For sale: A rare Duchamp

Scott Reyburn, The New York Times, 9 September 2016, Visit external site

PARIS — A unique version of Marcel Duchamp’s revolutionary “Porte-bouteilles” (Bottle Rack, or Bottle Dryer) sculpture will be offered for sale next month from the foundation of the American artist Robert Rauschenberg.

The sculpture, one of five surviving variants of Duchamp’s first pure “ready-made,” will be the centerpiece of an exhibition opening on Oct. 20 at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris celebrating the centenary of these radical artworks. It will be the only Duchamp work available for sale. Neither the gallery nor the Rauschenberg foundation would disclose the asking price, though both made it clear it is only for sale to a public museum.

“That was the understanding. It cannot go to a private collector,” said Thaddaeus Ropac, who has galleries in Paris and Salzburg, and who is opening a London branch in the spring. “We wanted to present it properly in an exhibition with its own catalog, rather than have it for sale in a back room. We have a list of top museums in mind.”

Unique ready-mades by Duchamp, as distinct from his editioned pieces, rarely, if ever, appear for sale.


“It’s very, very difficult to value,” said Bruno Jaubert, the associate director of Impressionist and modern art at the Paris auctioneers Artcurial, who in June sold Duchamp’s 1910-11 painting “Nu sur nu” to an unnamed non-European institution for $1.4 million. “An iconic Duchamp owned by one of the greatest American artists of the 20th century. You have all the ingredients of a record price,” added Mr. Jaubert, who put a tentative valuation of $8 million to $12 million on the work.

Back in 2009, Christie’s $490 million auction of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé included Duchamp’s unique 1921 Dadaist perfume bottle, “Belle haleine — eau de voilette,” labeled with Man Ray’s photo of the artist’s female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy. Classified as an “assisted” ready-made (involving creative input from the artist), it sold for $11.5 million, more than six times the lower estimate. 

The “nonassisted” ready-mades like “Porte-bouteilles,” now recognized as among the most influential artworks of the 20th century, were defined by André Breton in his 1938 book “Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme” (The Abridged Dictionary of Surrealism) as an “ordinary object promoted to the dignity of an art object by the mere choice of the artist.”

The original “Porte-bouteilles,” a galvanized iron rack for drying bottles, was bought by Duchamp in 1914 at the Grand Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville department store in Paris. In a 1916 letter to his sister Suzanne — written from New York, where he had moved the previous year — he described it as “comme une sculpture toute faite” (like a sculpture already made). But by then she had cleared his studio and the work had disappeared.


The “Porte-bouteilles” to be offered by Mr. Ropac dates from 1959, when Rauschenberg collaborated with Duchamp in the group exhibition “Art and the Found Object” at the Time-Life Reception Center in New York. Duchamp had hoped to include the 1935-36 version owned by Man Ray, but this too had been lost and Man Ray bought a replacement in Paris, which was then sent to America and subsequently bought by Rauschenberg. A museum therefore has the chance to buy the second of the five surviving unique versions. A further edition of eight plus two proofs was produced in 1964 under Duchamp’s supervision by Galleria Schwarz of Milan.


Robert Rauschenberg died in 2008. Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac is one of three international galleries entrusted by the Rauschenberg Foundation to sell the artist’s work and his collection. The Duchamp show will be paired with an exhibition of Rauschenberg’s 1984 “Salvage” paintings, mainly sourced from the foundation, which it has represented since April 2015. Prices will range from $500,000 to $4 million.

“We are selling the Duchamp now because of our upcoming catalogue raisonné project,” said Christy MacLear, chief executive of the Rauschenberg Foundation, based in New York. “This project investment coincided with Thaddaeus’s Rauschenberg show, giving it context. Many dealers had expressed interest, including Thaddaeus, and we felt he would represent the Foundation’s interests in placing the work with an important institution.”

Gallery shows, unlike public auctions, can pick and choose their buyers, as well as provide flexible payment terms, which make them a favorable channel through which foundations can place works in museums.

But with auction houses now reluctant to guarantee sales, and demand at various levels of the market cooling, private owners of high-value artworks are also turning to dealers in the discreet search for buyers.

Take, for instance, a star exhibit at this year’s new-look Biennale des Antiquaires fair in Paris, which previews to V.I.P. visitors in the Grand Palais on Friday. The Paris dealer Galerie Malaquais, specialists in early 20th- and late 19th-century sculpture, will be showing Alessandro Algardi’s original 1634 terracotta model for the gilt bronze statue that crowns the reliquary of Mary Magdalene in the church of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume in Provence. Algardi was one of the foremost baroque sculptors working in early 17th-century Rome.


The 16-inch-high terracotta, one of two such surviving models by Algardi, is being offered for sale by a European private collector who acquired the piece in 2008 from the renowned Paris sculpture dealer Patrice Bellanger. Galerie Malaquais has priced the work at 13 million euros, about $14.5 million.

“It’s cheaper than a Jeff Koons,” said Jean-Baptiste Auffret, the co-director of Galerie Malaquais. In terms of pricing, Mr. Auffret was perhaps more aware of the $33 million the John Paul Getty Museum paid in June 2015 for a long-lost marble bust of Pope Paul V by Algardi’s rival Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Tellingly, it was another private transaction, this time brokered by Sotheby’s.

Mr. Auffret is upbeat about the prospects for the Biennale now that the 60 year-old fair has lost more than a dozen of the brand-name “haute joaillerie” dealers that dominated sales, particularly to Asian clients, in 2014. The 28th edition of this high-end fair, which will now be held annually, has been bolstered by a contingent of old master dealers from the defunct Paris Tableau event. The number of art and antiques dealers has increased to 121 from 70, while “haute joaillerie” is down to four exhibitors.

“It’s now the real Biennale des Antiquaires,” Mr. Auffret said. “There was too much jewelry. It became like a shopping mall in Dubai.”