Sold to the highest bidder

Alice Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, bought Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits at a closed-bid auction at Sotheby’s on May 12. The price was said to be over $35 million. Walton says she will put the painting in Crystal Bridges, a museum she plans to build in the Waltons’ home town, Bentonville, Arkansas, population about 20,000.

This is dismaying. The painting belongs in New York, as Michael Kimmelman and others have observed. And the course of the sale raises a few questions.

In the first New York Times article on the sale, which appeared on April 11, Paul LeClerc, the director of the New York Public Library, said that he hoped that Kindred Spirits and 18 other paintings would be purchased by local institutions. He promised to give local museums “preferential payment terms,” and Times reporter Carole Vogel wrote that “By selling [the paintings] through Sotheby’s, the library would be able to assess its options in time for Sotheby’s December auction of American art.”

But that isn’t what happened. On April 29, Vogel reported that the library and Sotheby’s had abruptly changed their plans. Instead of waiting until December, they now planned to sell Kindred Spirits in early May in a closed-bid auction. Suddenly they were in a hurry. And in a hurry, last week, the painting was sold. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art collaborated on a bid, but it fell short. This is not any great surprise. Public museums can’t afford to buy on the open market works of art whose value has matured. They get great works by buying them before they are popularly appreciated or by receiving them as gifts.

No one has said why the library’s plans changed. Perhaps Sotheby’s advised the library that there was a risk that art-loving citizens might protest and find a way to block the sale. Exactly this possibility had been mooted, in a strange way, in Vogel’s original April 11 article:

”Sure there may be some politician who starts screaming that New York patrimony could be lost,” said John Wilmerding, an American art scholar and Princeton University professor who was asked to advise the library. ”But that would be unfair and unrealistic.”

I did not then and do not now understand why Wilmerding’s tone was sarcastic. Why did he think of screaming politicians when he imagined people who might be fond of a work of art and regret its loss? Why did he suggest that there would be something shrill about wishing to preserve the city’s patrimony? It turns out that Wilmerding has conflicting allegiances. He’s a trustee of the National Gallery, who tried and failed to buy the painting, and he is also a paid consultant to Alice Walton. According to a May 14 report by Vogel, he will be working as a Crystal Bridges curator.