TIME Fine Art

Virgin Mary Painting Encrusted With Elephant Dung to Go to Auction for $2.3 Million

Artist Chris Ofili's controversial work The Holy V
Doug Kanter—AFP/Getty Images Artist Chris Ofili's controversial work "The Holy Virgin Mary" is seen in the Brooklyn Museum of Art as part of the Sensation exhibit in New York 30 September 1999.

Chris Ofili’s "The Holy Virgin Mary" stirred controversy when it debuted

Chris Ofili’s 1996 painting “The Holy Virgin Mary” created a stink when it showed in New York in 1999—then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani was among the protesters of the elephant dung-encrusted portrait of the Madonna surrounded by photos of butts. But now its upcoming auction may prove the work’s value once and for all: Christie’s in London has set an estimated price of $2.3 million.

Ofili was one of the Young British Artists (YBAs) who scandalized and delighted the art world with works like Tracy Emin’s “My Bed,” a mattress covered in detritus like empty liquor bottles and used condoms, and Damien Hirst’s shark preserved in formaldehyde. Ofili is a winner of the prestigious Turner Prize and has been recognized with several high-profile retrospectives.

An Australian collector, David Walsh, is the current owner of the 8-foot-tall painting, and says the proceeds will go toward funding an expansion of his Museum of Old and New Art. The auction is set to take place June 30.


TIME Fine Art

Why Aren’t American Museums Doing more to Return Nazi-Looted Art?

Portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer I. D150. 138:138 cm. Oil on canvas. 1907
Imagno / Getty Images Portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Oil on Canvas by Gustav Klimt. 1907

Seventeen years after the US hosted the Washington conference on Nazi-confiscated art and pledged to facilitate “just and fair” solutions, a lack of transparency in American museums remains

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

Helen Mirren’s latest film, Woman in Gold, tells a true story of an arts battle.

Mirren stars as Maria Altmann, a naturalized US citizen who sues the Austrian government to recover a glittering, golden portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, painted by Viennese art nouveau master Gustav Klimt and looted from her family’s home by the Nazis.

Justice prevails through pressure imposed by US courts: the portrait of Adele finds a welcoming new home in America.

While Woman in Gold is a feel-good, triumphant tale for American audiences, it’s important to note that the country’s own art museums still have work to do to ensure justice for Holocaust victims. The story of this one painting doesn’t mitigate the fact that at least 100,000 works of art confiscated by the Nazis haven’t been returned to rightful owners.

In museums across the US there are paintings, sculptures and other works of art with provenance gaps from the Nazi era, signaling a need for ongoing research into rightful ownership.

An international court battle

The Austrian government believed the painting had been willed to them in 1925 by its subject, Adele Bloch-Bauer. For this reason, they argued the painting had nothing to do with restitution – the return of works to the victims of Nazi theft or their heirs.

However, in 1998 Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin unearthed documents in Austrian archives indicating that Adele’s husband Ferdinand had been the rightful owner when the Nazis seized the collection in 1938.

Ferdinand had died nearly penniless in Zurich in 1945, leaving all his assets to his niece Maria Altmann, along with her brother and sister.

Czernin’s findings boosted Altmann’s claims to the portrait and four other Klimt paintings still held by the Austrian government.

Ultimately, Altmann – a naturalized US citizen – decided to file her claim in a US court by invoking the Foreign Sovereignty Immunities Act. The law provides exceptions to sovereign immunity when a country violates international law with US commercial interests at stake.

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Altmann’s favor in 2004.

Rather than face a protracted legal battle, Austria offered to try the case via an arbitration panel of Austrian experts. The panel awarded the painting to Altmann.

Altmann would eventually sell the portrait to cosmetics heir and World Jewish Congress leader Ronald Lauder for a then-record sum of $135 million.

Austria was already seeking to make amends

Altmann’s ultimate victory allowed Americans to relish the US role in the restitution of Nazi-looted art.

In this way, Woman in Gold continues a heroic art recovery narrative also reflected in The Monuments Men, the 2014 George Clooney film that extols the bravery of American men who risked their lives to recover thousands of works from Nazi repositories in castles, churches and salt mines.

But Woman in Gold glosses over the broader historical context of art restitution.

In fact, after decades of thwarting restitution claims, the Austrian government – like other European countries – had already been actively taking steps to compensate victims of Nazi persecution.

In 1996, it auctioned looted artworks still held by the government, giving $14.6 million in proceeds to Jewish organizations.

Two years later, Austria was among 44 countries that signed the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, a non-binding agreement to pursue just and fair solutions in restitution cases.

And the same year, an Austrian Federal Art Restitution Law provided for restitution of works held by state museums that had been donated under duress or looted in the Nazi era.

Americans aren’t always heroes in the story

Art enthusiasts in America should ask themselves whether more could be done to ensure US museums are not holding Nazi-looted art.

After World War II, some American museums expanded their collections by purchasing art or accepting donations without researching the objects’ ownership history in the Nazi era.

In Manhattan not far from the Neue Galerie, where the Adele Bloch-Bauer portrait now hangs, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) holds one of the greatest modern art collections in the world.

But according to historian Jonathan Petropoulos, author of The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany, the museum’s founding director, Alfred Barr, acquired pieces confiscated or stolen by the Third Reich.

And MoMa recently defended its ownership of three paintings by German artist George Grosz purchased by MoMA in 1952 from Curt Valentin, a New York dealer who had funneled art from Nazi Germany to the US.

In 2009 heirs of the artist had filed a restitution lawsuit in US District Court, which found the statute of limitations invalidated the heirs’ claim, a decision confirmed on appeal in 2010.

MoMA won a legal victory but the ethical implications are less clear.

Uncertainty remains about the origin of other works in the collection. The MoMA Provenance Research Project provides a list of 800 works under investigation. But ownership gaps abound. In each case, there’s no indication of ongoing research.

Meanwhile in Pasadena, California, the Norton Simon museum is currently embroiled in a lawsuit over two Cranach paintings claimed by Marei von Saher, heir of the Jewish Dutch dealer Jacques Goudstikker, whose collection was seized by Nazi leader Hermann Göring.

The Norton Simon website does have a general statement on the importance of provenance research and “filling gaps” in Nazi-era ownership. But it provides no list of relevant works in the collection.

And while most US art museums agree to abide by ethical standards in acquisitions and provenance research established by the American Alliance of Museums, there’s no government-mandated enforcement mechanism.

So here we are today: 17 years after the US hosted the Washington conference on Nazi-confiscated art and pledged to facilitate “just and fair” solutions, a lack of transparency in American museums remains.

Yes, the “Woman in Gold” was returned to its proper owner. But how many Nazi-era portraits, landscapes and still-lifes painted in countless colors remain in America’s museums – havens that are not their rightful homes?

Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt is an Associate Professor of History at University of Denver


How the Art World Changed Its Mind About Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono with Standing Woman (1932) by Gaston Lachaise, The Museum of Modern Art Sculpture Garden, New York. c. 1960–61.
Minoru Niizuma—Courtesy Lenono Photo Archive, New York Yoko Ono with Standing Woman (1932) by Gaston Lachaise, The Museum of Modern Art Sculpture Garden, New York. c. 1960–61.

TIME was not the only one critical of the 'entrepreneur of happenings'

Yoko Ono made her “unofficial” debut at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1971, by advertising a “one woman show” that didn’t actually exist. What a difference four decades makes. “Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971,” a new MoMA exhibition of her work opening May 17, is a belated recognition of the importance of Ono’s conceptual and performance art in the 1960s.

But MoMA isn’t the only institution that did not give Ono much attention in the years before her name was linked to John Lennon’s. Her early work was pretty far out, and it was clear that not everybody got it.

Case in point: When Ono made her first appearance in TIME in 1966 as part of a report on the scene at a week-long “Destruction in Art Symposium” in London, the magazine’s eye-rolling tone was clear as it described her “fey Zen variant on the dominant theme” to “spread out a cloth on which she drew the outlines of people’s shadows, then [fold] it up to take their shadows prisoner.”

A year later, Ono merited a paragraph under the headline for her recent “show-biz flop.” As TIME reported:

In London last week, a widely heralded underground film called No. 4 had its world premiere, showing nothing but some 300 nude British buttocks, a fresh one every 15 seconds or so for 76 minutes. For sound track, there were the taped comments of the volunteers. “I’m a bit cynical about mine,” said a girl who described herself as a model, “because it’s worth money.” The director was Miss Yoko Ono, 34, a Tokyo-born artist-composer and currently an entrepreneur of happenings in London. The premiere was a benefit for Britain’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, a prestigious public patron headed by eminent Art Philosopher Sir Herbert Read. But the point of it all was lost on most Londoners. Sales of the opening-night tickets ($4.20 top) were so slow that many had to be given away. The most appreciative audience response came ten minutes (and 40 rumps) along, when a spectator leaped onstage and stroked the screen image. By the halfway point, fully two-thirds of the first-nighters had departed.

By 1968, she had become linked with Lennon, first as a “free female soul” with whom he was opening an art exhibit—and soon after as the avant-garde artist for whom he was leaving his wife Cynthia. Decades later, though her relationship with Lennon has remained a defining element of her public life, the museum at which she was once able to mount only a theoretical show is giving her a real solo exhibition.

Among the pieces on show: Film No. 4.

TIME Fine Art

See Photos From Yoko Ono’s MoMA Exhibit

Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971 will run at the MoMA in New York City from May 17 to Sept. 7

Yoko Ono’s art isn’t always easy to follow—literally. In 1971, the avant-garde artist and musician exhibited an unauthorized show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art called Museum of Modern (F)art that featured little more than a man waiting outside the building with a sandwich board encouraging visitors to chase flies she had released in and around the museum. Now, a new exhibit at that same museum, Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971, makes experience her art much easier by bringing together many, often interactive works from that decade in one place. The show, the MoMA’s first one dedicated entirely to Ono’s work, opens May 17 and runs through September 7.

TIME Fine Art

Christie’s Just Sold Over $1 Billion Worth of Artwork in Three Days

Jussi Pylkkanen, president of Christie's, takes bids at an auction for the art work, "Les femmes d'Alger (Version O)" painted by Pablo Picasso, at Christie's on May 11, 2015 in New York City
Andrew Burton—Getty Images Jussi Pylkkanen, president of Christie's, takes bids at an auction for the art work, "Les femmes d'Alger (Version O)" painted by Pablo Picasso, at Christie's on May 11, 2015 in New York City

And they still haven't finished their sales for the week

With paintings like Mark Rothko’s “No.10″ going for $82 million or Andy Warhol’s “Colored Mona Lisa” topping $56 million, it is no wonder Christie’s made history Wednesday by becoming the first auction house to cross the $1 billion mark in total art sales in one week.

According to the auction house, 72 postwar and contemporary artworks sold for just under $660 million in a New York evening auction. This comes on the heels of Christie’s “Looking Forward to the Past” event that made over $705 million on Monday. Among the latter’s sales were Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger, Version O” becoming the most valuable single piece of artwork sold at an auction when it fetched over $179 million.

Christie’s is set to add to the record on Thursday with a day and night sale. They will have another day sale on Friday.

And it isn’t just Christie’s raking in the dough. Competitor Sotheby’s notched up $380 million on a Tuesday evening sale and over $90 million on a Wednesday day auction.

TIME Fine Art

See the Picasso Painting That Just Set a World Record for Art at Auction

It surpassed a Francis Bacon piece that sold in 2013

Spring Art Auctions Preview
Courtesy of Christie’s and the Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS)/APPablo Picasso’s “Women of Algiers (Version O),” auctioned at Christie’s in New York City on May 11, 2015.

A Picasso painting became the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction on Monday, going for more than $179 million.

Christie’s said “Women of Algiers (Version O)” sold for $179,365,000. That figure, which the Associated Press reports to include the auction house’s premium, surpasses a Francis Bacon work called “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” that held the top spot, also selling at Christie’s for $142.4 million in 2013.

Picasso painted the work as part of a 15-painting series (versions A through O) created in 1954 and 1955, inspired by Eugène Delacroix’s 1834 “Women of Algiers.” Industry experts say art world prices are staying high as collectors see these top works as strong and lasting investments.

TIME Fine Art

The ‘Scary Lucy’ Statue Will Get a New Home

A bronze sculpture of Lucille Ball is displayed in Lucille Ball Memorial Park in the village of Celoron, N.Y., in her hometown.
AP A bronze sculpture of Lucille Ball is displayed in Lucille Ball Memorial Park in the village of Celoron, N.Y., in her hometown.

The tribute was mocked in a New York town for its lack of resemblance to the actress

A statue of Lucille Ball that upset residents in Celoron, N.Y., but amused the Internet, is relocating.

Dubbed “Scary Lucy,” the bronze likeness (which critics say bears little resemblance to the actress) will be featured in the National Comedy Center, a new attraction in nearby Jamestown that will open sometime next year, according to the New York Times. Celoron will maintain ownership of the statue, and it will stay in that village until a replacement is found.

The Center’s chairman said in a statement that he was excited about the work as “a tribute to what [Ball] was all about—making people laugh. This piece of comedy history has made millions of people laugh since going viral.”


TIME Fine Art

Venice Biennale Art Fair Opens With First-Ever African Curator

Okwui Enwezor, left, curator of the 56th edition of the Venice Biennale of Arts poses with Biennale President Paolo Baratta at the 56th Biennale of Arts in Venice, on May 5, 2015.
Domenico Stinellis—AP Okwui Enwezor, left, curator of the 56th edition of the Venice Biennale of Arts poses with Biennale President Paolo Baratta at the 56th Biennale of Arts in Venice, on May 5, 2015.

There are also more female artists in the national pavilions

(VENICE)—A Nigerian art critic and museum director is the first African to curate the Biennale contemporary art fair that opens Saturday for its seven-month run, while female artists are representing more countries than ever in national pavilions—trends seen as an informal rebalancing in the art world.

There’s Joan Jonas for the United States, Fiona Hall for Australia, Irina Nakhova for Russia, Sarah Lucas for Great Britain, Chiharu Shiota for Japan, Pamela Rosenkranz for Switzerland and Camille Norment for Norway. And those women are all from the more established Biennale participants in the Giardini, around one-third of the 89 national pavilions.

The prominence of women in the national pavilions — which along with the main show curated by Okwui Enwezor comprise the 56th International Art Exhibition — may be coincidence. Still, the force of the female numbers is gaining notice as somehow tapping into a zeitgeist and challenging the notion of the art world as being male dominated.

“I think it is wonderful so many women are representing countries this year. I think it is great,” Jonas said, sitting outside the U.S. pavilion — where she had just been approached by a woman who thanked her for giving hope to female artists.

Jonas started her artistic career as a sculptor in the 1960s before moving into performance art and becoming an early adapter to video in the 1970s. She said that her participation in the Biennale would bring “a lot more attention to my work” — while adding that she always felt supported.

“I am an artist’s artist. From the very beginning, I had an audience. From the very beginning, I felt appreciated,” she said. “I couldn’t continue to work like this if I didn’t have the support of my fellow artists, and then many curators, over the years.”

Her show, titled “They Come to Us Without a Word,” comprises four galleries with thematic compositions of video installations, prints and objects that explore natural phenomena taking inspiration from passages by Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness. The pavilion’s central rotunda provides the theater for a fifth gallery, a study of light and reflection featuring Murano-made mirrors and a crystal chandelier.

At the nearby Australian pavilion, Hall’s show is its own natural history museum — a comment on colonialism and capitalism made through galleries of driftwood taxidermy collected from New Zealand beaches, hanging grass masks with scraps of camouflage, and a collection of rare and extinct animals woven from desert grass and other materials according to Aboriginal tradition.

“I’ve been very aware of carrying the Australian banner. And Australia wants to pass muster,” Hall said, while also musing that 50 years ago there would have been few women at the Biennale.

At the nearby Arsenale, which hosts part of the main group exhibition, Nigerian-born Enwezor does not play up being the first African curator at the Biennale. His career has focused more on periods, namely art of the 20th and 21st centuries, than geographies. His show, “All the World’s Futures,” is globally inclusive with artists from 53 nations, with no attempt to represent African art as such.

Enwezor has curated at least five other major international group shows, including documenta in Germany, and founded a journal of contemporary African art. Since 2011, he has been director of Haus der Kunst in Munich.

He said he has spent his 25-year career “working with artists across every cultural context. I am interested in their ideas and concepts, whether they are Indian, African, European, Asian, whatever. In that sense it is quite unremarkable.”

On the other hand, he conceded that the Biennale “for better or for worse is an exclusive club,” noting that “not that many female curators” had been tapped in its 120-year history. “To be part of this historical trajectory, to be part of an important aspect of our discipline,” he said, “that is deeply meaningful.”

Some of the African artists chosen to participate in Enwezor’s Biennale touted its significance.

“I grew up in Malawi,” said artist Samson Kambalu. “For me this is the first African curator, and the first time ever the world is looking at African art on an equal level.”

The contemporary art Biennale, held once every two years, runs through Nov. 22 at the Giardini, Arsenale and locations throughout Venice.

TIME Fine Art

See Photos from the Brand New Whitney Museum

Take a look inside the new Renzo Piano-designed Whitney Museum in New York City, which opened to the public on May 1

TIME Fine Art

See 10 of Art Spiegelman’s Best Social Commentary Cartoons

The artist, who stepped up to host this year's prestigious PEN gala despite controversy, is a defender of free speech

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