ART MARKET / Collecting on a monumental scale: Thirty years ago, a Canadian couple began to buy unfashionable 19th-century sculptures of smooth marble nymphs and fierce bronze animals; now their gamble looks like paying off

Geraldine Norman
Saturday 21 May 1994 23:02

HAS THE moment come when the public is, once again, prepared to take 19th-century sculptures seriously? Everyone has seen them in public parks or dusty museums - those white marble nymphs of exquisite smoothness, carried off by mythical beasts or rescued by gods; those portrait busts of bearded Victorian worthies presented in the style of Roman emperors; those bronze animals, realistic to the last striation of fur or given life by an impressionistic finish.

Sotheby's has decided that enough people have become interested in this field over the last year or so to justify a big sale. There have been two pioneering exhibitions in America, while the Musee d'Orsay now provides a showcase for the period in the centre of Paris; auction prices have been rising despite the recession. So Joey and Toby Tanenbaum, a husband and wife team of voracious collectors from Toronto, have been persuaded to disgorge a substantial proportion of their enormous collection; and on 26 May, Sotheby's will auction 156 of their assorted marbles, bronzes, terracottas and plasters ranging in date from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.

Joey Tanenbaum, 62, and his wife Toby provide a fascinating study in how big business and art collecting intertwine. Their interest in the 19th century was encouraged by its lack of fashionable appeal and the opportunity it provided to buy cheaply ahead of the crowd. An effervescent tycoon, Joey regularly sells art as well as buying it - when the price is right. But he's not an art investor of any ordinary kind.

He loves showing other people his treasures; his head office in Toronto comprises 18 rooms filled with art and only six staff members. He prefers art to employees: 'Paintings don't talk back, don't ask for a raise, don't leave early to go to the sports club and add beauty to my life,' he says.

His Toronto home, the two top floors of an apartment block, was built as an art gallery for his 19th-century paintings and sculptures - Toby is not allowing him to sell the 70 or so sculptures it contains. Their country home in Uxbridge, Ontario, is decorated with 19th-century prints and drawings; the big sculptures that used to decorate the garden have been sent for sale.

Tanenbaum inherited a steel fabricating business from his father and sold it; his present wealth derives from building and owning the largest hydro-electric plant in the province of Quebec. The proceeds have been poured into 19th-century paintings and sculpture - the kind of high Victorian or academic art which went resoundingly out of fashion when the Impressionists came in. The Tanenbaums began to collect in the Sixties, just as art historians began to re-evaluate the field, and they've already made a fortune out of it.

Last year they consigned three major paintings by James Tissot to Sotheby's, three gorgeous fin de siecle delineations of society ladies in fashionable dresses; the paintings cost them dollars 25,000 ( pounds 17,000), dollars 45,000 ( pounds 31,000) and dollars 75,000 ( pounds 52,000), Joey says. This time, the best of the three, The Woman of Fashion - she is shown slipping a fur wrap over her pink ball gown as she leaves a fashionable event - made dollars 2m ( pounds 1.4m). The other two paintings brought dollars 882,500 ( pounds 610,000) each.

Sotheby's forecasts that the sculpture collection will bring between dollars 5m and dollars 7m ( pounds 3.5m- pounds 4.9m). Recent sales have suggested that huge, monumental sculptures might be serious money- spinners. Two of them have been estimated at dollars 200,000-dollars 300,000 ( pounds 140,000- pounds 210,000), both depicting classical subjects in finely carved white marble. In Jean-Baptiste Clesinger's Perseus and Andromeda, Perseus, wearing nothing but a winged helmet and sandals, has mounted his horse with a naked Andromeda in his arms. The other sculpture is a seven foot Oath of Spartacus.

Then there are two masterpieces by Jean-Leon Gerome, the painter and sculptor who was especially opposed to the Impressionist revolution; he prized high finish and was a great storyteller. His Napoleon entering Cairo, just over three foot high, has a gilt bronze Napoleon in full uniform riding a gilt bronze horse on top of a wooden temple with six columns, out of which flies a partly gilded figure of Victory in fluttering robes, while a bronze Egyptian scribe sits on a pediment below. Sotheby's is hoping to get dollars 120,000-dollars 180,000 ( pounds 83,000- pounds 125,000) for it. Gerome's plaster bust of Sarah Bernhardt, which used to belong to the actress herself, is expected to make slightly more: dollars 150,000-dollars 220,000 ( pounds 103,000- pounds 150,000).

The Tanenbaum's two favourite sculptors seem to have been Gerome and Rembrandt Bugatti, brother of Ettore Bugatti who made the cars. Rembrandt specialised in impressionistically modelled animal bronzes and there are masses of them in the sale, from camels and elephants to pelicans and storks, mainly estimated in the dollars 20,000-dollars 40,000 ( pounds 14,000- pounds 26,000) range. Beyond that, almost every sculptor of note is represented, from Barye through Rodin to Barlach. There's a plaster dancing group of The Three Graces which Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux modelled for the front of the Paris Opera - where the marble version can be seen today - estimated at between dollars 80,000- dollars 120,000 ( pounds 55,000- pounds 83,000), and there's a bewitching 18in plaster of a contemporary mother with her baby by the realist sculptor Aime-Jules Dalou, estimated at dollars 10,000-dollars 15,000 ( pounds 7,000- pounds 10,000).

The Tanenbaums bought their first pictures in 1964, picking them up at local sales to furnish a new apartment. Friends advised them to take art periodicals and in 1965 they fell in love with two paintings by Abraham Solomon advertised in Apollo magazine by a London dealer; Joey rang up and bought them. This was the couple's first encounter with high quality art; over the next few years they sold all their original purchases and bought 50 good Victorian pictures.

Around 1970, they veered away from England into French painting of the same period, concentrating especially on the lesser known forerunners of Impressionism: Couture, Ribot, Dore, Isabey. Most of the English pictures were sold off and French sculpture became a serious interest, along with paintings. They also had a little flutter in the Old Master field - including one sensational gamble on a sculpture.

Their art consultant in London, Norman Leitman, whom Tanenbaum describes as 'my eyes and ears in Europe', spent pounds 132,000 in 1980 on a newly discoverd marble bust of Pope Gregory XV attributed to Bernini; Leitman researched the attribution and by the time he applied for an export licence in 1983 he was so convinced that the sculpture was genuine that he valued it at pounds 2.8m. In 1990 the Tanenbaums consigned the bust to Christie's in New York, but despite an estimate of dollars 7m ( pounds 4.8m) nobody bid on it. The bust is currently on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland.

At the end of 1988 they discovered a whole new collecting field. Torkom Demirjian, a New York antiquities dealer who runs the Ariadne Gallery on Madison Avenue, wrote to Tanenbaum about his exhibition of Byzantine metalwork and jewellery. 'I thought of him because he had the courage to collect out of fashion - I hoped he might be sympathetic,' Demirjian told me.

Tanenbaum bought the entire exhibition and became an enthusiastic supporter of Demirjian. In November 1989 the Ariadne Gallery presented an exhibition of Neolithic art entitled 'Idols, The Beginning of Abstract Form'. There were 160 figures in marble, terracotta and bronze and Tanenbaum bought the lot. Neolithic figures have become his new passion; Demirjian has supplied him with about 800 so far. The proceeds of the sculpture sale are going to be spent on antiquities.

(Photographs omitted)

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