On November 13, Sotheby’s will offer a painting by the artist Balthasar Klossowski de Rola—better known as Balthus—that has been deaccessioned from the Art Institute of Chicago and estimated to sell between $12 million and $18 million.
The painting, titled La Patience (1948), is being sold as part of the Sotheby’s Modern Evening auction in New York, with proceeds going towards future acquisitions at the museum.
La Patience depicts Balthus’ model Jeanette Aldry intensely playing a game of solitaire. A statement from Sotheby’s noted the painting “marks the first instance where Balthus explores the theme of card games in his oeuvre, a motif he would revisit multiple times in his career. Aldry is depicted alone beside an extinguished candle, a vanitas symbol representing the passage of time. These symbolic elements, coupled with Balthus’s skillful use of dramatic chiaroscuro nods to the artists love of the Old Master painters.”
In 1964, the AIC acquired the painting directly from the artist’s dealer Pierre Matisse, the son of Henri Matisse, in New York. A museum spokesperson told The Art Newspaper it has not been on display for nearly a decade, but often lent out for exhibition. It is currently on display at Sotheby’s showroom in Hong Kong.
While works by the artists regularly appear at auction, Sotheby’s deputy chairman for modern art Sharon Kim said in a statement to The Art Newspaper that it was rare for a painting of La Patience’s significance to become available in the art market.
While deaccessioning has been a controversial practice at several museums, the sale of La Patience follows guidelines set by the guidelines set in place by industry groups like the Association of Art Museum Directors, which relaxed its rules in 2020 in order to alleviate the economic strain of the Covid-19 pandemic on institutions.
Prior to the sale at Sotheby’s, La Patience was part of AIC’s Joseph Winterbotham Collection for nearly 60 years. Established in 1921, the collections contains up to 35 modern European paintings at anytime, and includes works by Edward Degas, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin. But in order to fulfill the collection’s mandate of “continuous evaluation and improvement”, any new acquisition must be preceded by a deaccessioned work.
Curatorial staff from the AIC’s Modern and Contemporary art and European painting and sculpture departments, who oversee the collection, chose La Patience for deaccession. The museum told the Art Newspaper that one factor in the decision was the numerous other works by Balthus in its collection, “including two that are regularly on view”.
“Deciding which art to part with is always a difficult decision, but this sale is in fulfillment of the ever-changing Winterbotham Collection’s spirit and guidelines,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
The artist’s work has been criticized for his paintings of “pensive adolescent girls, rendered in enigmatic and erotically charged poses“. In 2014, the Metropolitan Museum of Art refused to take down a Balthus painting called Thérèse Dreaming (1938) after thousands signed an online petition claiming the institution was “supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children”. That same year, the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany cancelled an exhibition of the artist’s Polaroid photography after accusations of pedophilia.
Even with these controversies, sales data shows strong demand for Balthus works.