Sunday, August 09, 2009

Good Karma

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts managed to keep some important 13th-century Indian sculptures.

The Minneapolis museum feared it would lose three prized sculptures at auction, but through a fluke they are back on view.



After 55 years on loa n to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, a trio of 13th-century sculptures of Indian deities went to auction in New York this spring but then bounced back to the museum as if it were their destiny. While expected to sell for more than $1 million, the minimum asking price was not met; the museum acquired them for a much lower but undisclosed figure.

"These sales are very strongly driven by wealthy Indian collectors," said Robert Jacobsen, the museum's curator of Southeast Asian art. When the economy lurches, or collectors' tastes shift, even great art may be overlooked.

The story starts somewhere in southern India in the 1200s when an unknown sculptor fashioned a pair of elaborately coiffed and bejeweled bronze figures -- the god Shiva and his consort Uma -- seated on double-lotus thrones. A third sculpture was also cast about the same time: a sensuous, bare-breasted figure of the fertility goddess Parvati in a lovely sway-backed pose.

Flash forward to 1953. The sculptures have somehow been inherited by a Twin Cities woman who lends them to the museum, moves to California and remarries. The sculptures significantly enhance the museum's modest collection of Indian art, but the records are scant and little attention is paid until last year when Jacobsen got an unexpected call. The woman had died and her heirs wanted to sell the sculptures.

Christie's estimated that the Minneapolis sculptures would sell at auction, even during a recession, for $800,000 to $1.1 million. The sum seemed conservative considering that in March 2007 a similar bronze of Parvati sold for $2.7 million at Christie's in New York, more than four times the $600,000 it was expected to fetch. If an equally avid bidder went after the Minneapolis sculptures, the museum didn't stand a chance.

"In a situation like this, you hope that the auction house will stick your pieces in the back of the catalog with out-of-focus photos" so no one will notice them, Jacobsen said. Instead, they landed on the cover and got a five-page spread inside. Unknown to the museum, the 2-foot-tall sculptures had a rich past that could enhance their attractiveness to potential buyers. Among connoisseurs, the provenance, or history of ownership, can help raise prices by validating the age and importance of art. Documents show that the Minneapolis sculptures were most likely purchased in India in 1903 by a German textile manufacturer and adventurer, August Ferber, while he was trekking through the Himalayas. By the 1920s, they were ensconced in a European villa where they became embroiled in an elaborate scam involving a playwright who rented the villa, hocked the art and got caught. A Munich court returned the stolen art to Ferber, from whom it descended to his granddaughter in Minneapolis.

After the pieces failed to sell at the March auction, Christie's contract gave it six months to find a buyer, Jacobsen said. The museum tapped one of its art purchase trust funds, e-mailed in a bid and won both lots.

Jacobsen knew that Christie's received bids on the Parvati statue. "So you make your best guess," he said, "and we were lucky."

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