Hamilton Building Expansion

Denver Art Museum

During the groundbreaking ceremonies for the new Denver Museum of Contemporary Art last week, executive director Cydney Payton addressed the crowd (see "Next Up"). In her remarks, she pointed out that the MCA was "not a hundred-million-dollar project," since it's projected to cost only $15 million. Though she didn't say so, she was obviously referring to the Hamilton Building expansion at the Denver Art Museum, which is going to cost just about $100 million.

The public contribution to the Hamilton is $62.5 million, and at the time of the bond election, I made the observation that this was the amount it would cost to buy one good Van Gogh. Now, the approximately $100 million the Hamilton is going to cost in total is what it takes to get an important Picasso.

This was proved last week when an anonymous buyer purchased the artist's "Dora Maar With Cat" (pictured), an oil on canvas from 1941, for an astounding $95.2 million at a Sotheby's auction. One of the most interesting things about the Maar portrait, which was in the private Gidwitz collection in Chicago, is that it was little known before the sale, having not been exhibited in almost half a century.

The painting is an example of Picasso's surrealist phase, and the sale price represents the second highest ever paid for a work of art. The most expensive was another Picasso, "Boy With a Pipe," from 1905, which brought $104.1 million in 2004, also at Sotheby's.

The skyrocketing values for Picassos must give the powers-that-be at the DAM some pause. In 1995, the institution gave a small Picasso to Santa Fe art dealer Gerald Peters in exchange for three minor paintings by major Southwestern artists. Then, in 1997, the DAM considered selling its 1937 "Still Life" by Picasso. This surrealist painting is stylistically related to the artist's "Guernica," which is universally considered one of the greatest works of art of all time.

I was tipped off about the possible sale of "Still Life" and had a verbal joust about it with Dan Jacobs, then the deputy director of the DAM and now director of the Victoria H. Myhren Gallery at the University of Denver. Jacobs suggested that the piece just didn't fit into the DAM's collection. I told him, "The Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, but the Denver Art Museum will always have room for that Picasso."

And, as it turns out, I was right. DAM curator Dianne Vanderlip stepped up and stopped the sale. I'm no art appraiser, but it's clear that "Still Life" is worth at least $5 to $10 million, putting it in a league of its own among the pieces at the DAM. In fact, at the same sale where "Dora Maar With Cat" was sold, a Picasso from the '60s, a formerly disregarded period for the artist, brought more than $5 million.

In addition to "Still Life," the DAM also has many fine prints by the artist, as well as the gorgeous Cézanne-esque "Horta de Ebro" painting from 1909, originally from the Hendrie collection. With the Maar portrait selling for such a stratospheric price, it's unlikely the DAM will ever get any more Picasso paintings than it already has, making it all the better that the disposal of "Still Life" was aborted. Count on both "Still Life" and "Horta de Ebro" being on display somewhere at the DAM when the Hamilton opens in October.

 
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