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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

11. 1929: How to make a painting disappear

Updated: May 26, 2020

In June 1929, the art dealer Paul Reinhardt sailed from New York to Southampton, England, on the White Star Line’s “Majestic.” Reinhardt was beginning one of his regular shopping trips to purchase art. This trip would take him from London to Munich to Paris, and he would meet with collectors and dealers in each city.

Paul Reinhardt was 41 years old, six feet tall according to his passport, with blue eyes and fair hair. The son of German immigrants, he was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father Henry had begun as an art dealer in Milwaukee, then moved to Chicago, and then, finally, to New York, where he opened Henry Reinhardt & Son Gallery on Fifth Avenue in the early 1900s. Henry Reinhardt dealt in old masters: he bought and sold Rembrandts and van Dycks, Rubens and Raphaels. He built the gallery into a thriving business, one whose exhibitions and sales the New York Times noted faithfully.

Henry Reinhardt died in 1921 and his son Paul took over. Paul’s interest lay more in modern artists. In 1926, his gallery hosted the first-ever exhibition of the work of Marc Chagall in North America. The next year, Reinhardt Galleries hosted a loan exhibition of paintings “from El Greco and Rembrandt to Cezanne and Matisse.”

Among those lending paintings for the exhibition were leading names in the American and French art worlds. A Gauguin that Reinhardt himself owned also hung in the exhibition. Reinhardt was well-connected in the refined worlds of fine art and wealth.

The Wildenstein 1964 catalogue raisonné hypothesized that Max Kaganovitch had sold Flowers and Fruit to the Reinhardt Galleries sometime after April 1929, when Kaganovitch bought it in Paris. For long months I was convinced that the trail ended there, and that I would not be able to find the link between the April 1929 auction in which Flowers and Fruit appeared and the December 1929 receipt for its sale to Eila Haggin McKee in New York. The Reinhardt Galleries closed in the early 1950s and their archives were either dispersed or destroyed. But a family vacation brought me to New York a few months ago and I made a hopeful trip to the Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I knew that Reinhardt had opened an exhibition in the fall of 1929, because I had seen an advertisement for the show in the New York Times.

Might he have printed a catalogue for the show?

He had. The Watson Library is an art researcher’s dream. It holds one of the largest collections of publications and archives related to the history of art in the world. In addition to biographies and studies of artists, catalogues raisonnés, and museum exhibition catalogues, the Watson collects ephemeral material. It collects, in a word, the exhibition catalogues that commercial art galleries publish. And it had the catalogue for Reinhardt’s exhibition in the fall of 1929.

Paul Reinhardt and his wife Mary returned from France on October 1, 1929. Less than two weeks later, on October 12, they opened an exhibition of work by Picasso, Matisse, Derain, Modigliani…and Gauguin. The librarians brought me the slim volume from deep in their storage shelves. I opened it with bated breath.

Do you know the pleasure of being right? There is, in my experience, almost nothing else like it. I had been operating on hunches and educated guesses for months, spending fruitless hours going down blind alleys and finding only the smallest clue. I had questioned my sanity more than once, as I seemed to walk the same circles over and over again. When I opened the 1929 Reinhardt Gallery catalogue, I saw that the exhibition included Paul Gauguin’s Flowers and Fruit. In a perfect world, the name would have been printed correctly, but we must settle for imperfection in this life. Here it was called Fruit and Flowers.

I believe that this change of name was brought about by an unlikely coincidence—at the time of this exhibition, MoMA was in the process of opening its first ever show in New York. In their exhibit they had a painting by Gauguin that, coincidentally enough, was called Flowers and Fruit. Reinhardt would not have wanted any confusion over his product, and so may have reversed the name accordingly.

I have no receipt of sale between Max Kaganovitch and Paul Reinhardt, but I can place both men in Paris in the summer of 1929, and I know that one man was selling art and the other was buying art to sell. I know that Reinhardt had been the first American gallerist to exhibit the works of Kaganovitch’s family friend Marc Chagall. And I know that, in the 1920s as now, the art world is a small place. The correspondence from Reinhardt that I have found in the Archives of American Art—and it is incomplete—indicates that all through that summer he was meeting with collectors and dealers, building up an inventory of paintings to take back to Manhattan with him.

Kaganovitch was interested in Swiss painters at this time; the year before, he had edited a collection of essays on contemporary Swiss artists. His friend and mentor the artist Cuno Amiet was Swiss and was helping him find work. The Gauguin that Kaganovitch had bought in April he had bought not out of love but out of economic opportunity. Reinhardt, as the owner of a major New York gallery, would have put out word when he got to Paris amongst all of his contacts that he was looking for paintings by modern artists, paintings that he could sell to his New York clients. Kaganovitch moved in the same circle; he may have already known Reinhardt because of their mutual interest in Marc Chagall. We can imagine him getting a whiff of Reinhardt’s interest as he sat over his morning café crème and croissant and arranging a meeting. The men would have spoken together in French—speaking French was imperative for Reinhardt in his line of work, and Kaganovitch, as a Russian immigrant to France, was unlikely to have learned English. Neither of the men would have wanted to appear too eager to buy or sell; they would have wanted to get and give the best price. But after a few meetings and negotiations, Paul Reinhardt and Max Kaganovitch shook hands. Flowers and Fruit was on its way across the ocean.

Reinhardt’s show of modern paintings opened on October 12 and was set to run until November 9. He and his staff must have felt optimistic about their sales: all of their featured artists had made a splash recently in other exhibits, whether in gallery shows like this one or in museum exhibitions. The Reinhardt Gallery was in the same building as the newly opened Museum of Modern Art, and MoMA’s first exhibition was set to open on November 7. The buzz must have been almost the same for both shows: MoMA’s was entitled Cezanne, Gauguin, Seurat, Van Gogh. Reinhardt’s show included almost all of the same artists. Surely sales would be brisk.

The exhibition opened on a muggy Saturday. For the next two weeks, business in New York went on as usual. The Athletics defeated the Cubs in the World Series in Philadelphia. Republican Fiorello La Guardia debated his opponent Socialist Norman Thomas in the race for New York’s next mayor. The Byrd expedition to the South Pole advanced. Then, over two days, the stock market crashed. Wall Street lost over $30 billion in value on October 28 and 29, 1929. For the next two weeks, the worldwide economy shifted on an almost daily basis as the reverberations of the sell-off echoed. Reinhardt’s clients were people whose wealth was relatively stable. Buying art is a luxury that usually waits for some financial comfort. And yet. For all but the sturdiest bank accounts, the October crash was threatening. Change and anxiety were in the air. If your average culture monger was going to make any adjustments to his budget, then the line for buying art might be among the first to be slashed.

And perhaps that is why, on New Year’s Eve, Eila Haggin McKee was able to buy Flowers and Fruit for less than the asking price. She bought through her family’s dealers, Clapp and Graham. Clapp and Graham were prominent dealers in art and antiques; they worked with leading American art collectors of the day, families like the Rockefellers and du Ponts. When Eila’s father had died, she had hired them to help her catalogue the paintings in his collection; Clapp and Graham had been Louis Haggin’s preferred dealers for several years.

Paul Reinhardt customarily worked with fellow dealers in selling paintings: the correspondence that remains shows him in constant conversation with his colleagues, trading Impressionists and Old Masters back and forth like Pokemon cards. Clapp and Graham’s gallery was at 514 Madison Avenue—just two blocks away from Reinhardt’s gallery at 730 Fifth. The gallerists could have walked the painting over. Eila and her husband Robert McKee lived uptown, at 136 East 79th Street. Eila died in 1936 and three years later, in 1939, McKee packed the Gauguin up and sent it to join the rest of the Haggin collection in Stockton, California, where the Gauguin received the accession number of 1939.34.3. There the painting remained, mostly on view, but never written about.

And that is how it disappeared.

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