In Focus

The Icebergs Returns to Public View

The following essay summarizes the events leading to Frederic Edwin Church's The Icebergs_ __joining the collection of the DMA._

Despite persistent sleuthing on the part of art historians, The Icebergs was "rediscovered" by Mair Baulch, the matron of a juvenile detention facility for boys in Northenden, Manchester, England, where the painting had hung over a little-used upper staircase. In 1978, Baulch brought the long-lost painting into the public view. Her motivation was the modest goal of raising £14,000 to purchase a run-down strip of property in the country for the boys' recreation. Baulch initially contacted the Art Institute of Chicago, which offered to purchase The Icebergs, but the Manchester City Council decided to send the painting to New York for auction.

On October 25, 1979, John L. Marion took the podium at Sotheby’s. The sales room was packed. The Icebergs was lot 34 in the sale, estimated at $750,000 to $1 million. If it reached $1 million, The Icebergs would break the existing record for an American painting. Marion started the bidding at $500,000. At least eight bidders were active at the $1 million mark, causing ripples of excitement in the sales room. Taking their time were two telephone bidders. Linda Silverman, then head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, had one client on the line, while Roberta Louckx, from Sotheby’s Private Client Services, called another in Dallas. Both bidders had insisted on complete anonymity. As bidding approached $2 million, these two absentees engaged in an excruciatingly tense horserace. Bidding remained at $50,000 increments, and there were generous pauses between each record-breaking bid. Finally, at $2.4 million, Marion pushed the bidding increment to $100,000. With the subsequent and final bid, it took 3 minutes and 45 seconds to reach the hammer price of $2.5 million. Applause erupted as the news sank in. The previous record had been shattered. [1]

The sale of The Icebergs surpassed other benchmarks as well. The previous record for a painting sold in an American auction had been held by Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer (1653, Metropolitan Museum of Art), which in 1961 had sold for $2.3 million. What stunned most observers was that The Icebergs achieved the third-highest price paid at auction for any painting, behind the $5.24 million paid for Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja (c. 1650, The Metropolitan Museum of Art) and the $4 million the National Gallery in London paid for Titian’s The Death of Actaeon (c. 1559-1575), both of which had been sold by Christie’s in London. [2]

The next day, the New York Times gave the sale front-page coverage, including a photograph of the painting and the headline “U.S. Painting Sold for Record $2.5 Million.” Speculation as to the identities of the two telephone bidders was rampant.

In New York and London, the sale of The Icebergs generated a shock wave through the art market. If a painting by Church could come close to the price paid for a work by Titian or Velázquez, what, then, would a Cézanne or a Renoir bring? Collectors, dealers, and auction houses all recalibrated their estimates, using The Icebergs as a benchmark. By the spring of 1980, after the next round of European paintings sales, The Icebergs had dropped to eleventh on the all-time list of prices paid at auction for paintings. In American art, the auction record set by The Icebergs would stand until 1985, when the National Gallery of Art purchased Rembrandt Peale’s Rubens Peale with a Geranium (1801) for $3.7 million. [3]

The identity of the purchasers of The Icebergs has been a subject of much speculation, but the buyers' wish for anonymity was honored. [4] Harry Parker, then Director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, had no idea who had purchased The Icebergs until the week following the sale. The purchasers called to request a few minutes of his time on a matter he might find of interest. The owners of The Icebergs had bought the painting knowing full well it would not fit comfortably in their house. It was a museum picture and could have a transforming impact on the DMFA's collections. They offered Parker The Icebergs on loan, with the sole condition that they be permitted to remain anonymous. About the same time, the painting's owners placed a call to New York and bought the chromolithograph of The Icebergs (for one one-hundredth the price of the oil painting). Their rationale was simple: if they couldn't keep the painting, they would certainly enjoy owning the print. [5]

Parker presented the painting to the public on November 20, 1979. What no one knew until the unveiling was that the purchaser was not just lending but donating The Icebergs to the Museum. That gesture was then, and remains today, an unparalleled act of personal and civic generosity.

The donation of The Icebergs had an immediate effect on Dallas and the Museum. Overnight it provided a centerpiece for the Museum's collections and turned the art world's attention to Dallas as the city's museum moved up in the estimation of many museum colleagues. For the painting's donors, it provided immense personal pleasure to know that they had brought a great painting, and a great story, to Dallas. The Icebergs had come a long way, from a forgotten treasure above a hidden stairwell to the centerpiece of a museum collection, to be the greatest 19th-century American painting in the South and Southwest. For the Dallas Museum of Art, The Icebergs remains now, as it was in 1979, a symbol of civic philanthropy and proof of the enduring power of a great painting.

[1] Rita Reif, "U.S. Painting Sold for Record $2.5 Million," New York Times, October 26, 1979, A1, C22.

[2] The Vélasquez sold for $5.24 million, plus commission on January 27, 1970, lot 110; the Titian sold for $3.84 million on June 25, 1971, lot 27.

[3] Sotheby's American paintings sale, December 5, 1985, lot 42.

[4] After his death in 2010, Lamar Hunt's family agreed to make his generous contribution to the DMA known publicly. Prior to this, The Icebergs was credited to an "anonymous donor."

[5] Conversation between the donor and Eleanor Harvey Jones, November 6, 2002.

Adapted from

Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Voyage of the Icebergs_: Frederic Edwin Church's Arctic Masterpiece_ (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2002).

Fun Facts

  • The Dallas Museum of Art was associated with an earlier record-setting sale of an American artwork—the 1962 purchase of Andrew Wyeth's That Gentleman (1962.27). The price of $58,000 was the highest amount paid by a museum for a painting by a living American artist. The record was preceded and surpassed by other museums' purchases of his paintings. The Philadelphia Museum of Art set the record in 1959 when they purchased Ground Hog Day, and the Farnsworth Art Museum (Rockland, Maine) continued to increase the bar when they acquired Her Room in 1963. A more recent record-breaking sale of a work by a living American artist occurred in 2013 when Jeff Koons (whose Inflatable Balloon Flower (Yellow), 1997, 2005.56 is owned by the DMA) sold a version of his over-sized Balloon Dog sculptures for over one thousand times Wyeth's 1962 record.

  • Frederic Edwin Church also broke sales records during his lifetime. The Heart of the Andes (1859, Metropolitan Museum of Art) was purchased for $10,000 in 1909, then the highest price paid for a work by a living American artist.

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