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The Picasso piece and the gift that keeps on giving

The curious link between an American, a Picasso piece and $20m

Artwork by Katharine Xu Artwork by Katharine Xu

He unfolded the wrinkled black fabric, about 60cmx40cm, seemingly insignificant until he spoke the next few words: “This held the Picasso piece.”

In 2010, the University of Sydney received an anonymous donation of Pablo Picasso’s ‘Jeune Fille Endormie’ (1935), unseen to the public eye for over 70 years.

The title, which translates to, ‘The Sleeping Girl’, had not been seen publicly since a retrospective exhibition of Picasso’s works in New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1939. The artwork depicts Picasso’s mistress and muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter, who he met when he was 45 and she was 17.

She is painted in Picasso’s Surrealist style, sleeping peacefully on her crossed arms, coloured by vivid hues.

The donation was made on the condition that the donor’s identity be kept anonymous, and that the piece be sold immediately, with the proceeds used to fund scientific research. After the donor had a few meetings with Tim Dolan, USyd’s Director of Development, Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence, and USyd’s Director of Museums and Cultural Engagement, David Ellis, arrangements were made for the artwork to be auctioned off at one of the major auction houses.

Christie’s auction house in London was chosen, where the artwork sold for $20.6 million in 2011.

David Ellis, who was present at the auction, also managed to persuade Christie’s London to provide one postgraduate from USyd’s Art History program with a traineeship at their auction house, funded entirely on their dollar.

“Picasso was, for much of his long life, the most highly rated artist in the world in terms of sales. His works continue to break world records for most expensive artwork sold at auction [and so] this was quite a minor sale by comparison,” said Roger Benjamin, Professor of Art History at USyd.

Previously, Picasso’s ‘Nude, Green Leaves and Bust’ sold for $106 million in 2017 and his ‘Femmes d’Alger’ painting sold for $173 million in 2015.

The funds from ‘Jeune Fille Endormie’ were used to create four endowed Chairs related to scientific research at the Charles Perkins Centre: the Leonard P Ullmann Chairs in Translational Metabolic Health, Metabolic Systems Biology, Nutritional Ecology, and Psychology.

Which still leaves us with many questions. Who was the donor? Why did they choose to donate it to USyd, and what was their relation to the University?

Although the donor’s identity cannot be revealed, I sat down with Mr Dolan who was able to deliver some insight into the donor’s life.

The donor was revealed to be an American woman who had personally flown in to hand deliver the artwork for two reasons.

“It seemed at the time a bit random, but as she explained things it became more evident that this was purposeful,” he said.

The woman’s husband was a lifelong academic who was offered a professional post at USyd in the mid 1970s, however he declined the offer and they “had always regretted not accepting it.”

The woman was also familiar with USyd’s prominence in the research realm and so “wanted the proceeds from the money to go to an institution that she thought had a fitting standing,” he said.

“She came into my office with the painting encased in this very cloth,” Mr Dolan said, unfolding a piece of cloth which had been sitting on his lap.

“We weren’t sure what to expect, I certainly wasn’t sure what to expect,” he added.

Mr Dolan phoned the Director of Museums to have a look at the painting.

“We saw this little name on the bottom, ‘Picasso.’”

The donor further provided documents proving the provenance of the painting.

“We had researchers undertake due diligence where they came across in TIME Magazine, a picture of Picasso in his studio, working on another painting, and fortuitously on the ground but in full view, was this painting. There was no doubt this was the real painting,” he said.

However, Professor Benjamin was not convinced of the identity of the depicted muse. He argued that while “there are plenty of images of Marie Therese Walter, this does not appear to be one of them.”

In ‘Jeune Fille Endormie’, “Picasso has restored something of human proportion to the sleeper. She is gentler, less misshapen… I don’t see this as Marie-Thérèse, the Amazonian physique is missing, as is the heavy arched brow always evident in [her] profile,” he said in a lecture delivered on the artwork in 2011.

“If Picasso used models for this series, there must have been two.”

“The claim [that the muse is Marie-Thérèse] seemed like an auctioneers’ selling-point, rather than a reflection of the evidence,” he said.

But nuanced considerations of the piece’s subject were far from Mr. Dolan’s mind as he took in the obscure opus. Indeed, he recalls being especially struck by something quite separate to the art’s content.

“When she signed the deal and gave us the painting, she said this quote that I remember well,” he told me.

“When you own a valuable painting like this, it sort of owns you back. For the first time in a long, long while, I finally feel free,” she had said.

“I said at the time it seemed to be quite a burden on her. That kind of insight is rare in that I don’t know many affluent donors who articulate wealth as owning them back,” he added.

“It reverses the psychology that acquisition is the main source of judging one’s worth, when the real truth is sharing and extending your success with others is the greatest source of happiness that people can find.”

Dr Ann Stephen, Senior Curator of the University Art Gallery also commented of the gesture. “It is rare for any painting by Picasso to be a gift, as they are of great value on the market. Such generosity is remarkable […] I wish we had been able to keep it for our collection!”

The University has since received numerous multimillion dollar donations but, “None that involve a famous painting and an anonymous donor.”

Such donations include Barry and Joy Lambert’s $33.7 million donation to the University in 2015 to fund the Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics.

In 2016, the University received its largest ever donation of $35 million from the Susan and Isaac Wakil Foundation to fund the ‘Susan Wakil Health Building’, to be completed in 2019.

“It was certainly one of the most unexpected gift conversations I’ve ever had in my 20 plus years doing this, and certainly one of the most rewarding,” said Mr Dolan, referring to the donation of the Picasso piece.

“Copies [of the artwork] are all around to commemorate this special moment,” he added, one which sits in his own office and another in the Vice- Chancellor’s.

The artwork is also commemorated by a room dedicated to ‘Jeune Fille Endormie’, at the Charles Perkins Centre.