It was in springtime in New York, in 1930, when a fabulously wealthy 23-year-old amateur artist and reluctant denizen of the society pages named Huguette Clark bought a picture of water lilies by Claude Monet. She was following the art-collecting footsteps of her late billionaire father, William A. Clark, who left his massive trove to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.
The Monet painting was never seen again, except by those few invited into Huguette Clark’s sitting room in one of her three luxury Manhattan apartments, as she withdrew from society. She died in 2011 at the age of 104.
Now the painting “Nymphéas” — part of Monet’s celebrated water lilies series, painted in Giverny, France, in 1907 — is coming out of seclusion, and the Corcoran could benefit.
The painting will go on temporary exhibit in Christie’s auction house branches in London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and New York, before being auctioned in New York on May 6. Christie’s estimates the painting is worth $25 million to $35 million.
The Corcoran’s potential gain could range from zero to a substantial sum: Under the terms of the settlement of Clark’s tangled estate last fall, the Corcoran will receive half the proceeds in excess of $25 million. If the painting sells for $25 million or less, the Corcoran gets nothing from the auction.
The complicated formula was a result of negotiations to resolve a titanic legal battle over Huguette Clark’s $300 million estate. Besides the potential gain from the sale of the Monet, the settlement also awarded the Corcoran $11.5 million. Gallery officials declined to comment.
The Monet is the most valuable item in a collection of more than 400 objects being sold by Clark’s estate in a pair of auctions planned by Christie’s.
“This type of painting is near the top or at the top of a lot of collectors’ wish lists around the world,” said Conor Jordan, deputy chairman of impressionist and modern art for Christie’s.
The work is one of more than 60 depictions of water lilies that Monet created during an intense period from 1905 to 1908. That was when Monet was pushing impressionism to the edge of abstraction. In these paintings, he does away with the horizon line, so the viewer is plunged into a pure meditation on the evanescent play of light and reflections upon the water surface and lily pads, Jordan said.
This particular “Nymphéas” is somewhat unusual for being vertical — 100 centimeters by 81 centimeters.
Also being auctioned May 6 will be three paintings by Renoir. On June 18, Christie’s in New York will auction about 400 items Clark owned — fine art, musical instruments, furnishings and rare books, including first editions of Charles Baudelaire’s “Les fleurs du mal” and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” The total collection is estimated at more than $50 million. The proceeds from all items besides the Corcoran’s potential share in the Monet will go to Clark’s estate for distribution to beneficiaries agreed to in the settlement.
Last year, the economically struggling Corcoran announced that it was exploring the possibility of a partnership with the University of Maryland. The partnership talks are ongoing, a gallery spokeswoman said.