From museums to First Open: Great collectors and their treasured works
Our First Open auctions feature the works of modern masters and emerging contemporary stars — many of which have resided in some of the world’s most celebrated art collections
The First Open sales this season in New York and London include standout works from a number of famous collections. Alexander Calder, Josef Albers and Willem de Kooning are just a few of the legendary names whose works lined the walls of these collectors’ homes, as well as having been exhibited in renowned museums. Below, we profile the collectors who shared a discerning eye for the emerging art of their time, and whose cherished works are now offered across our First Open sales.
Gallerist and patron Ileana Sonnabend (née Schapira) stands as one of the most influential and provocative figures of recent art history. From her early childhood interests to her marriages to art dealers Leo Castelli and then Michael Sonnabend, her life revolved around championing art and artists — particularly works that challenged the status quo.
Leo and Ileana Castelli presided over the conversations and debates that shaped the art world in New York, eventually opening a gallery in the sitting room of their Manhattan residence in 1957. Ileana came to be known for her connoisseurial eye and artistic judgement, while the couple’s sphere of influence included such figures as Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, Harold Rosenberg and Sidney Janis.
After divorcing Castelli in 1959 Ileana married Michael Sonnabend, an art scholar and writer, and opened Galerie Sonnabend in Paris. After setting the European cultural scene ablaze with their fearless shows of American Pop art, they returned to New York and opened the Sonnabend Gallery in SoHo. Like so many prescient collectors before them, Ileana and Michael Sonnabend embraced the controversial and ‘difficult’ works now considered masterpieces of post-war and contemporary art.
Encompassing major works of painting and sculpture plus drawings and prints from a diverse range of masters, their collection was the natural outcome of a lifetime spent in the company artists. The Sonnabends’ collection, much of which passed through inheritance to Ileana’s daughter, Nina Castelli Sundell, was so vast that it was regularly lent to museums across the United States and Europe. It remains one of the 20th century’s greatest assemblages of fine art, one that is indelibly linked to the fascinating personal history and vision of Ileana Sonnabend.
During a lifetime of collecting, Arthur and his wife Anita Kahn amassed a remarkable collection of post-war American art. Including one of the most complete groups of Alexander Calder’s work in private hands, it featured examples of the artist’s iconic hanging mobiles, exquisite jewellery and works on paper that served as Calder’s favoured medium for transcribing the vocabulary of his sculptures.
Both Anita and Dr. Kahn followed the artist’s career closely, and they were rewarded with a level of access that allowed them to acquire signature pieces which become central to their collection.
Alongside pieces by Calder, works by Joseph Cornell (below) embodied the energy and excitement of post-war America. Indeed, The Arthur and Anita Kahn Collection reflects a moment in which the axis of the art world shifted dramatically, and New York became its dynamic epicentre.
The Arthur and Anita Kahn Collection: A New York Story. Joseph Cornell (1903–1972), Untitled (Soap Bubble Set), c. 1958. Box construction: wood, newsprint, nails, oil, ink, tin copper rings, dyed sand and metal rod. Signed ‘Joseph Cornell’ (on the reverse). 7⅝ x 13⅛ x 4⅛ in (19.3 x 33.3 x 10.4 cm). Estimate: $80,000–120,000. This work is offered in First Open | Post-War and Contemporary Art | NY on 28 September at Christie’s New York
From Roni Horn’s mesmerizing close-ups of the River Thames to Jim Lambie’s fantastical apparitions, the works in Abso-bloody-lutely! all share a sense of fun and irreverence particular to the city of London. They tell the story of the city’s vibrant art scene since the early 1990s, when the capital fizzed with a new energy. The vitality of imagination that rejuvenated the art community in post-Thatcher Britain resounds to this day, with London remaining one of the world’s leading centres for contemporary art.
The introduction on the British scene of Tate Modern, the Frieze Art Fair, Artangel and Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth project, along with the revamping of the Turner Prize, has ignited both public and private engagement with art in a way never seen before. Now understood as a time of exceptional development, these years have inspired the interest of a new generation of academics and journalists.
Just as dynamic is the Cranford Collection itself, which has nurtured the city’s artists and grown with them every step of the way. Founded in 1999, at a time when there were few such initiatives by private collectors, it has remained a leading player in an art world populated by an increasingly vast array of galleries, fairs, movements and ideas. The collection, always active in the primary market and lending liberally to institutions, is a key supporter of developing artists, superstar names and the artistic groups behind them.
Cranford’s visionary connoisseurship, in-depth research and diversity of approach continues to evolve as new artistic energies emerge, inspire and thrive in the capital. By building creative connections within the city, the Cranford Collection is part of a living, breathing story — one that tells of an extraordinary era in which London has re-established itself on the international art map.
In the closing decades of the 20th century, Nan Rosenthal was one of the most influential curatorial voices in the United States. Highly regarded for her scholarship and adventurous vision, she introduced audiences at the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the work of leading post-war and contemporary art figures. Above all, Rosenthal and her husband, Henry B. Cortesi, are remembered as unwavering friends to artists and champions of the creative process.
As a curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in the late 1980s, Rosenthal’s influence led to the acquisition of a number of important works by Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt, among others. From 1993 to 2008, as a senior consultant at the Met, Rosenthal was instrumental in acquiring important works for the museum’s permanent collection, including its first works by Jasper Johns (White Flag, 1955) and Robert Rauschenberg (Winter Pool, 1959). She was also acclaimed for staging a series of groundbreaking exhibitions.
In verve and in wit, Nan Rosenthal found her equal in Henry B. Cortesi, a Harvard-educated lawyer, whom she married in 1990. Through the nature of Rosenthal’s work and subsequent visits to artists’ studios, the couple formed friendships with figures such as Chuck Close, Joel Shapiro, Ellsworth Kelly and Jasper Johns.
Renowned for her intelligence, generosity and humour, Nan Rosenthal was an individual who saw tremendous cultural value in the art of the ‘new’ — post-war and contemporary art. Her trajectory in scholarship was fuelled by imagination and ingenuity — qualities Rosenthal shared not only with Henry Cortesi, but also with the pioneering artists whose works are the cornerstone of her legacy.
Throughout her life, Mary Jane Garth was a truly independent spirit. Born in 1926, she was the only woman in her high school graduating class, and went on to attend Rice University.
As an avid collector, Garth held a particular passion for the work of emerging artists. ‘I had a very dear friend who introduced me to some of the up-and-coming young artists and their work’, she said. ‘This became the starting point of my love for art.’ As her own collection grew, Garth bought, sold and traded works by more established figures in order to focus on and invest in younger artists.
Nowhere is this legacy more evident than in the collection of modern and Pop art that was strikingly displayed in her Beaumont home in Texas. Featuring the work of artists such as Willem de Kooning (above), Tom Wesselman (below) and Roy Lichtenstein, it is a collection that reflects a longtime fascination with art, artists and their role in illuminating the world.
Her approach to collecting extended to her philanthropic efforts, which included serving as president of the Aspen Art Museum, being a founding member of the Anderson Ranch Arts Center and an ardent supporter of the Aspen Musical Festival and Aspen Ballet. In Beaumont, Garth founded the Garth House and established the Mary Jane Garth Regent’s Scholarship at Lamar University, focusing on students majoring in art or music.
‘Art,’ Mary Jane Garth declared, ‘enriches the lives of people in all communities.’ Alongside her contribution to the arts, the collection embodies Garth’s personal ethos and lasting legacy.