In 1979, citing non-payment for a safe deposit box rental, a bank vault at the Société Générale in Paris was opened for the first time in many years to reveal an incredible hidden-away treasure: a priceless collection of paintings, drawings, books and prints by some of the most famous and influential artists of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The works had been deposited at the bank some forty years before, following the death of their owner in 1939, as Europe teetered dangerously on the brink of war. The owner, as it turned out, was the legendary late art merchant Ambroise Vollard. His sudden death in a car crash in July 1939 led his invaluable collection of art — anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 carefully selected and commissioned masterpieces — to be promptly dispersed, as the Vollard heirs and various other interested parties each tried to get a share of the precious artworks. Today, some of these works can be found in great museums, some in private collections, while others have been lost, seemingly forever. Perhaps the same fate awaited the 140 rescued pieces found in the bank vault, had it not been for the quick-thinking action of Erich Slomovic, who secured the works in the vault mere months after Vollard’s untimely death. The nature of Slomovic’s and Vollard’s relationship is a hazy one and Slomovic’s intentions remain unclear. Having fled to Yugoslavia during the war, Slomovic himself died at the hands of the Nazis shortly thereafter, in 1942. Whether it was business or friendship, their association had the beneficial outcome of safeguarding a portion of Vollard’s legacy.
The discovery of this long-lost artistic heritage sparked the interest of many, and though the collection was consigned to be sold at the Hôtel Drouot in 1981, ensuing legal issues prevented the momentous event from taking place. The legal battles were to last several decades. Almost thirty years later, Sotheby’s announced the sale of the Ambroise Vollard Estate, with works being sold in London on June 22nd, 2010, and in Paris on June 29th, 2010.
At the time of his death, Vollard was 73 years old and a rich man. His discerning eye and astute business sense made him a millionaire, with a fortune estimated anywhere between 6 and 8 million dollars, back in 1936. Yet who could have predicted such success for a simple island boy, born in 1866 at the Ile-de-la- Réunion, a remote French colony located in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar? A self-made man if there ever was one, young Ambroise arrived in Paris at the age of nineteen, prompted by his father, to study law. When Vollard discovered a passion for the arts, his disapproving father, in the hopes of discouraging him from his newfound interest, promptly cut him off. Undaunted, Vollard found work in an art gallery, and only five years later, had acquired the means to open his own gallery on the Rue Lafitte.
From then onwards, it was his audacity and insight that propelled this self-taught merchant to become a leading figure in the history of modern art. He joins the ranks of several other chief art merchants of the past century: Paul Durand-Ruel and Daniel Henri Kanhweiler. Durand-Ruel was an innovator in the sense that he redefined the role of the art merchant. A fervent advocate of the Barbizon school of painting as well as of the Impressionists, he promoted their style and works through organised exhibits in his galleries located in Brussels, London, Paris and New York. As for Kahnweiler, who became Cubism’s most enthusiastic campaigner as well as a major dealer of Pablo Picasso’s works, he was very much in awe of the incredible achievements of his older counterparts, Vollard and Durand- Ruel.
Contrary to Durand-Ruel and his predecessors, who almost exclusively supported the Impressionists, Vollard’s thirst for discovery and quest to unearth new talents made him the number one promoter of the avant-garde. In quick succession, he organized the first monographic exhibition of Paul Cézanne (having previously acquired 150 of the then-unknown artist’s works) in 1895 and presented Vincent van Gogh that same year, followed by Paul Gauguin (1898), Pablo Picasso (1901), Henri Matisse (1904) and Maurice Vlaminck (1910). He later lent his support to the Nabis, Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard.
His relationships with the artists themselves were not always peaceful, even downright tempestuous at times. In one famous case, Paul Gauguin, feeling taken advantage of, bluntly accused the dealer of waiting for him to die in order to speculate on his works. At the painter’s death in 1903, Vollard indeed did put together a Gauguin exhibit in Paris, during which prices for the artist’s works began to soar…
Regardless of Vollard’s business techniques or morals, looking over the roster of artists Vollard discovered and promoted, one can only admire his formidable intuition: today his protégés are among the highest-selling artists on the market, breaking one record after another.
A closer look at the 140 lots offered at the Sotheby’s auction reveals the perhaps lesser-known role Vollard played in the development and popularity of color lithographs in the beginning of the 20th century. Shortly after the inauguration of his Lafitte gallery, Vollard took on the task of editor in addition to his duties as a dealer. He edited prints and color lithographs as well as illustrated books, and encouraged artists to explore these mediums in addition to their preferred means of expression. He cited the likes of Bonnard, Cézanne, Redon, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec to produce wonderful etchings and edited L’Album des peintres-graveurs and L’Album d’estampes originales de la Galerie Vollard in 1896 and 1897, respectively. He commissioned a series of etchings from Bonnard, Maurice Denis and Vuillard for three albums. From Picasso, Vollard demanded no less than one hundred prints destined for the famous Suite Vollard album, a colossal project to which Picasso devoted seven years of his life, from 1930 to 1937. Sotheby’s here presents a wonderful testimony of this aspect of Vollard’s activities, with several choice examples, notably by Picasso, Forain and Rouault.
At the center of the collection is a masterpiece of the Fauvist movement, by one of its greatest representatives, André Derain’s Arbres à Collioure. Executed at the peak of Derain’s Fauve style in 1905, the work brilliantly showcases the Fauvist preference for vivid, exuberant colors and distorted forms. Estimated between £ 9-14 million, it fetched an impressive £ 16,281,250 on June 22nd in London, thus attaining the record price at auction not only for the artist but for any fauve painting at auction as well.
Ambroise Vollard’s entrance into the Parisian art scene coincided with crucial developments in the art market at the beginning of the past century. The old system of the “Salons” was losing steam. It consisted in granting all control of the artistic production in France to the academy by having the latter organise official exhibitions, thus deeming certain artists worthy of exhibiting. An artist rejected by the “Salon” had virtually no chance of succeeding. In the early 20th century “radical” artists, no longer wishing to submit to the academic canon, opted for alternative means of achieving public recognition, such as unofficial exhibition sites. As an avid seeker of new talents, eager to explore and promote innovative techniques and styles, Ambroise Vollard played no small part in these shifting times, as he redefined and broadened the role of the art dealer and contributed to the evolution of the art market.
For seventy years, a priceless part of Vollard’s collection had been hidden away from the public eye. A time capsule of sorts, the lots in the upcoming “Treasures from the Vollard Safe” sale, plunges present-day audiences into the fascinating and thrilling world of one of the most significant actors of the début-de-siècle Paris art world.
“TREASURES FROM THE VOLLARD SAFE”
76 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré