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On the Trail of Cézanne

In 1950 I met a dealer in Paris who privately owned two Cézanne watercolors. He had purchased them from Vollard in the nineteen thirties. He sold me one of them, but said he was going to keep the other for all time. This dealer and I became very good friends, and whenever I went to Paris-several times a year for many years we always had dinner together, or played chess at his home. It was a ritual that whenever I called on him, we would go back to his private office to sit and chat, and he would invariably take out his Cézanne watercolor and put it on an easel, so that we could discuss things in the right environment.

This went on year after year, and we rarely discussed my buying this painting, as it was up to him whether or not to sell it. Early in 1967, I wrote to him that I would be in France in July. But as the time of my trip to Europe approached, I was upset about de Gaulle’s policies toward the United States. I wrote him and said that I was not going to France that year, and I didn’t think I would be back until there was a new regime; I just didn’t feel like spending money in France. We went ahead with our European trip, however, and while in Switzerland, I was forwarded his answer to my letter. His letter included a postscript: “Henry, you haven’t made me an offer on my Cézanne in many years.” I immediately telephoned him, and in five minutes concluded a deal for the watercolor. I had to drop my scruples about going to France just long enough to pick up the painting.

• • •

A number of years ago, I bought a wonderful Cézanne watercolor portrait of his wife in the nude [now thought to be a model]. It was the largest he ever did, about two feet wide and three feet high. After the purchase it was turned over to a forwarder, and went through the usual Louvre Committee that was to decide whether to permit it to leave France or purchase it at the price I had paid for it. When I got back to the States, I was quite dismayed to learn that the Louvre had decided to buy the painting. The owner had no choice but to sell it to them at the price I was offering. But as this process took about a month’s time, by the time the seller was ready to refund my money there was a considerable change in the value of the franc. When he returned the same number of francs to me, the dollar value of them was some $1500 less than when I had bought the picture. The end result was that I was out of pocket that sum, and had lost a wonderful Cézanne watercolor as well.

• • •

Many years ago I had an adventure in the purchase of a Cézanne oil painting [probably “The Route to Tholonet”] . I stepped into a small gallery in Paris, and they told me they had just had a Cézanne oil that morning, and one of the big galleries had taken it away with the idea of buying it. The owner of this painting, a friend of the Vollard family, did not want to sell it to a dealer, only to a private collector. The dealer, wanting to check who the owner was, called up the various Vollard heirs, who, being surprised that the picture was on the market, called the owner of the picture. In a rage, this man insisted on getting the painting back from the dealer who had it, and when he did he put it away and left for the south of France. I telephoned him there, and he said he would not be back for three weeks. Although I had nearly finished my trip, I decided to stay on until he returned. When he did, I purchased the painting, which is one of the prize Cézannes in my collection.

In order to spend this three weeks’ time pleasantly, my wife, Rose, and I went to Switzerland, and spent ten days at a hotel there. While in Bürgenstock, we got a telephone call inviting us to have some tea with a woman who had heard that I was a painting expert. This astonished me, because Rose and I hadn’t spoken to a soul while there, and I couldn’t understand how anybody could have found out about my interest in paintings.

We kept the appointment, and to my amazement found that the concierge, who was evidently used to looking over mail, found that I had been getting some letters from the Baltimore Museum of Art pertaining to my collection, which was on exhibition there that summer, and assumed that I was an expert.

We met a most charming elderly lady who told us about her collection in New York, which she had gotten out of Berlin during the early days of the Hitler regime. Her husband had been a bridge builder, an important man in Germany, but had been warned by his assistant during a trip abroad to stay out of Germany, as drastic things were happening. At that time Germans were allowed to take one van-load of possessions with them to another country. The man refused to return, but his wife went back herself, and rook out several van-loads surreptitiously. She told me she would like to sell me a painting. She didn’t have any that I wanted, but I was pleased to arrange for the sale of these paintings to a large New York gallery.

• • •

As stated earlier, luck plays an important part in collecting. I happened to be at a gallery when Cézanne’s great La Montagne Sainte-Victoire was offered to a New York collector. The price was set, but the collector insisted on the dealer taking back an early painting by Cézanne as part of the payment, which the dealer refused to do. He then offered me the painting at the same price if I would pay him the money, without any trades, which I did. This painting is one of the most important, if not the most important, in my collection.

I recently attended an auction sale in Philadelphia [The Mullen Collection, Samuel Freeman Galleries, Philadelphia, 1967], and bid on a Cézanne landscape, which I eventually bought for a large sum. This was the most important group of paintings ever sold at a Philadelphia auction house. Little did I realize that, as this painting was the most expensive one in the auction, I would be singled out for attention by the press. Although I refused to give any information about myself or permit myself to be photographed, I was photographed leaving the building.

The next day all the Philadelphia papers had lengthy accounts of how I had bought the most expensive painting, and describing how I bid. I had begged the photographers not to take my picture, because I knew many people in Philadelphia with whom I did business, and seeing that I was paying six figures for a painting, they would invariably think that the profit I was making on their business was a key to my buying such expensive paintings. Had I known that I would get so much publicity, I would never have bought the painting.