A Scandal and a Sale

  • Posted on Nov 10, 2013 by

While conducting research as an intern at the Frick Art Reference Library, I was reminded that the New York auction house often acts as a stage for dramatic, headline-generating sales. On the evening of April 21, 1915, Gilded Age magnates and their art advisors assembled at the Plaza Hotel for just such a sale (American Art Association). On the block was the masterpiece-studded Blakeslee Collection, available nearly in its entirety to the public as a result of the scandalous suicide of the collector and salesman, Theron J. Blakeslee.

American Art Association auction catalog. Highly Valuable Paintings by the Great Masters of the Early English, French, Flemish, Dutch, Italian and Spanish Schools. April 21, 1915.

Owner of a large gallery on Fifth Avenue, Blakeslee was a respected dealer who sold paintings to many prominent collectors such as William Randolph Hearst and brokers like the Knoedler brothers and M. Durand-Ruel (American Art Association). In spite of this, on the afternoon of March 8, 1914, he received news of the possible failure of his business. Blakeslee’s lawyer, Theron Davis, advised his client that his interests might benefit from the services of an accounting firm. Complaining of a severe headache, Blakeslee retreated from the meeting into a private room in his gallery for a moment of rest. When Dr. Paul Mersch, son and representative of one of Blakeslee’s European creditors, attempted to enter the private quarters of the dealer, the gallerist shot himself in the right temple. Although Blakeslee was promptly removed to the nearby Flower Hospital, he died before attending physicians could stabilize his condition (Art Dealer Suicide in His 5th Avenue Shop).

Tragically, a statement by an appraiser issued on the same evening as Blakeslee’s suicide revealed that the value of his assets was nearly double that of his debt. Had the dealer hesitated for even an hour, he would have been relieved of his worries (Blakeslee a Victim of Needless Worry). With no will to govern its disposition, the Blakeslee estate reverted to Mrs. Blakeslee, whose attorney assembled a team of experts to advise her on the sale of her property. These consultants strategized in order to maximize the value of Blakeslee’s pictures (Set Aside Art Blakeslee Sold). The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives reveal something of the market psychology employed by these men. Noted lawyer and collector John G. Johnson wrote to the aforementioned Dr. Mersch, “There is but one way of dealing with these pictures in the hope of realizing their values, i.e., a public sale.” He insisted that the works be sold at two separate auctions, with the best paintings appearing in the first and those of lesser quality in the second (Johnson). It was this first sale that generated the remarkable prices necessary to secure New York Times headlines. The newspaper named Peter Paul Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi, “the most important” by the artist “ever sold in this country,” and the massive tableau commanded an ultimate bid of $13,000 (Blakesee Heirs Will Get $125,000; American Art Association).

 

Letter from John G. Johnson to Dr. Paul Mersch, Blakeslee Galleries Sale, April 13, 1914. 

American Art Association Records. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.

The 1915 catalog from this sale represents one of the finest examples of Gilded Age collecting habits, its annotations and images revealing both the kinds of works obtainable and the value they held for buyers.

 

American Art Association auction catalog. Highly Valuable Paintings by the Great Masters of the Early English, French, Flemish, Dutch, Italian and Spanish Schools. April 21, 1915.

Available at New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC) partners the Frick Art Reference Library and Brooklyn Museum, the catalog richly testifies to the taste of Blakeslee and the opulence of the era he inhabited.

 

Elizabeth McIntosh, Intern, Frick Art Reference Library



Works cited:

"Art Dealer Suicide in His 5th Avenue Shop; Theron J. Blakeslee Shoots Himself After Talk with Agent of a Foreign Creditor." New York Times 8 Apr. 1914. Web. 24 Jul. 2013.

"Blakeslee a Victim of Needless Worry; Report Showing Art Dealer Was Thoroughly Solvent, Arrived as Suicide Was Dying." New York Times 9 Apr. 1914. Web. 24 Jul. 2013.

"Set Aside Art Blakeslee Sold; Many Paintings in Galleries Belong to Customers of Dealer Who Killed Himself." New York Times 12 Apr. 1914. Web. 24 Jul. 2013.

"Blakesee Heirs Will Get $125,000; Accounting Shows Value of Suicide's Art Collection Had Been Overestimated. Auction Bought $259,202 If Dealer Had Not Taken His Life He Might Have Reaped a Fortune from His Treasures." New York Times 18 Sep. 1915. Web. 24 Jul. 2013.

American Art Association. Highly Valuable Paintings by the Great Masters of the Early English, French, Flemish, Dutch, Italian and Spanish Schools.New York: American Art Association, 1915.

American Art Association. Illustrated catalogue of master works of the early English, Dutch, French and Flemish schools belonging to Eugene Fischhof, Paris and T. J. Blakeslee, New York.New York: American Art Association, 1900.

Johnson, John G. Letter from John G. Johnson to Dr. Paul Mersch, Blakeslee Galleries Sale, April 13, 1914.  American Art Association Records. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.


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