NEW YORK — The Washington art world’s attention was riveted Tuesday evening on a Manhattan auction house where one item up for bid was a rarely seen painting of water lilies by Claude Monet. The auction could have yielded millions of dollars for the cash-strapped Corcoran Gallery of Art — but in the end, the gallery got nothing at all.
The painting sold for $24 million — plus a $3 million buyer’s premium that goes to the auction house — after at least three telephone bidders competed for the work. But under the complex terms of the contested estate of Corcoran benefactor Huguette Clark, the gallery was only to share in proceeds if the hammer price was more than $25 million.
Christie’s auctioneer Andreas Rumbler opened the bidding at $18 million, and the action was over within minutes. The painting had been estimated to be worth $25 million to $35 million, not including the buyer’s premium. Christie’s described the winning bidder only as “Asian private.”
And so one more facet of Clark’s curious legacy was resolved.
Corcoran officials had no comment.
The work, titled “Nympheas,” was painted in 1907 and was last exhibited in 1926. Clark was a shy society lady and aspiring artist of 23 when she purchased it in New York in 1930. She could afford it: She was the daughter of the late billionaire copper baron and Montana Sen. William A. Clark. When William died in 1925, he left his vast art collection to the Corcoran, and Huguette helped pay for an addition to the building near the White House to display her father’s art.
Huguette hung the Monet in a sitting room of one of her three luxury apartments on Fifth Avenue. She died childless in 2011, at age 104, after spending her last two decades in a hospital room, even though she was healthy for most of that time, and despite owning mansions in Greenwich, Conn., and Santa Barbara, Calif.
Her unusual lifestyle and her practice of writing huge checks to her nurse and other caretakers raised questions about her competence to manage her affairs. Those questions only deepened upon her death, when it was revealed that in 2005, she signed two distinctly different wills within six weeks of each other. A legal free-for-all involving 15 law firms battling over her $300 million estate ended in a settlement last fall.
Which brings us to a vast gallery filled with more than 600 paddle-wielding art shoppers at Christie’s Rockefeller Center. The painting hung on the wall behind a bank of telephone operators who were taking bids from around the world. The Corcoran would have received half the proceeds from the sale of the Monet had it been in excess of $25 million.
Separately, the Corcoran has been awarded $11.25 million in the settlement.
The auction comes amid a dramatic transition for the Corcoran. Gallery executives are trying to finalize documents to enact the recently announced arrangement that would turn over responsibility for the historic Beaux-Arts building and the Corcoran College of Art & Design to George Washington University. The National Gallery of Art, meanwhile, would be given much of the art and would mount exhibitions in the Corcoran building.
How the money from the Clark settlement will be spent won’t be specified until later in the transition, a gallery spokeswoman said.
Right after the Monet sale, three paintings by Renoir also owned by Clark went on the block: “Jeunes filles jouant au volant” sold for $10 million, not counting the premium; “Chrysanthemes” sold for $2.6 million; and “Femme a l’ombrelle,” $2.1 million. Proceeds from those sales will go to the estate.
“We are pleased with the results,” Ethel Griffin, public administrator of the estate, said in a statement. “The proceeds will benefit the Clark estate and its goal of establishing a charitable foundation” devoted to art.
An additional 50 or so works by the likes of Picasso, Kandinsky, Miro, Giacometti and Dali also were sold by other owners, for a total for the evening of $286 million, including premiums.
The auctioneers had been optimistic that the Monet could bring a good price. “Nympheas,” a vertical work of 39-by-32 inches, is one of Monet’s celebrated depictions of his beloved lily pond at Giverny.
“I still think it achieved a very good price,” said Brooke Lampley, head of the Impressionist and Modern Art department. “There was a lot of interest going into the sale. As you know, it’s difficult to forecast what exactly bidders will do on the night.”
Lingering over the sale, however, was inevitable speculation about what might have been for the Corcoran. In the second of the two wills Clark signed, she left the Corcoran the Monet outright. If that will had been enacted, the Corcoran would have stood to gain the entire $24 million had it sold the painting. But in this strange saga, that was a big if.
The second will cut out Clark’s 20 distant relatives, all descendants of her father’s first wife. Huguette’s mother was William Clark’s second wife. In addition to bequeathing the Monet to the Corcoran, the second will created an art foundation in Santa Barbara and distributed sums to various associates, including $500,000 each to her lawyer and accountant, and 60 percent of her remaining fortune to her nurse — to whom she had already given $30 million in the previous 20 years.
The family challenged the will, and the Corcoran took the unusual step of joining the descendants in protesting a will that left the gallery a painting appraised at $25 million — at a time when the Corcoran was so desperate to solve its budget problems that it contemplated selling its historic home on 17th Street NW that Huguette had helped expand.
The tactic might have helped preserve the gallery’s reputation against any who would say that it was trying to profit on the confusion of a longtime, aged donor. Lawyers for the Corcoran and the family raised doubts about whether the will was properly executed and Clark knew what she was signing. Clark’s lawyer and accountant, whose handling of her affairs was criticized, were obliged to step aside as executors, though in the end an investigation by the Manhattan district attorney was closed with no finding of criminal wrongdoing.
If there had been a trial on the will’s validity, and if after lengthy and expensive appeals, the document had been thrown out, then Clark would have died intestate, the family would have received everything, the Corcoran, nothing — not even the $11.25 million it has already gained in the settlement. The Corcoran went for less cash in the hand, rather than a Monet in the bush.
“We took the position on the principled basis that we had to be sure that this reflected [Huguette’s] actual intent,” said Charles Patrizia, the gallery’s pro bono lawyer with the firm of Paul Hastings.
“You cannot in hindsight say it would have been different, the Corcoran would have received the Monet and would have received the value of that,” Patrizia said. “Because that assumes the will would have [been approved], and that’s just not a good assumption.”
In the settlement, the family members were collectively awarded $34.5 million. The new Bellosguardo Foundation in Santa Barbara, named after Clark’s mansion there and devoted to art, received the $85 million mansion — which it has vowed not to sell — and $4.5 million. Law firms representing various parties (but not the Corcoran’s pro bono firm) claimed $25 million.
Hundreds of other precious objects and art owned by Clark will be auctioned at Christie’s in June, including a painting by John Singer Sargent once on display at the Corcoran — “Girl Fishing at San Vigilio” — as well as a Stradivarius violin, fine furniture and first editions of “Les fleurs du mal” by Charles Baudelaire and “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman. Proceeds will go to the estate.