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Millers make impact on art, architecture world
COLUMBUS, Ind. – During their long lifetimes, J. Irwin and Xenia A. Miller were an extraordinary couple.

Characterized as “humble, direct, unpretentious and somewhat shy,” they had a huge impact on art, business and politics. When J. Irwin Miller became chairman of Cummins Engine Co. in 1934, the small town of Columbus, Ind. consisted of less than 8,000 people. Today the town, of about 39,000 in southern Indiana, is considered an architectural mecca, with more than 60 structures designed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Kevin Roche and Richard Meier. It is not known as “the Athens of the prairie” for nothing. And, this credit can be primarily attributed to the Millers.

However, Irwin Miller not only had a discerning eye for architecture. He and his wife had a fine discriminating sense for many other kinds of art. Xenia Miller, as her husband, was born in southern Indiana. Like many women who came of age in the Great Depression, she could not afford to go to college. She was a practical woman, who coming from the working class, loved color and design.

She met her future husband in 1943 across a union bargaining table at Cummins where she represented the office workers, while he negotiated for management. Her discerning eye for great art, grounded in her love of beauty and color, was largely self taught in the great museums and galleries of the world.

Little was lost on either of the Millers.

While he was building the family business into a Fortune 500 company with locations in 131 countries and annual sales of more than $6 billion, Irwin and Xenia built one of the greatest modern and impressionistic art collections in the world.

Later this month, the renowned collection is scheduled to go up for auction at Christie’s after the couple’s death. Xenia Miller died at age 91 in February. J. Irwin had died in 2004 at the age of 95.

In total, the auction is expected to gross as much as $90 million. The sale of the art was necessitated by the taxes that would have to paid by the estate. “More than 50 cents on every dollar has to go to the government in taxes,” one of the heirs, William Miller, told the local newspaper, The Republic.

Nonetheless, the auction catalogue reads like the pantheon of world’s greatest Impressionistic and Modern painters: Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Camille Pissarro, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko and Henry Moore.

Leading this impressive pack is the Claude Monet Le basin aux nympheas, an expansive and important late water-lily painting, one of an extremely rare series of large-scale four paintings signed and dated by the artist in 1919.

In all, Monet (1840-1926) did about 250 oil paintings of water lilies, depicting his flower garden at Giverny which became the main focus of his artistic production during the last 30 years of his life. Many of the works were painted when Monet suffered from cataracts.

Unlike much of this later work which remained unfinished in the studio at the artist’s death, these four works were released by the artist during his lifetime.

”It’s an extraordinary work,” says Elizabeth von Habsburg, the family’s art consultant from the international firm of Gurr Johns. “This is all fresh to market. This was all purchased with a very discriminating eye. It’s just an exciting event in the art world, collectors are seeing many of these pieces on the market for the first time in years.”

One of the four-part Monet series is in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art; the other was sold by Christies in November 1992 for the then very significant price of $12.1 million. This particular work is expected to bring $35 million, according to von Habsburg, at the June 24 Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale in London on June 24.

There will be three separate sales, the first in June 24 in London, featuring 17 major pieces, which is expected to gross around $80 million. In addition to the Monet water lily, will be Picasso’s 1924 still life Comporier et guitare ($5.9-7.9 million) and Pissarro’s Cours du Havre ($3.9-5.9 million).

Another London sale will be the Post War and Contemporary Auction, June 30 and July 1, followed by New York sales of American Paintings and Folks Art on Sept. 24 and a American Paintings on Dec. 4.

The latter sales will feature significant paintings by Mark Rothko, including his highly esteemed Black, White and Blue which is expected to sell for close to $4 million. Another highly touted painting is from the highly sought-after American Folk Art picture series, Peaceable Kingdom, by Edwards Hicks.

“The Peaceable Kingdom piece by Hicks is truly ranked among the very best works of art to come to auction in a long time,” von Habsburg says. It is estimated to sell for $4-6 million.

For years, much of this fabulous art collection hung at the Miller’s home on Highland Way in Columbus. The Millers had persuaded their friend Eero Saarinen (who was rarely interested in residential architecture) to design a house for their family in the mid-1950s. It was for this inimitable structure and gardens that the Millers, over an 18-year period in the 1960s and 1970s, selected the paintings, drawings and sculptures of the late 19th and 20th century masters.

”In life, Mr. and Mrs. Miller were humble, direct, unpretentious and somewhat shy,” according to Christopher Burge, honorary chairman of Christie’s Americas. “Yet their influence – on the art world, on the business world community, on the citizens of Columbus – was expansive, far-reaching, complex and bold. Predominant in their lives was a profound commitment to their community, a family tradition and an almost spiritual philosophy about the importance of enriching the lives of their fellow citizens.”

Contact: (212) 636-2680

Eric C. Rodenberg

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