An article in the current NEW YORKER magazine details both the history and the recent purchase of the last major Duccio in private hands by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It also explains that the Getty Museum refused to even make an offer on this masterpiece. What it doesn't explain is why Getty Trust's Board of Directors allows Barry Munitz, director of the Munitz, I mean, the Getty Trust, to use the Getty's funds to buy himself international friends and influence instead of building a major art collection in Los Angeles.
Christiansen had this and a lot more information in mind last fall, when Philippe de Montebello, the Metropolitan's director, returned from vacation and was immediately shown the Duccio transparency. When he heard what the asking price was, he sort of blanched, and said, "Where am I going to find the money?," Christiansen recalls.
"But you know Philippe. If he wants something, and the trustees know he wants it. I had no doubt that the funds could be found. In twenty-eight years as the Met's director, de Montebello has acquired, along with countless works of art, a huge reservoir of suave personal authority. "I was just smitten by the transparency, as anyone would be," he told me, and I decided we had to go and look at this picture."
This meant going to the London office of Christie's, where the Duccio was held. "I knew it was something we could pull off and something we must pull off," he said. "After all, the Met is the institution that bought the VelÃ¡zquez 's Juan de Pareja in 1970, for $5.5 million and Rembrandt's "Aristotle with a Bust of Homer," in 1961, for $2.3 million.
He didn't mention Jasper Johns's "White Flag" for which the Met paid something more than twenty million dollars in 1998 - the museum's most expensive acquisition until Duccio. Auction records keep being broken for more than that, of course; Picasso's Rose Period "Boy with a Pipe" went for a hundred and four million dollars at Sotheby's in 2004. For de Montebello, the Duccio's price was almost incidental. "It's not what you pay for the important things that people remember," he said. "But, if you don't buy them, it's forever, and that's unacceptable."
The Duccio was being offered not only to the Met. The Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, had already turned it down, reportedly because of the price. This struck Christiansen as ironic, because the price was so clearly predicated on the fifty-five million dollars that the Getty had agreed to pay, two years earlier, for Raphael's small, perfectly preserved "Madonna of the Pinks."
The British government temporarily denied that picture an export permit, to give English buyers a chance to come up with the necessary funds; they did, and the Raphael is now in London's National Gallery. (There would be no export problems for the Duccio, because its owners were Belgian, and the relatively lenient Belgian laws on exporting art apply mainly to architecture and furniture.) The Met's only serious rival at this point was the Louvre. The Louvre, like the Metropolitan, had no Duccio to anchor its glorious collection of early Italian art, and its acquisition money, from museum funds and private sources as well as from the French government, were eminently tappable.
De Montebello, Christiansen, and Dorothy Mahon, the museum's head of paintings conservation, flew to London on September 24th. They spent two hours with the little painting. They held it in their hands, and examined the surface with a ten-inch magnifier. Its state of preservation amazed them. The colors of all Renaissance paintings have altered to some degree over time, especially the blues, which often become formless black shapes with no visible definition.
In this case, the modelling of the folds in the Virgin's deep-blue mantle was largely intact. Duccio had used a high-quality blue made from azurite, Mahon told me later, after she and her colleagues had analyzed the picture in the Met's conservation studio. "The buildup was so skillfully done," Mahon said, "with different colors of azurite and then lead white in the final one." (White is more resistant to chemical change than dark colors are.)
Seeing the painting at Christie's was enough to convince de Montebello. "There was not an ounce of doubt in my mind about it," he told me. A sense of urgency - he was aware that his colleagues at the Louvre had already been to see the painting - led him to make an offer on the spot, an offer that was, he indicated, close to the asking price.
Now, as for what the LA Times Editorial Board has to say about any of this....
Well, since this is a subject that directly affects Los Angeles, it said nothing - of course!