The bidding for the Constantino Brumidi painting started relatively low on Sunday, said Chris Barber of the Skinner auction house in Boston. By “relatively low” he meant around $100,000. From there, it climbed steadily.
There was at least one interested bidder in the room. Four prospective purchasers were bidding by phone. Soon, the oil study that Brumidi did for “The Apotheosis of Washington” in the Capitol dome had reached its high estimate of $350,000.
The bids kept rising until only two bidders remained. When the bidding stopped, it stood at $475,000. Sold! Add in the buyer’s premium, and someone paid $539,500.
“It eclipsed even what we thought it might bring,” Chris told me Monday. “It set a record by a painting by Brumidi.”
Not bad for something that was last sold back in 1919 for $300.
And who was the lucky — and deep-pocketed — winner? It was the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum.
“We think that’s where it belongs,” Elizabeth Broun, the museum’s director, told me Monday. “We’re thrilled.”
I imagine the U.S. Capitol Historical Society isn’t quite as thrilled. It was hoping someone might buy it and donate it.
“I’m sure we would be happy to talk with them about lending it to the Capitol visitors center,” Elizabeth said. “I understand all the reasons they would love to have it.”
The painting was paid for by the museum’s American Art Forum, a group of public-spirited art collectors from around the country. Elizabeth said the painting will go on display at the American Art Museum after conservation, it’s hoped by this summer or earlier.
Now for some unfinished business. Four years ago — July 1, 2008, to be exact — President George W. Bush signed legislation granting Brumidi a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal. But there has been no official awards ceremony.
This displeases local history buff Joe Grano, chairman of the Constantino Brumidi appreciation society. Joe notes that on the same day that Bush signed Brumidi’s gold medal legislation, he signed similar legislation for Edward Brooke, the U.S. senator from Massachusetts.
“Brooke got his gold medal on Oct. 28, 2009,” Joe said. “It’s 2012. What’s going on here?”
Not long before he died in 1880, Brumidi slipped from a scaffold while painting the frieze in the Capitol, just one of many works of art the Italian immigrant was responsible for. “He’d given his life — metaphorically and almost literally — for his nation,” Joe said. “He deserves a ceremony in the Rotunda, beneath his two great works of art. It is my hope the leaders of Congress can appreciate this.”
Joe said he’s heard talk of holding a medal ceremony in the Capitol visitors center or the Library of Congress, rather than in the Rotunda, which Congress is loath to close for events. “Anything less [than the Rotunda] is really not revering his memory,” Joe said.
There was a time when it seemed as if few people remembered Brumidi. He was rescued from obscurity by a feisty woman named Myrtle Cheney Murdock.
A teacher since the age of 15 (she once taught on a Cherokee Indian reservation) Myrtle came to Washington in 1937 when her husband, John R. Murdock, was elected congressman from Arizona. She started giving tours of the Capitol but was dismayed at how little was known about the man who did so much to decorate it.
“How can countless exquisite frescoes and paintings adorn our Capitol Building and yet the American people have little or no knowledge of their existence?” she wrote.
In her research on Brumidi, Murdock discovered that the artist lay in an unmarked grave in Glenwood Cemetery. She urged her husband to introduce a bill to remedy that. A stone was installed in 1952 and includes an 1855 quote from Brumidi: “My one ambition and my daily prayer is that I may live long enough to make beautiful the Capitol of the one country on earth in which there is liberty.”
John Murdock was defeated in 1952, but as with a lot of politicians, there was something about Washington he and his wife liked. They stayed in the city and Myrtle earned a PhD in education at George Washington University. She continued giving tours of the Capitol and published books about the city. She died in 1980 at 94.
“She was a groupie,” Joe Grano said. “I don’t know why, but Brumidi people just follow him in death and in life.”
To read previous columns by John Kelly, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.