When a Notable Collection Of Art Breaks Up

The sale of Giorgio Morandi works raises issues

The art world is a thing of simultaneous contrasts. In London on Nov. 28, the annual Turner Prize was awarded at the Tate Gallery, with consequent publicity.

The same day, 91 works by one of the 20th century's great masters were auctioned with little fanfare.

The Turner Prize recipient was Damien Hirst, who has already won himself a reputation for making art out of pickled dead animals. It is not the only thing he does, but it is the one that sticks in the public mind. As a London dealer (quoted in The Times) put it, ''He has done something amazing in his work. He is a very, very interesting artist, who is catching people's imagination in a big way.''

Hirst himself is quoted as saying: ''I want to make art that everybody could believe in.'' The Turner award, for his recent work, was 20,000 ($30,770).

The exceptional collection of paintings and drawings, sold at Sotheby's, were by Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964). He did nothing ''in a big way.'' These works - oils, watercolors, drawings, and etchings - all came from the Morat Institute Collection in Freiburg, Germany. Although attended by the press (mainly Italian), this event scarcely made headlines.

Morandi is often cited by critics and historians as an artist who quietly challenged the tendency for 20th-century art to develop in successive waves of excited newness and hype. Art historian Ernst Gombrich, in the revised new edition of his classic ''The Story of Art,'' finds that Morandi admirably meets his definition of artists as ''men and women ... who are favoured with the wonderful gift of balancing shapes and colours till they are 'right', and, rarer still, who possess that integrity of character which never rests content with half-solutions, but is ready to forgo all lazy effects, all superficial success for the toil and agony of sincere work.''

Morandi's work is unpretentious, intimate, small. He made no bid for publicity. His images are totally unshocking. His whole life was spent in Bologna. He travelled out of Italy - to Winterthur, Switzerland - once.

His work epitomizes the truism that individual vision is what matters more than object or subject. His subjects were almost entirely still life and landscape, ordinary things and local places. How these were shifted into an art of such sensitive nuance of hand and eye, such concentrated thought and subtle, ambiguous abstraction may be mysterious; but these works nevertheless seem invested with profound simpleness.

There is, however, irony in pitting Morandi simplistically against the attention-grabbing trends of the art world, as though he were somehow virtuously unpublicized while everyone else is trying to be famous.

For a start, Morandi was a tremendous admirer of Paul Cezanne - and Cezanne, in his day, was considered outrageous, and was satirized in ways that make prizewinner Damien Hirst's slightly disturbing succes de scandale look tame. Hirst is, after all, the current favorite son of the Art Establishment; Cezanne was shunned by the academic hierarchies and became a grumpy recluse.

Secondly, Morandi himself, for all his privacy, received considerable recognition in his lifetime, and not only from other artists. He first exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1928, was awarded numerous prestigious international art prizes, and was exhibited extensively. His reputation has steadily grown.

On the other hand, there are strange anomalies in his story. It was not, for example, until 1981-1982 that a survey exhibition of Morandi's work first toured museums in the United States. Even in Europe, major exhibitions have been comparatively few. Also, there is a surprisingly small number of his works in public collections. The major holding is in Bologna, at the Morandi Museum. The Tate Gallery owns one oil and two etchings. Almost all his works remain in private collections.

That is why the Morat Collection of almost 150 Morandis, which covers the range of media the versatile artist used, was of such value. It started as a private collection. But in 1983 Franz Morat's collection (mainly but not exclusively of Morandis) became a trust. The Morandis were housed on one floor of his house on a residential street. The institute was also generous in lending works to temporary exhibitions.

According to Nina Buhne, Sotheby's representative in Frankfurt, Germany, financial difficulties are the reason for the sale. The Morat Institute is no longer at the same address, and even Ms. Buhne can only contact Mr. Morat by letter. All the same, the avowed intention is that the institute will regroup and extend itself to ''encompass the work of contemporary artists.''

From Sotheby's viewpoint the sale was a triumph: 53 lots sold - oils, watercolors, and drawings on Nov. 28 and a further 38 etchings on the 30th. The total sale came to 3,887,850 (roughly $6 million). This was more than 1 million over the top pre-sale estimate.

But what is most regrettable about this sale is that it signals the breakup of a strong collection that was available to the public.

Hardly a single museum bought at the sale - an astonishing missed opportunity. The buyers were largely private collectors and dealers, which means that the Morandis are now scattered piecemeal and presumably largely inaccessible to the public.

It appears, however, that the Morat Institute kept a fair number of its Morandis - more than 50 - so the devastation is not total.

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