|By Carole Deutsch
NEW YORK, N.Y. — The all too familiar scenario of fine art and artifacts being buried in basements and attics for 50 to 100 years before they are discovered occurs predominantly because of the lack of knowledge of the value of the work on the part of the owners or the fact they may not even know they have it. Sometimes, years before the current owners were even born, the works got tucked in a back corner of a rarely visited area and were relegated to obscurity.
This is understandable in a private setting, but when it occurs in a museum environment, it becomes unsettling. However, because of the volume of museum donations, it happens all too frequently. Works may be moderately important at the time of donation and then escalate in significance over the years; department curators may have changed many times by then or simply are focused on a different objective; or it may be a case of space limitation that ultimately reduces a work of art to oblivion. The American Alliance of Museums speculates that 96 percent to 98 percent of collections are not displayed.
For many reasons, misplacement and rediscovery in museums is not uncommon, but when the work is a rare Picasso, valued at $30 million to $40 million, it borders on the unimaginable. People involved in the discovery of an important work of this magnitude can be likened to those fortunate few who have stumbled upon buried treasure in their backyard.
Arlan Ettinger, the president of Guernsey’s Auctioneers in New York City, found himself in just such a situation when he began looking for a missing rare Picasso, Femme Assise au Chapeau Rouge (Seated Woman With Red Hat). It was from his Les Gemmaux creations, which were essentially translucent paintings made out of glass and illuminated by natural light from behind.
The word Le Gemmail is the singular form of Gemmaux, which is the contraction of two words, “gemmé,” meaning precious stone, and “émail,” meaning enamel. The art form was invented in 1930 by French painter Jean Crotti, who layered assembled pieces of glass fragments in varying degrees of thickness and a diversity of colors to produce the new medium. The process was an arduous undertaking that involved working on large sheets of glass placed on trestles and illuminated from underneath. The layered glass particles were temporarily fused with transparent glue, then checked and signed by the artist, and placed into a drying kiln, where the glue was removed. After that, a special secret-formula glue, developed by the inventor, was used to permanently attach the fragments to prepare for the final firing. Slowly increasing and decreasing the temperature of the firing and cooling was critical and delicate. Each finished Gemmail was mounted in a deep wood frame, which not only allowed for support of the glass, but provided a space behind the work for a constant source of natural illumination, an essential element in capturing light through the many layers and textures of the glass.
It is speculated that Picasso produced about 50 works using the Les Gemmaux techniques, beginning in 1954. Picasso was able to illuminate his masterpieces, displaying color in a way that cannot be reproduced on canvas or paper. He likened it to a precious stone sparkling in a perfect setting.
A need for research
When Arlan Ettinger was introduced to Picasso’s Les Gemmaux collection, there was virtually nothing known about them.
“We saw photos of throngs of important people waiting to get into the Gemmaux exhibit. We wanted to know why these works were not more well-known, where they were, why were they hidden?”
After an exclusive exhibition, which opened in 1957 at a prestigious gallery on Faubourg St Honoré in Paris, Les Gemmaux went on to tour prominent museums in the U.S., including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Corning Glass Museum. At the retrospective exhibit in the same year socially prominent attendees included the royal family of Monaco, the Queen of England and the royal family, the Belgian royal family, Coco Chanel, Yves St Laurent, Jacques Cartier, Edith Piaf, Pierre Cardin, French Minister of Culture Madame la Duchesse de La Rochefoucauld, Elizabeth Arden, Marlene Dietrich, and Francine Weisweiller.
Susan Jaffe, director of Guernsey’s, researched the works for about a year, following an arduous paper trail, and learned that many of them were sold to prominent collectors and members of the social elite, such as Prince Rainier, the Emperor of Japan, Stanley Marcus, Nelson Rockefeller, the Rothschild family, the Weisweiller family, and Raymond Loewy.
When Guernsey’s found a photo of Loewy standing in front of the Femme Assise au Chapeau Rouge, as well as a photo of Picasso with his family standing behind the same work, the trail narrowed. Loewy was a renowned American industrialist and philanthropist, known for his support for American museums.
“We scanned many images of the photos. A Gemmail cannot be forged or reproduced in the way a painting can be. There are millions of glass fragments that make up the whole, and each one is entirely different. Recreating it would not only be like recreating a fingerprint, but recreating a thousand fingerprints; it is virtually impossible. Under careful scrutiny, the Gemmail in both photos lined up perfectly. We now believed that Loewy bought the Femme Assise au Chapeau Rouge, but finding it was a different matter,” Ettinger said.
Mystery at the museum
Susan Jaffe contacted the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Del., the depositor for Loewy’s papers, and requested information from the Loewy Archive concerning estate documents from the Loewy library. An archivist contacted Jaffe with information that the contribution of the Gemmail, which Loewy purchased in 1957, had been made to the Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science in Indiana.
The trail grew cold when Jaffe contacted the Evansville Museum and both the curator and director, who had been there for 35 years, did not have any knowledge of the donation. They found the suggestion preposterous. “Picasso? What Picasso?”
The museum is dedicated to presenting Midwestern regional art and asserted that they would certainly know if they had a work by Picasso. But a day or two later, they called Susan Jaffe, giddy with excitement. On the basis of Susan’s inquiry, they searched the basement and found a box had been delivered in the 1960s marked “Gemmaux.” Assuming Gemmaux was the artist, and not the artistic technique, the museum determined that Gemmaux was not an important painter and shelved the work, where it has remained unopened.
Available for purchase
After a lengthy bureaucratic process, which involved the attorney general of Indiana, the museum and its governing board decided that it would be best to solidify the financial future of the institution by selling the work, and voted unanimously to select Guernsey’s to represent it exclusively.
Pablo Picasso’s Gemmaux Femme Assise au Chapeau Rouge is presently being offered for private treaty sale, and Guernsey’s has priced it at a conservative $30 million. Offers have been made far in excess of that sum, but Arlan Ettinger is being extremely cautious in screening potential buyers.
For additional information, contact Guernsey’s at 212-794-2280 or firstname.lastname@example.org