DMA Sells Painting Abandoned for 50 Years

Brett Whiteley Painting
Nude Beside the Basin painting by Brett Whiteley | Image by Artsy

The Dallas Museum of Art’s (DMA) recent sale of a painting by world-renowned artist Brett Whiteley has stirred up a mystery involving a veritable who’s who of the rich and famous.

Whiteley, who died in 1992, was one of Australia’s most celebrated artists, according to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He was a painter, sculptor, and graphic artist but was most widely known for his paintings of nudes, interiors, and harbor scenes.

Nude Beside the Basin, painted in 1963, was part of the artist’s “bathroom series” collection. It was sold by the DMA on May 23 through Heritage Auctions in Dallas for $705,000, including the buyer’s premium of $103,00. However, how the painting came to be in the possession of the DMA in the first place is a bit of a mystery.

Over 50 years ago, someone left the painting on “anonymous loan” to the DMA. Who left it there and why the person never returned to collect the piece is unknown. Over time, the varnish on the painting began to yellow with age, but because it was not officially part of the museum’s collection, the curators were not authorized to attempt to restore it.

In accordance with Texas state law governing abandoned property, museum officials advertised the painting in an effort to locate the owner. Still, no one stepped forward to claim it, according to a museum spokesperson.

When it finally went up for auction, it roused much interest, particularly from Australian collectors. Whiteley’s ex-wife, Wendy Whiteley, also bid on the painting but ultimately lost out in the bidding process. The auction house has not revealed who bought the artwork, but it reportedly went to a European collection, Ms. Whiteley told the Australian Financial Review.

Meanwhile, art expert Kathie Sutherland is still piecing together the provenance of Nude Beside the Basin. It was exhibited at the Marlborough New London Gallery in 1964, along with other paintings in the “bathroom collection.” The exhibit in London helped launch Whiteley’s career.

At the time, the Whiteleys were friends of the Dallas-based couple Edward and Betty Marcus of Neiman Marcus department store fame. The couple were known as philanthropists and patrons of the arts. Sutherland believes the Marcuses purchased the Nude Beside the Basin piece at the 1964 Marlborough exhibit.

According to Sutherland, the most recently listed owners of the painting were Mr. and Mrs. William R. Hawn, another wealthy Dallas couple who were reportedly friends with the Marcuses. The Hawns bred and raced Thoroughbred horses and were founding partners of the Dallas Cowboys franchise.

It is unknown who took ownership of the painting after the Hawns died. The couple had five children, but none stepped forward to claim the work of art.

It remains to be seen where the painting will surface next. In the meantime, the DMA pocketed more than $500,000 from the sale of the abandoned artwork.

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