By Terry Ingram, on 09-Jan-2014

The Art Gallery of South Australia may be about to fill one of the most glaring gaps in its collection with a multi-million dollar purchase.

A big repository of British art from as early as the late 19th century, the gallery is now believed to have a major French Impressionist painting in its line of sight.

Artist Camille Pissarro, (1830-1903) was a pivotal figure in the transformation of Impressionism to Post Impressionism, and has tended to offer good value as he also led a dignified life which failed to translate into the brand appeal of bigger name Impressionists such as Renoir or Monet.

The acquisition is said to be an oil on canvas by St Thomas (West Indies born) Danish French artist Camille Pissarro, (1830-1903)  who was a pivotal figure in the transformation from Impressionism to Post Impressionism and a great champion of the dignity of labour.

The artist eschewed artifice and sought to present labourers, preferably farm workers,  toiling in the woods or fields.

The one time Perth multi-millionaire, the late Robert Holmes a Court, had one such work by him, called The Woodcutter.

Pissarro has tended to offer good value as he also led a dignified life which failed to translate into the brand appeal of bigger name Impressionists such as Renoir or Monet.

But as the latter's works have become rarer, his prices have risen and any purchase, through friends and associates of the gallery, would cost it many millions of dollars.

Elizabeth Taylor had a work by Pissarro called Apple Trees at Eragny which made £2.95 million at auction in 2012.

Discreet appeals for funds for the work have surprised as it appears the gallery or its associates already have the painting in tow. 

This would appear to rule out the possibility of it being acquired at a forthcoming auction, having possibly being acquired at a recent one.

Or it could have an option on such a work from a dealer. The gallery has done very well in the past to match up donors with works it would like to add to its collection.

Several Pissarros came up at the end of the last season the finest of which was Crue de la Seine, pont Boieldieu, Rouen, sold for $US2.4 million at Sotheby's Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale in New York on November 6 when the gallery's interest in the artist began to circulate but there is an even grander one to come.

One of the finest examples of the artist's work is coming up at Sotheby's in February but the price surely would be out of the reach of any Adelaide art lovers.

With the added topicality of being a restitution matter, as it was stolen by the Nazis, the oil on canvas is a view of Montmatre, expected to make £7 million to £10 million.

The painting appears to be a twin to the townscape oil on canvas in the National Gallery of Victoria bought by the gallery's director Bernard Hall with Felton Bequest Funds in 1905.

This acquisition was one of the most astute purchases ever made by an Australian art museum.

It was purchased for £300 from an exhibition held by the Grafton Galleries in London.

That purchase surprised as it was in sharp contrast to the artistic work of Hall which tended to be dark and sombre.

That Pissarro, Boulevard Monmartre, Morning, Cloudy Weather, was relatively subdued in hue as its title suggests. 

Hall, a painter and teacher as well as a public official, has been described as “holding an old dark mirror up to nature.” quite unlike the colourful, open air landscape of the Impressionists

But Hall said he would have liked to have acquired a Monet, a Degas and a Sisley as well “but apart from the best of them having been held privately, the prices were prohibitive".

It was lent to the exhibition 'The Impressionist and the City Pissarro's Series Paintings' curated by Richard Brettell at Dallas Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Royal Academy of Arts in 1992.

Sadly the AGSA was acquiring very different types of works when the Montmartre view was painted.

It was acquired only six years after the AGSA purchased its appropriately named Herbert Schmalz's ludicrously huge chef d'oeuvre Zenobia's Last Look on Palmyra.

“The estimate is conservative,” though, said Philip Hook, a senior Impressionist and modern art expert at Sotheby’s in London of its own coming Pissaro offering.  “There hasn’t been another Paris street scene for sale for at least a generation.”

The work now being sold was restituted to its rightful owner after being seized by the Nazis.

Montmartre, Matinée de Printemps dates from 1897, the same period and subject as the NGV buy,

“With the enduring demand for Impressionist masterpieces – particularly works of such rarity as this work by Pissarro – we anticipate interest from around the globe,” Helena Newman, Chairman of Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Department Europe, said.

Adelaide's touted purchase would be in contrast to the gallery's tendency under the direction of Nick Mitzevich, to buy contemporary Australian works.

The return of Adelaide's art and business community is being awaited by the flaneurs who insist that the gallery wants to secure the Pissarro, the title, subject and source of which still remains elusive.

In particular they will be looking for a response from the Mr Andrew Gwinnett who has been described as a multi-millionaire business man with a big neo-Georgian house in North Adelaide.

Mr Gwinnett chairs the Arrowcrest automotive group, and is deputy chair of the AGS Foundation.

He has also been a big donor to the gallery and a major mover and shaker on its behalf.


About The Author

Terry Ingram inaugurated the weekly Saleroom column for the Australian Financial Review in 1969 and continued writing it for nearly 40 years, contributing over 7,000 articles. His scoops include the Whitlam Government's purchase of Blue Poles in 1973 and repeated fake scandals (from contemporary art to antique silver) and auction finds. He has closely followed the international art, collectors and antique markets to this day. Terry has also written two books on the subjects