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
The record auction price for a Cole (in nominal dollars) is an obsolete one, the $1.46 million paid for the likable but small Catskill Mountains House in 2003. However, two years later Alice Walton paid $35 million  for Kindred Spirits, a painting by Cole's follower Asher Durand. The Durand painting (which includes portraits of Thomas Cole and newspaperman-poet William Cullen Bryan) must have been the comp that pulled Portage Falls' 2018 appraisal into eight figures.
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 FallsArch 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


Anonymous said…
The Durand was sold by sealed-bid, thus inflating its price. Crystal Bridges bid $10 million more than the Met/National Gallery (whose joint bid was rumored to be $25 million).

... 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.
Anonymous said…
The Govan/Zumthor overpass wouldn't be so foolhardy if it were at least properly funded and the amount of space in it would be equal to what was torn down. Yea, something had to be done to the Pereira/Hardy-Holzman tract house. But as the cliche goes, you don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

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 certainly wouldn't kick Thomas Cole's "Portage Falls on the Genesee" out of bed for eating biscuits. It's charming. I also wouldn't pay $12 million for it either.
I'm happy, though, that's it's safe and in a public collection for all to enjoy.