"The Icebergs" has not vanished. The $2.5-million, record-setting painting will surface soon in Texas, much to the relief of worried art historians. They had been afraid that the long-lost masterpiece, found last summer, would be kept out of sight by its secrelative new owner, and not emerge again.
But thanks to an oil billionaire -- who, in this phase of his life, insists on anonymity -- Frederic Edwin Church's frigid and elusive arctic panorama will reappear in Dallas on Nov. 20 as a long-term loan to that city's struggling Museum of Fine Arts.
The buyer, rumor has it, is none other than the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, sportsman Lamar Hunt.
On Oct. 25, the panorama became the most expensive American painting ever sold at auction. From Dallas it will come to Washington in February.
It will be included in "American Light: The Luminist Movement," a major exhibition at the National Gallery of Art.
Though famous in its own day -- in 1861, the New York Tribune called it "the most splendid work of art that has as yet been produced in this country" -- the dramatic 12-foot canvas had been missing for a century. Its surprise rediscovery, in a boys home in Manchester, England, was hailed as a miracle; but some feared its sale in New York last month would be tragedy: The buyer was anonymous, and no one knew where the work would go.
No sooner did the hammer fall at Sotheby Parke Bernet than rumors began flying.
Paul Mellon's name was mentioned (it was known he could affort it) and so was Norton Simon's (he, too, has the capital), and so, in recent days, was that of Lamar Hunt.
"No matter how we gossiped, no matter how we worried, we couldn't trace the picture," says Church scholar David Huntington of the University of Michigan. "We all feared for "The Icebergs.' It was as if some oil sheik had towed them to the Middle East to melt them down for water for the desert sands."
The Norton Simon thesis held promise for a while, because Simon has bee buying rare and costly pictures for his museum in Pasadena; but an aide there denied it. "It wasn't Mr. Simon, it was somebody called Mellon," she said.
But, the speculation ran, Mellon is board chairman of the National Gallery of Art. And if he had bought "The icebergs," why then was John Wilmerding, the NGA's curator of American paintings, telling all the bidders at the Sotheby action in New York that he hoped they would be willing to lend the giant Church to his luminist exhibition?
When asked who bought the picture that will be seen in the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, director Harry Parker will only say, "No Comment." When Wilmerding is faced with the same question, he replies, "I promised that I would not say."
"Mr. Hunt has made it very clear to me that he will not comment," says Jean Finn, his long-time secretary. "He has a policy of not discussing anything of a personal nature with the press, and he considers his collecting part of his private life."
When he died five years ago, Lamar Hunt's father, the oilman H. L. Hunt, left a Texas fortune estimated variously at between $3 and $5 billion. "Lamar Hunt surely has enough cash on hand to buy such a painting," says one Texas museum curator, "and it fits in with his taste."
Lamar Hunt is well known for his role in founding the American Football League, but hardly, at all for collecting fine examples of 19th-century American art. "He is especially fond of the American landscapes of Thomas Moran (1837-1926)," the curator continued. "He must own three dozen. And before he buys a picture he does all of the necessary research by himself. Most Morans are pictures of the West. "The Icebergs' shows the North, of course. But as dramatic pictures of vast, unsullied nature, they are both in the same league."
Hunt's executive suite at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, where his Chiefs play football, is filled with 19th-century American sporting paintings.
Hunt, his secretary says, is "Traveling abraod" and cannot be reached. Hunt's brother, Bunker Hunt (the one who races horses) says he knows nothing about the "Icebergs" rumor, and hasn't talked with his brother. Hunt's nephew, Al Hill Jr., says "I'd be surprised if Lamar was the buyer. As far as I know, he has no interest in, or involvement with, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts."
That museum, which now occupies a small and leaky building not far from the Cotton Bowl, is attempting to raise funds for a new $40 million facility. tOf that sum, $25 million depends on the outcome of a vote on a bond issue that was on the Dallas ballot yesterday.
Museum director Parker, who yesterday acknowledged that he would get "The Icebergs," said, "We're delighted -- we have no American picture here of comparable importance." He added that he hoped the news would not break before the vote was in. "We don't want people to think that we can't afford to build a building without taxpayers' money, while we have patrons who can pay $2.5 million for a single picture," said one museum official there. "A Great City Deserves a Great Art Museum" was the official slogan of the bond campaign.