Travel entrepreneur and art collector Barney Ebsworth built one of the leading collections of American art in private hands. He estimated that his collection had only one other rival in private hands. Among his great prizes were two of Georgia O’Keeffe’s best abstract works.
One he acquired at auction from the sale of the influential American art dealer Edith Halpert’s collection. The sale piqued O’Keeffe’s interest. Halpert had shown her work earlier in the century. The aged artist wanted to meet the man who bought Black, White and Blue.
Ebsworth declined her first few invitations to come to New Mexico. Finally, Ebsworth, who preferred to buy the work of artists who were no longer living so he didn’t have to engage with the artists, made the trek. The two hit it off. For many years after that, Ebsworth and O’Keeffe sought each other’s advice and counsel. Ebsworth was eventually called upon to mediate between the notoriously difficult artist and her long-time dealer.
Because O’Keeffe respected Ebsworth so much, she eventually sold him one of her other ‘best’ abstract works from her own holdings, Music—Pink and Blue I. Those two works might have fetched nine figure sums. Instead, they’ve been donated to museums. Black, White and Blue went to the National Gallery in Washington, along with Charles Sheeler’s Classic Landscape. The Seattle Museum got Music—Pink and Blue I and Marsden Hartley’s Painting No. 49, Berlin.
Such is the quality of the Ebsworth collection that even without those two extraordinary works, Christie’s has plenty of firepower to launch the collection. One of the lessons of Christie’s last few successes, the Leonardo and the Rockefeller Collection, has been global appeal of Western art and the need to bring that art to various cities around the world to cultivate unexpected collectors.
Today, Christie’s launches the Ebsworth collection with 11 works unveiled in Paris. From now until the end of October, the collection will travel to New York, Hong Kong, London, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In November there will be a single-owner day and evening sale of the works.
Christie’s estimates the collection will yield $300m. Rumors in the art market suggest Christie’s has guaranteed the family trust that figure. Among the eleven works touring are a Jackson Pollock estimated in the region of $50m, a Willem de Kooning Woman estimated in the region of $60m, and Edward Hopper’s Chop Suey which is estimated in the region of $70m.
Ebsworth claimed he was offered $60m for Chop Suey in the 1990s. That’s 20+ years ago and before the steep climb in international art prices. Then, again, tastes change; artists go out of fashion. Those three works with an aggregate estimate of $180m may be set to attract bidders. Ebsworth had a few other very significant works that have not been announced here.
Christie’s may be holding some of those works for later sales. Or the works might be family favorites still held by the family trust. The two works we don’t see either on the list of donations or announced for viewing in Paris are by artists with particularly active and advancing markets. We’ll be keeping our eye out for them.
In the meantime, here’s Christie’s release for the Paris show:Continue Reading