ensconced in museum collections. Without lots of market activity, the prices remain relatively modest. (Eight Zurbaráns have been sold since 2000, and only one has topped the $1 million mark.)

MAM also has works by Miró, Giacometti, Gerhard Richter and other artists that might do well – at the right time, at the right auction. But there may be nothing in the entire collection right now that approaches the value of Portrait of Adele
Bloch-Bauer II.

No matter how hard you try, apparently, it’s hard keeping up with the Klimts.

Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.


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