The Met Drops a Cool Million for an Old Master

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Ta-da! Photo: Courtesy of Sotheby's

In one of its first major purchases since Thomas P. Campbell took over as director, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has bought an Old Master portrait of Pope Benedict XIV for just under $1 million. The seller was art dealer Adam Williams, who snapped up the painting by Pierre Subleyras — better known for an altarpiece at St. Peter’s in Rome — at a Sotheby’s auction in January. In a bidding war with an anonymous rival, Williams bid it up to $986,500, setting an auction record for the artist. (The Met didn’t bid at the time because it hadn’t raised funds yet.)

The Met’s newest acquisition, which could signal a change in its collecting priorities, is literally the talk of the fair at Tefaf Maastricht, the huge art-and-antiques fair that opened today in the Netherlands. (It’s the world’s biggest: think Art Basel Miami with Rembrandts, tulips, and tweed jackets.) For those who study power shifts at the Met — and that’s most of the art world — the purchase is a sign that Keith Christiansen, the Met’s curator of Italian and French paintings, may be consolidating influence under the Campbell regime. (The new director is an expert in Renaissance tapestry.) Just last month, Christiansen bought a work by Renaissance master Jacopo Bassano that’s already on view.

Painter Pierre Subleyras is little known in the U.S. but famous in Europe; the Louvre Museum owns several of his works. A star in Rome in the early eighteenth century, he was commissioned to do the somewhat studious “official” portrait of Pope Benedict XIV (the current Pope is Benedict XVI), but this painting is a later, more vibrant version of the man who became a patron and collector of his work.

The purchase comes at a time when the Met has publicly expressed some worries about money. Late last month, Met chairman James Houghton posted a letter to members regarding “The Global Economic Crises” on the Met’s website. It announced that the museum would be closing some gift shops, starting a hiring freeze, and added that “now, more than ever, your attendance ... and generosity are critically important to the future” of the institution.

That said, $1 million is pocket change for a great Old Master; in 2004, during the Philippe de Montebello regime, the Met paid upwards of $40 million for the “Stroganoff Madonna,” a fifteenth-century portrait by Duccio.