Sunday, December 23, 2018

Norton Simon

When we were in Pasadena, the Norton Simon Museum was an inexpensive Uber ride away so why not go?

In the 1970’s the Internal Revenue Service asked all institutions to appraise their collections.  A rather futile concept which happily was soon scrapped but meanwhile the museums had to give it a try.  The Art Dealers’ Association of America was asked to work on these appraisals and committees were formed.  My father ended up with the group asked to appraise the Frick Collection in New York!  To do an appraisal one uses comparisons, i.e. a similar work was sold at auction for X and this piece is better, therefore it is worth more than X.  One of my very favorite paintings, the Giovanni Bellini of St. Francis in the Desert (1476-1478) had to be given a value although there was no comparison to anything sold in recent times.  Eugene Victor Thaw (Gene), great dealer, collector and patron of the arts, lead that committee and he came up with the following formula.

Photo by Michael Bodycomb

At that time Gene had a billionaire client who wanted to build a great Old Master collection when many said it could no longer be done because all the great paintings were already accounted for.  The client’s name was Norton Simon (1907-1993).  Gene suggested they would use the highest price that Norton would pay for a painting.  I am afraid I do not remember what that figure was, but you can be sure it would be much, much higher today.

At his father’s insistence Norton Simon went to Berkley but quit after only six weeks to found a sheet metal distribution company.  He went on to invest in a bankrupt orange juice bottling plant, selling that to Hunt’s Foods for a controlling interest.  Like Warren Buffet today, he formed a holding company for companies such as McCall’s Publishing, Canada Dry, Max Factor, Avis Car Rental and others.  Aside from all the individual works of art he acquired he bought the Duveen Gallery in Manhattan including its contents.  He sold enough of them, I am guessing, to cover his purchase price and kept what he wanted. 

Norton came regularly to our gallery but bought little from us.  My father never wanted to be stuck in a car with him because he always had a large envelope of photos and transparencies that he had collected from other dealers or saw coming up at auction and wanted an opinion.  Then, I presume, if he heard enough positive responses, he bargained a bit and bought.

Norton supported the Los Angeles County Museum but also lent his paintings to museums around the world.  What he really wanted, however, was a museum of his own to house what ended up being 4,000 works of art from around the world.  In 1972 The Pasadena Museum of Modern Art was financially strapped and solicited him and his collection.  Soon he gained control and naming rights, so it became the Norton Simon Museum.   In the late 1980’s UCLA attempted to do a deal with him that he would keep most of the collection in Pasadena, but they would build a museum on their campus for the rest of his collection and run the museum in Pasadena as well.  Almost as soon as he agreed to the deal, he changed his mind.

I had been to the Norton Simon Museum before, but I was so pleasantly surprised at how good it looked from the point of view of the quality of the work which was being shown.  The fact alone that they own three Rembrandts is pretty impressive.

One painting in particular brought back personal memories…. We had a rather flamboyant client, Audrey Cory de Ayala, who I remember sweeping through her salon in her long robe,.  She was quite a character who was said to have been the girlfriend of Samuel Kress.  She had a very nice art collection and it is believed that many of the pieces were gifts from Kress, adding to their allure.  One of her paintings which we acquired was a small Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), just 5 ½ X 6 ¾ inches.  It represents a nude woman on a bed and was cut down from a larger panel.  Though we had acquired it, Gene had the right client in Norton Simon.  If you take a look at this drawing by the artist in the Getty Museum, you will see that the picture originally showed the nurse with the standard cleansing remedy of the 18th century, the enema!   Neither the Norton Simon Museum’s audio guide nor their text on line mention this fact, while the Getty text below the image makes it clear.


In the mid 1970’s before I married Penelope, we worked together on an exhibition from art dealer inventories in the States and Europe at the Metropolitan Museum.  She represented the museum and I, the dealers.  Museums even today do not want to recognize the link between the commercial world and the art cathedral known as a museum, so generally, it was expected to be an exhibition of not worthwhile artifacts.  We, and subsequently The New York Times, knew better.  I have always wanted to write about the works of art that were not taken seriously then and are now in museums and I am still planning to do so.  In the Norton Simon Museum, we recognized one of those pictures.  It is a striking portrait of a Soldier Holding a Pike by Jan van Bijlert, a Dutch artist dating from about 1630.  For the show in 1974-75 it was lent by Edward Speelman, Ltd.,  London.


Let me end with one of the more important paintings in the collection which Norton bought at auction in 1965.  It is by Rembrandt van Rijn and is labelled simply Portrait of a Boy, but it is generally thought to be Rembrandt’s son, Titus.   It is considered unfinished, but I find it’s sketchiness very appealing in the depiction of a young person.


The cover of the Norton Simon biography “Odd Man” by Suzannne Muchnic, art writer and art critic for the Los Angeles Times is a photograph of the billionaire collector with this painting. Although it was published five years after Norton’s death it is still in print.

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