15. února 2024
A collection like the Cullen Collection could have originated only in the very specific atmosphere of the turn of the 1980s and 1990s, the era of the melting of the political ice and the unprecedented openness of the West towards Eastern Europe. Its London sell-off promised to be one of the events of the year.
The Cullen Collection embodied the completely unique phenomenon of overseas collecting focused on the Czech inter-war avant-garde with a special emphasis on surrealism and imagination. Its owners, Texas billionaires and patrons Roy and Mary Cullen, started building it enthusiastically in the early 1990s. Their inspiration was an exhibition of Czech modern art from between 1900 and 1945, organised by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in the autumn of 1990.
“We were inspired by the pioneering Czech Modernism exhibition organised many years ago by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. It served as a guide when we started our own collection according to our taste and feeling,” says Mary Cullen on the beginnings of the family collection. They very enthusiastically created and cultivated their collection for another quarter of a century. They made frequent trips to Prague, “which had just started to wake up from its communist-era isolation”, and visited local personalities, art historians and important exhibitions such as the Toyen retrospective organised by City Gallery Prague in 2000. The Cullens turned their attention to the entire spectrum of Czech surrealism and Group 42 and their collection was far from limited to just the key names of the known representatives active in France. They were able to appreciate a host of interesting and quality works on paper; small sketches by Wachsmann, Muzika, Bílek, Hudeček and Pravoslav Kotík; Karel Teige’s collages; and period bibliophilic editions and magazines.
This passion for overseas collecting was driven, according to Mary Cullen, by admiration and fascination over “how many artists, even in the worst times, can rise above adverse life circumstances and create something beautiful.” And like any “orthodox” collecting activity, based more on internal motivation than on the wallet, it led to the making of many trans-Atlantic friendships and connections. After one of the spouses, Roy Cullen, administrator of the Quintana Petroleum Company empire, died at the age of 84 in April 2014, the family decided to close this chapter and dissolve the collection.
Sotheby’s jumped at the opportunity to offer almost 130 works from the Cullen Collection in the European and primarily Czech environment. Aware of the great success and response provoked in the local audience by the June 2011 Hascoe Collection auction and the limited opportunities on the local market, and a hunger for art with a seal of foreign provenance, it had almost disproportionately high expectations for the auction from the very beginning, as well as in terms of price, which did not really reflect the current situation on the Czech market nor the increasing insight of local buyers with regard to the bidding process.
The auctioneers’ highest hopes were placed on the key item of the collection, the locally well-known 1936 canvas The Message of the Forest by Marie Čermínová (Toyen). The work, whose acquisition was very much desired by collectors, had a daring pre-auction estimate of 700,000–1,000,000 pounds sterling (CZK 32–46 million after additional fees). If it sold, even at the lower end of its pre-auction estimate, it would be the world’s most expensive work by the artist and rank among the five most valuable works of Czech art sold at (contemporary) auction.
However, against expectations, not much of a battle was fought for the painting in the half-empty auction room, which contained only a few Czech representatives. The first bid was 480,000 pounds sterling and after a few additional bids, the auction finished with a hammer price of 520,000 pounds sterling. Including auctioneer commission, VAT on this commission and artist fees, a buyer from the European Union or the Czech Republic would have to pay a total of 681,000 pounds sterling for the piece, i.e. almost CZK 24 million. However, since the final price finished below the lower estimate and the auction reserve price, the auction house, after some hesitation, marked the item as unsold. If it were not for the disproportionate expectations and efforts to push the final price to record heights, The Message of the Forest had captured the interest of a Czech bidder who was present in the auction room and was willing to pay an amount equal to the lowest bid.
As Sotheby’s had put their high hopes into the promotion of the significance of this item, its auction took an unexpected turn. Despite the success of the previous auction on the same afternoon where many attractive Czech items had been offered for sale within the Eastern European art collection A Different Perspective (more in the case study on Czech art), and the fact that the auction of other works from the Cullen Collection finished satisfactorily, an embarrassing silence reigned in the auction room after the auction finished.
In spite of the ambivalent result and probably unfulfilled expectations of the auctioneers, many works from this collection pleased Czech buyers. According to a Sotheby’s press release, 40% of the auctioned items were headed for the Czech Republic. A representative of a Czech investment fund present in the auction room acquired Toyen’s exceptional Portrait d’André Breton for an amount below the lower end of the price estimate. The work, given to Breton by the painter for his collection, cost 124,000 pounds sterling (CZK 4.3 million, including additional fees). One of Jindřich Štyrský’s erotic collages from the series The Portable Cabinet was acquired for almost 28,000 pounds sterling (almost CZK 1 million, including additional fees) by a private Czech gallery for its collection.
Photographs and works on paper were the most successful overall. Another collage by Štyrský from the same series cost CZK 3.7 million, collage number 9 from the series Emilie Comes to Me in a Dream fetched 1.5 million, and one of the auction’s highlights – an early post-war collage by Karel Teige with Spitfire fighter planes – cost CZK 2.8 million. Jindřich Heisler’s photographs, with a pre-auction estimate of 1,000–1,500 pounds sterling, sold for 42,500 pounds sterling after a steep price increase, which was also the case for a pastel of a female nude by František Kupka and three years’ of issues of the Devětsil RED Revue.
The most expensive item of the auction, Jindřich Štyrský’s oil Roots, sold far below the bottom end of the price estimate and below the sum for which a similar work was sold a year ago in Prague. The new owner acquired it for 146,500 pounds sterling. Including 20% VAT on the commission and a 5% fee on the hammer price applied to items imported from non-EU countries, the final price was 163,000 pounds sterling, i.e. CZK 5.7 million.
Overall, the auction yielded 784,200 pounds sterling, excluding VAT and additional fees. In koruna terms, collectors spent CZK 27.6 million on the works from the Cullen Collection and 82% of the items were sold. In comparison, buyers spent over ten times more three years ago on the Hascoe Collection. Whereas the sell-off of the unique Cullen Collection was supposed to become one of the main events of last season, the Czech audience has almost forgotten it. However, the good news for the Czech Republic is the significantly higher maturity of Czech buyers, their more cautious decision-making with regard to acquiring works of classic modernism at long-term inflated prices, and the encouraging collectors’ appreciation of quality works on paper.
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