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Today in Art History

Will The Real Bidder Please Stand Up . . . or Sit Down?

He had wanted to buy the painting for years but for some reason kept opting to wait. He could have purchased it in 1957 for £120,000 (about $335,000), but he opted not too. The painting was relatively unknown and he thought it was simply too high a price. Six years later, the painting came up for sale again. This time for £550,000 ($1.54 million). Again, he declined. Offered for sale once more in 1964 at a slightly lower price, met once more with a negative response. At that point, the owner gave up trying to sell the painting privately.

However, the laws of Great Britain were changing. On April 1, 1965, the capital gains tax law would change. Rather than share the income from the painting with the government, the owner contacted Christie’s and the sale was scheduled for March 19.

Norton Simon, perhaps sensing this might be his last chance to obtain what was then entitled “Titus.” Titus was the painter’s son. The painter was Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669). The painting was completed in 1655.

The Bidding Scheme Gone Wrong

As often happens with major auctions, Simon set up a somewhat elaborate signaling scheme with the auctioneer. The plan was that the auctioneer knew that Simon was actively bidding if he remained sitting. He might openly bid, but as long as he remained sitting he was bidding. If he stood up, it was the signal that he had stopped bidding. But, if he sat back down, he first had to raise his finger to indicate he was back in the game; until he stands up again.

Perhaps the signal scheme was too complicated. Perhaps there were several bidders with odd little schemes as to when they were bidding and the auctioneer got confused.

Whatever the case, Simon had been bidding aloud, while seated. He stopped voicing his bids and the auctioneer thought he had ceased bidding. The bid had climbed to a staggering $2.1 million. The auctioneer asked if anyone else wished to bid. Simon remained seated and silent. The gavel came down and the winner was Marlborough Fine Art; bidding for Stavros Niarchos.

Simon stood and voiced his protest. He had, in fact, not stopped bidding. He had assumed that the auctioneer knew that because he had remained seated.

Bidding Re-Opened Amid Protests of Winner

Unsure what else to do, the auctioneer reopened the bidding; over Marlborough’s heated objections. It was standing policy for Christie’s that when there was a dispute, the bidding would be re-opened. It was unprecedented at a sale of this magnitude, but it was done. There would be only one more bid; Simon’s for $2.2 million. It would be the second-highest price ever paid for a painting; only surpassed by another Rembrandt Artistotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer”, purchased by the Metropolitan Museum for $2.3 million..

The price alone would have been newsworthy. But, when combined with an unprecedented re-opening of the bidding, made headlines around the world. It would even be the cover story on Time magazine.

Niarchos threatened to sue. He didn’t but he did offer Simon a quick $100,000 profit if he was willing to sell Niarchos the Rembrandt.

Instead, Simon added it to his collection which he maintained in the former Pasadena Art Museum building. It would become the Norton Simon Museum.

Sometime after the auction, the painting was renamed to Portrait of a Boy in Fancy Dress after it was determined the boy was not Rembrandt’s son.



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New Front Page Feature for Art Filled Days

So exciting. A new front page feature on Art Filled Days dedicated to This Day in History in the Visual Arts. Something new to learn every day of the year.


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New Front Page Feature for Art Filled Days