For renowned Chicago collectors and philanthropists James and Marilynn Alsdorf, collecting art represented a unique opportunity for exploration, adventure, and the pursuit of beauty. ‘We looked for objects,’ Marilynn said, ‘to delight our eyes and our souls.’ Over the course of their four-decade marriage, the couple assembled a remarkable collection of artworks and objects spanning all eras and areas of the world.
‘The Alsdorf Collection is an example of cross-category collecting at its finest,’ says Christie’s Chairman of the Americas Marc Porter. ‘It is crowned by masterpieces in the collecting realms of antiquities, works on paper, European and Latin American art, and Indian and Southeast Asian art.’ In addition, some of the biggest names of modern and contemporary art are represented, including René Magritte, Frida Kahlo, Joan Miró and Jean Dubuffet, among others.
Selected works from The Alsdorf Collection were offered as part of the 20th Century Week sales in November at Christie’s in New York. A further selection spanning Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art, among others, will be offered in Asian Art Week in the spring of 2020.
Two of Chicago’s most important cultural patrons
Married in 1952, James and Marilynn Alsdorf built a life that was centred on art, philanthropy and family. ‘As a couple, my grandparents were the picture of elegance, and they had impeccable taste, but to their family and many friends they were known for their warmth, wit, and humour,’ recalls Bridget Alsdorf, the couple’s granddaughter.
‘Studying and collecting art was their all-consuming passion, and it took them all over the world. Their spirit of adventure was unique; they went places that few collectors at the time were curious and confident enough to explore.’
One such place was India, which they visited for the first time in 1968. It was during this trip that they met former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and French novelist and Minister of Cultural Affairs, André Malraux, a close friend of the art dealer Robert Rousset, from whom they had acquired their first work of art in 1955. The Alsdorfs’ love of Indian, Southeast Asian and Himalayan art informed their early collection in the 1960s, at a time when such works were largely undervalued.
As their interests diversified, so did their collection. ‘They were not strategic in their collecting,’ recalls Bridget. ‘They were guided by what fascinated them and gave them pleasure, by knowledge and instinct. They were an incredible team.’
As well as being great collectors, the Alsdorfs were loyal supporters of museums and cultural institutions across Chicago and the wider United States, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago. James Alsdorf served as Chairman of the AIC from 1975 to 1978, and Marilynn sat on various committees.
In 1967, the Alsdorfs joined other prominent Chicago collectors, including, Edwin and Lindy Bergman and Robert and Beatrice Mayer, in founding the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, an institution to which they would provide extensive financial and personal leadership.
After James’s passing in 1990, Marilynn, who was known as ‘the queen of the Chicago arts community’, collected works by René Magritte, Wassily Kandinsky and Frida Kahlo, among others.
She continued to build upon her husband’s legacy in art and philanthropy, making a transformative bequest to the AIC in 1997 (which was celebrated with a landmark exhibition: A Collecting Odyssey: Indian, Himalayan, and Southeast Asian Art from the James and Marilynn Alsdorf Collection) and funding a curatorial position in Southeast Asian Art at the AIC in 2006. That same year, Marilynn was presented with the Joseph R. Shapiro Award from the Smart Museum of Art.
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November’s selection from The Alsdorf Collection was led by René Magritte’s darkly romantic Le seize septembre (1957), one of a series of four pictures painted between 1956 and 1958 depicting a crescent moon in front of a tree, in what Magritte described as ‘the bluish-grey colours of the evening’. The painting, which sold for $19,570,000, is chronologically the third and by far the largest in size, the tree filling the canvas from top to bottom. Magritte explored the notion of the ‘hidden visible’ to great effect during the mid 1950s, generating a cluster of works that foster a sense of mystery and intrigue.
Other notable highlights in the category included Pablo Picasso’s 1937 portrait of his lover and muse Marie-Thérèse Walter. Executed in pen and ink and wash, Tête de femme (Marie-Thérèse) realised $711,000. Joan Miró’s La Publicitat et le vase de fleurs, a rare-to-market example of the artist’s early talent, sold for $1,455,000. Executed in oil and newspaper collage on canvas in circa 1916-17, the work assimilates various strands of modernism that were emerging in the early 20th century, and established the Spaniard as one of the most significant artists of his generation.
Jean Dubuffet’s Palinodie (1961) achieved $4,575,000 in the Post-War and Contemporary Art sale on 14 November; while Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1936 Pink Spotted Lilies, one of the artist’s iconic flower paintings from 1936, fetched $1,935,000 in American Art on 20 November.
In January, a selection of Old Master Drawings — to include an important grouping of French and Italian works from the 18th century — will be offered at Christie’s New York. Among the standout French drawings coming to auction is A nude woman playing a flute by François Boucher. Italian drawing highlights include sheets by celebrated draughtsmen Giovanni Battista and Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo.
Asian Art Week in the spring of 2020 will include works from the collection spanning Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art, Furniture & Decorative Art, Japanese Art, Chinese Paintings and Chinese Works of Art. Highlights include a rare and magnificent 11th-century bronze figure of Shiva Vinadhara from South India, a Qianlong-period (1736-1795) guan-style pear-shaped vase, and a very rare marble head of Buddha dating to the Northern Qi-Sui dynasty (550-577).