By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST May, 2021
It is at once remarkable and deliciously unsurprising that it should be Stuart Pivar who came up with a putative Vincent van Gogh while on one of his periodic art hunts in the American hinterland. Pivar first came to public attention as a near daily shopping companion of Andy Warhol who exclaims in his diaries Let’s go to Stuart’s house and learn about art! And Pivar is himself an omnivorous collector, whose sizeable haul of acquisitions ranges from pre-classical antiquities via works by Raphael, Rembrandt, Velazquez and (several) Rodins to de Kooning, Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein, Haring and Basquiat.
Warhol too, of course. Who also painted Pivar’s portrait and they then co-founded the New York Academy of Art on Franklin in 1982 but it speaks to Pivar’s uncompromising temperament that after Warhol’s death he took a dark view of the Acdemy’s governance and they parted company, bitterly. Nor has this been Pivar’s only brush with the dark side. Jeffrey Epstein was one of Pivar’s clients as an art consultant and he considered him a friend but cut ties totally when the realities of Epsteins private life floated turd-like to the surface. Then there was the $200 million case with a Philadelphia collector over the sale of a Brancusi from Pivar’s collection. That piece, by the way, was one of the sculptor’s strongest and best-known works, Mademoiselle Pogany II. Which takes us to Wheatfields of Auvers, the painting attributed to Vincent van Gogh you see below.
Soon after he had got hold of the canvas Pivar sent details to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Who wrote back to say that it was unknown to them and that both the museum and their authentication office had been shuttered by the virus. Pivar had already launched his own investigation though, putting it into the hands of Michael Mezzatesta, formerly with the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth and Director Emeritus of Duke University Museum of Art, who is now director of Pivar’s collection, investigated the painting. Mezzatesta’s commentary includes this: The picture is in pristine original condition, painted on a coarse burlap canvas consistent with those used by van Gogh late in his career. It is unlined and in its original stretcher to which it is tacked by small 19th c. nails. The reverse of the canvas bears the signature “Vincent” in an entirely credible hand and what appears to my eye a date “1890” rendered in the fugitive walnut brown ink typical of many of van Gogh’s drawings.
The label on the back of the stretcher was another revelation as it is listed as the property of Jonas Netter, a leading collector in Paris in the early decades of the 20th c. The back of the canvas bears the numbers “2726” (a possible inventory number?) in white chalk. The presence of a so far unidentified wax seal on the stretcher provides a further clue.
And so, persuasively, on. I will simply add that clearly this is not a “typical” van Gogh, the sort of signature work that fakers will usually produce. So, I wondered, just when had it come Pivar’s way? And how?
“Three months ago,” Pivar told me. “The only thing I won’t reveal is where I got the damn thing from. The people involved are rural people, not art people, and have only got a vague idea of what the whole thing is about. But I made promises to them. I realise I have to know how to deal with this question because it’s the only damn thing that people will be interested in. I wish I’d found it in a cabinet in a girl’s school.”
How did Pivar, who is hyper-articulate at 90 to say the least, manage to connect with the owners of the piece?
“The reason is because I spend much of my time searching around obscure places ... collections for sale ... obscure auctions,” he said. “Do you ever wonder what happens to the many, many, many art objects which get bought in at sales, which don’t get sold? Or where people walk in and take a look at the auction house and don’t sell the piece?
“What happens to all of those things which are probably the majority of things? More than probably enter the auction? You could probably stand outside of an auction house and count the number of things which walk in against the ones which walk out and count the ones which actually stay with the sale. And then with how many would sell in the sale. You could come up with some interesting math.“
Auction houses, Pivar says, are instinctually prudent, very ready with a No! when in doubt.
“There is a vast stream of buy-ins and turn-down which exist in a subterranean market, people taking pieces to dealerships, flea markets ... when you stop to think that somebody like Picasso made tens of thousands of things, Warhol hundreds of thousands of things, the amount of this stuff floating around is huge, it reminds me of the plastic in the ocean. And the plastic pieces floating in the ocean tend to come together in ponds. Huge ponds.”
It’s just so with undocumented art, Pivar says.
“There are places where the detritus of the buy-ins, the turn-downs are accumulated by certain people. And I know who some of them are. Because I spend much of my time ... the reason I have so much stuff, and nobody else has, is because I show up, I track down things and look at obscure everythings. I do that a lot.”
What are Pivar’s main sources of information about where this stuff accumulates? Does he read the local papers?
“I peruse every available source. And if you throw enough spaghetti against the wall, something sticks. This was a major stick from an obscure place. The discovery of this painting by Van Gogh doesn’t have any equal. Other than that what do you have? An occasional Caravaggio! What an explanation? But it’s the best I can do for the moment without revealing names which are unfamiliar and unimportant.” WM
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
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