Ahmanson Paid $12M for Thomas Cole's "Portage Falls"
|Thomas Cole, Portage Falls on the Genesee, about 1839. Gift of the Ahmanson Foundation. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens|
The Ahmanson Foundation's website reports that it made a grant of $12 million for the 2021 purchase of Thomas Cole's Portage Falls on the Genesee for the Huntington. To put that previously undisclosed figure in context:
A 2018 appraisal estimated the value of Portage Falls at $18 million. The painting was then owned by the Fred L. Emerson Foundation, which had it on loan to the William H. Seward House Museum, in upstate Auburn, NY. That high valuation (eight times Cole's action record) factored in the Emerson Foundation's decision to sell.
Meanwhile, the Ahmanson Foundation had discontinued its 45-year-long program of funding LACMA acquisitions of European art (though this fact did not come to light until early 2020). Foundation president William Ahmanson and LACMA director Michael Govan had irreconcilable differences about the display of art in the planned Peter Zumthor building. Govan decreed changing thematic displays; Ahmanson wanted something more traditional and permanent.
In Oct. 2021, the Ahmanson Foundation announced its intention to fund strategic purchases for the Huntington's art collections, with Cole's Portage Falls as a spectacular first gift.
|Thomas Cole, Catskill Mountains House, about 1845-1847|
|Asher Durand, Kindred Spirits, 1849. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Ark.|
|Thomas Cole, The Arch of Nero, 1846. Thomas H. and Diane DeMell Jacobsen, Ph.D. Foundation, on loan to Philadelphia Museum of Art|
In May 2021 the Newark Museum of Art sold a truly major Cole, The Arch of Nero. Newark was selling the Cole and other important works for "collections care" under the notorious pandemic-era guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors. The sale drew almost universal condemnation, and the painting realized only $988,000 at auction. It's conjectured that some potential bidders sat out because of the controversy.
Given that the Ahmanson and Huntington announced the Portage Falls purchase in Oct. 2021, their deal with the Emerson Foundation must have been well under way during the Arch of Nero controversy. Is a great Cole worth more than $35 million (Cole>Durand) or something closer to a million (Portage Falls≥Arch of Nero)? The Huntington painting is larger than the ex-Newark one and is arguably more desirable as an American (rather than Italian) landscape. But Arch of Nero is a fantastic painting too.
The Ahmanson site has data on grants going back to 2010. In that time frame, the most expensive European buy for LACMA appears to be Bernini's marble Portrait of a Gentleman. This involved a $3.7 million Ahmanson grant plus another grant of $3.1 million that went to the Bernini and a large Frans Snyders marketplace painting. A further grant of $1.9 million went to the Snyders alone. Splitting the combined grant in the middle would give about $5.25 million for the Bernini (and $3.45 for the Snyders). The Ahmanson Foundation made a major and possibly unprecedented commitment to securing the Cole.
|Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Portrait of a Gentleman, about 1670-1675. Gift of Ahmanson Foundation. LACMA|
... I doubt the Cole (Portage Falls) would have gotten $18 million at auction. It has no sentimental or institutional value. It has no historical value. And, it's not distinctive enough aesthetically. Cole painted a lot of gorges.
In which case, its value is probably closer to the $1 million paid at a 2021 auction for the Cole painting (Arch of Nero). But persons seeking validation, be it the Ahmanson Foundation or the Waltons, are always going to overpay for things like this.
However, at least another cultural institution in the LA area is getting some value and support from the Ahmanson Foundation. No thanks to LACMA's Hanging-Train-from-Koons Director.
I'm happy, though, that's it's safe and in a public collection for all to enjoy.