Welcome back to the Accessible Art History Blog! For this week’s post, I have another art history mystery of the Impressionist variety. Degas’ Dancer Making Points has a murky provenance that caused a $10 million mystery! So to learn more, keep on reading!
Before we dive into the mystery, let’s go over the painting itself. Painted between 1879-1880, Degas’ Dancer Making Points features a single ballerina in the middle of a performance. She is about to go on pointe, the mark of an expert dancer. Her dress is made of fluffy tulle and decorated with red flowers. This work is a great representation of Degas’ Impressionist style and preferred subject.
The beginning of the painting's provenance is fairly straightforward. It was owned by French collector Georges Lévy between 1927 and 1955, give or take a few years. In 1939, however, it was transported to America when Lévy fled the Nazi Occupation.
Around or before 1955, Lévy sold the work to Huguette Clark (or possibly her mother, this is unclear from the records.) Clark was the daughter of senator and businessman William A. Clark. He was one of the “Copper Kings of Montana” and extremely wealthy. Huguette was a painter and philanthropist, but also quiet and withdrawn. In her later years, she was known for being reclusive and eccentric.
Clark died on May 24, 2011, at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, two weeks short
of her 105th birthday. She had spent the last twenty years of her life in the hospital. At the time of her death, Clark’s estate was worth an estimated $300 million and her will stipulated that 75% of the money was to be donated to charity.
At one point, before November 1992, Degas’ Dancer Making Points disappeared from Clark’s 5th Ave apartment. According to her attorney, he noticed that it was missing about a year after Clark moved to the hospital. There were some rumors that a member of the staff took it and that a doorman saw it in the trash can. But, nothing has been officially confirmed. Clark herself seemed somewhat unconcerned with the theft and declined to have the piece placed on the international missing art registar.
A few years later, The Peter Findlay Gallery purchased the work from an anonymous young man. He told them that the work had been in his family for years and he needed the money. The gallery had no reason to believe that he was lying, as the work had not been reported stolen. They purchased the work.
The gallery then sold the work to Henry and Marion Bloch. (Henry was one of the founders of tax company H&R Block). The couple are avid collectors, especially of Impressionist works, and the new Degas fit perfectly within their collection.
Eventually, Clark learned of the sale of the painting and decided to pursue legal action. However, because she never registered the work as stolen, this became tricky. In addition, an FBI investigation into how the work was taken from Clark’s apartment was inconclusive.
Both parties hired lawyers and did their best to keep litigation out of the media. Eventually, the two parties came to an agreement: Clark would get the tax credit for donating the piece. But, it would go to a museum that the Blochs held in their hearts: The Nelson-Atkins museum in Kansas City. Henry Bloch had been a longtime trustee, chairman and benefactor, and the museum was where the couple had promised to donate all their art when they died. (However, when the museum officially received the painting, they “loaned” it back to the Blochs for the rest of their lives.)
However, there has been some dissent with this decision. For example, there have been arguments that Clark was not in sound mental health when she made the agreement (and during the changing of her will). In addition, who stole the work in the first place?
We will likely never know how the painting was removed or by who, but at least the work is able to be enjoyed and is safe. There are many works that have been stolen that never see the light of day again!
Dancer Making Points by Degas
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Nelson Atkins Museum
Copyright Free Use via Wikimedia Commons