Jeune fille endormie - a very far-sighted gift

By Chris Rodley

Picasso

One morning last year, an overseas visitor walked through the sandstone gates of the University of Sydney carrying an unassuming package.

Inside was a gift that the owner had flown halfway across the world to deliver: a 1935 portrait by Picasso of his lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, entitled Jeune fille endormie.

The mystery donor explained to the University administration that the gift came with two conditions: that the donor would remain anonymous, and that the painting would be sold and funds raised spent on scientific research.

That sale has now taken place: at Christie’s evening auction of Impressionist and Modern Art on 21 June, one of the biggest events on the international art calendar, Jeune fille endormie fetched $20.6m.

The money will be used, in part, to fund endowed chairs in the University’s major new centre for research into obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. “It was an extraordinary act of generosity and a very far-sighted gift,” says Vice-Chancellor, Dr Michael Spence. “It speaks volumes not only of the University’s international standing but more broadly of the calibre of Australian research.”

For David Ellis, director of the University’s museums, receiving the gift on behalf the University and organising its sale has been a “once-in-a-career” experience.

He admits he was initially sceptical when the benefactor first appeared with the unframed oil painting in hand: “It’s not an everyday occurrence someone turns up with a significant Picasso,” he says. “There was definitely a moment of disbelief.”

Within hours of seeing it, however, Ellis had confirmed that the work was listed in the artist’s official catalogue raisonné. “The great thing about Picasso is that he kept such good records, so we know most of his output,” he explains. “But there are many fakes so you need to go through a due diligence process to ensure the work is what it’s supposed to be.”

He spent the following months in a flurry of detective work, scrutinising the painting’s brushwork and probing its history. One early concern was how a 75-year-old canvas could be in such an impeccable condition, but that was explained by the fact it had spent most of its life out of the spotlight.

Not long after it left Picasso’s studio, Jeune fille endormie was acquired by Walter P Chrysler Jr, son of the automotive tycoon. It was shown in the celebrated 1939 retrospective of Picasso at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which also introduced Guernica to the United States. After going on tour, Jeune fille endormie was sold in 1950 to the family that eventually gifted it to the University.

The announcement drew global media coverage

Another concern for Ellis was that the signature on the painting was not visible in a photo taken in Picasso’s studio during the 1930s. It turns out that the artist (as was his custom) had simply added his name later: “I checked the Barr catalogue from the retrospective of Picasso’s work and the painting was in there, this time with the signature.”

With its provenance established, the painting was sent to Christie’s in London, which outflanked rival Sotheby’s for the right to sell the major work. Finally, after a year of secrecy, the gift has been made public. The announcement drew global media coverage from the Guardian to America’s Fox News, as well as immense curiosity from art collectors in Europe, the United States, Russia and Asia.

Giovanna Bertazzoni, head of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s, says the connection to Picasso’s famous mistress sparked strong interest from the art market. “There is a mythical aura around Marie-Thérèse that is irresistible to buyers,” she says. “Picasso truly found his muse in her.”

She adds that the work exerts a “sense of wonder” when viewed in the flesh, recalling the moment she saw it for the first time. “I went down to the warehouse, almost running,” she says. “The painting had just been uncrated and was on the warehouse bench, about to be taken to the photography studio. All the swirls and rich arabesques of oil painting, which we could already see in the photos, are exceptional in reality.”

Picasso

Since donating the Picasso to the University, the anonymous benefactor has made additional gifts of valuable jewellery and art, including bronzes by Ossip Zadkine. These have also been sold, with those funds supporting the University’s museums and collections in line with the donor’s wishes.

David Ellis notes that it is unusual for philanthropists to stipulate that cultural gifts be sold on. More usually, he says, artefacts are entrusted the University’s collections – as with Sir Charles Nicholson’s famous gift of antiquities that launched the Nicholson Museum.

“Of course I would love to have this one in the collection,” he acknowledges. “But the money raised is going to a wonderful cause.”