Images of success down-loaded

IBM, once the giant of computing, amassed a huge art collection.Now it is losing out to rivals, the art is for sale. Geraldine Norman reports
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THE BATTLE for the 1990s computer market is being fought in ordinary living rooms the world over as spotty young techno-geniuses dictate their parents' choice of personal computer. And the loser, so far, is the giant of the industry, IBM ( Inter-national Business Machines), whose monopolistic power in the field was once so great that the US Govern-ment took the company to court in an (unsuccessful) attempt to break it.

In the wake of the company's huge losses, 25 offices, factories and labor- atories were sold last year to achieve a saving of $1.75 billion. And now the company's art collection is slated to go the same way. Ironically, IBM is selling up just as Bill Gates, founder-chairman of its rival, Microsoft, is busily buying the rights to computerise the world's art - he already has the National Gallery on CD Rom.

Sotheby's has been commissioned to sell the best of IBM's collection. Some 300 paintings, drawings and prints, valued at around $25m (about £16m), are to be auctioned in New York this summer with the promise of more to come in the autumn. They will be dispersed among specialist sales rather than sold as a block.

The computer giant's most valuable holdings were in late 19th- and early 20th-century American paintings, together with a sprinkling of fashionable Latin American art. The period of its purchasing bonanza was 1937-1946 when its main acquisitions were "contemporary art"; that is, art of the previous 40 years or so.

At that stage the IBM buyers' taste was rigorously figurative. So the collection Sotheby's will be selling this summer contains some wonderful images of early 20th-century Amer-ican life, plus a sprinkling of still lifes and landscapes. George Bellows's Easter Snow of 1915 depicts fashionable New Yorkers picking their way through a snowy park and is expected to make between $1.5m and $2m (£955,000-£1.3m); Maurice Prender-gast's On the Shore of c1914, a post-impressionist rendering of women disporting themselves on the beach, should earn $1m to $1.5m (£640,000-£955,000); while Frank Benson's The Sisters, painted in 1899, depicts the artist's two daughters playing in a sun-drenched meadow, using a sparkling Impressionist style borrowed from Renoir; it is valued at $1.5m to $2m (£955,000-£1.3m).

American post-impressionism and early 20th-century realist painting became enormously popular in the US in the 1980s with prices following French Impressionism up into the stratosphere. It is rarely seen and little known outside America.

In the 1940s, the computer giant's attention was also arrested by the contemporary painters at work in Mexico, notably Diego Rivera who evolved a monumental narrative style in his mural paintings, glorifying his country's pre-Columbus past, its peasants, workers and their revolutionary fervour. IBM avoided revolutionary overtones but purchased one of the artist's largest canvases, his Dance in Tehuantepec of 1928. Sotheby's expects this work to make $3m to $4m (£1.9m-£2.4m).

IBM also bought work by Frieda Kahlo, Rivera's wife, though her fame nowhere near matched his at the time. A marvellously exotic self-portrait, in which Kahlo had decked herself out in the traditional costume of the Tehuantepec region of Mexico and posed with a parrot and a monkey on her shoulder, carries an estimate of $2.5m-$3m (£1.6m-£1.9m).

So what was a computer company doing with all this art? The story goes back to the founder, Thomas Watson Snr, who became president of the Computing- Tabulating-Recording Company, later IBM, in 1914. By the 1930s IBM was established world wide and had the economic clout equivalent to that of a small nation. Watson was a friend of Roosevelt and a big player on the international scene. An idealist, he remains famous for his care of his employees and for creating "IBM man", the salesman he groomed and sent out as his ambassador - suited, mentally agile and virtuous. He explained his love of art in a speech in 1936: "Art breaks the monotony of life which is one thing the human mind cannot endure. Monotony would drive the world insane, art is its antidote."

Watson had bought his first painting - a Maine landscape - for $40 at the age of 22 and became a keen collector. In 1923 he was a co-founder of the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York, a non-profit organisation which promoted US art. He served as a trustee of the Metropolitan and several other museums.

In 1936 he personally underwrote the costs of exhibiting 150 American paintings at the Venice Biennale and the following year President Roose- velt appointed him Commissioner General for the American section of the International Art Exposition in Paris. This must have fired his imagination for it was in 1937 that he first steered IBM into purchasing art.

He ordered that 79 paintings be acquired from the 79 countries in which IBM did business for exhibition at the 1939 New York World's Fair. It was an amazing exhibit, with an electric calculator mounted inside a star- spangled glass globe at the centre of a fountain and the 79 paintings on the surrounding circular walls. He insisted that the paintings should be selected by leading art experts in each country of origin. Thus Sir Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery, chose Britain's contributor, Duncan Grant; the director of the Petit Palais chose Maurice de Vlaminck for France, and so on.

The success of the 1939 exhibit seems to have gone to Watson's head. Museums all over America asked to borrow it and he launched a Department of Fine Arts at IBM, devoted to forming collections and organising national and international exhibition tours. By 1946 IBM had acquired 30,000 pieces, including cheap prints, ceramics and textiles as well as paintings and sculpture. The collections included art from Latin America, Canada and Britain, American primitives and colonial painting, ancient sculpture and pottery and contemporary ceramics. In the first nine years IBM touring exhibitions visited more than 350 museums, galleries and universities.

With Watson's retirement in 1949, then his death in 1956, the steam appears to have gone out of IBM's touring policy. According to Dick Berglund, IBM's former curator, most of the original collections were dispersed in the early 1960s around the time IBM moved its headquarters from New York City to Armonk in Westchester County, upstate. Most of the art that Sotheby's will offer for sale has been in store since then.

The company did not, however, abandon its interest in art. The policy of purchasing art to decorate offices and other buildings, so as to make an environment that is pleasing to work in, has been pursued all round the globe. IBM UK owns more than 4,000 works, mostly inexpensive prints suited to ordinary office space but including a few expensive works by the likes of Gilbert and George, Nigel Hall and Ben Nicholson. In every country where it operates, IBM has concentrated on buying the work of local contemporary artists.

The New York sales will include works from US offices that have closed as a result of the current economy drive. In company jargon, the Watson stuff is referred to as "the historical collection" while the art from offices is called the "facilities' collection". The "facilities" art on sale is limited to post-war American works, with a 5ft Willem de Kooning of 1977 as its star turn, estimated at $500,000-$700,000 (£320,000-£450,000).

In order to secure the valuable paintings, Sotheby's has signed an extraordinary contract whereby it has become the official curator and manager of the IBM facilities' collection world-wide. "We will advise on lending, shipping, conservation, hanging and placement," Rick Lapham of Sotheby's explains. It is the first time that Sotheby's has signed such a "curatorial" deal. It is likely to involve them in a lot of time-wasting hassle.

Most of the art in IBM facilities is not valuable enough to qualify for Sotheby auctions and Lapham says that his company has not yet thought out what to do with it. "As the whole process develops, we will see what the needs are. We are storing a lot of material right now." In order to keep tabs on the collection they are building a data base. It has 5,000 works of art on it so far. !