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Courtesy Christie's
“Chop Suey” by Edward Hopper.
MONEY TALKS

The controversy behind the $92 million sale of an Edward Hopper painting

By Natasha Frost

The 1929 Edward Hopper painting Chop Suey sold for a record-breaking, drink-spitting, eyebrow-yanking $92 million at auction last night (Nov. 13) at Christie’s. It’s more than double his previous high ($40.5 million for East Wind Over Weehawken in 2013) and far beyond the expectations of many gallerists ahead of the auction.

But among diehard Hopper fans, Seattleites, and close watchers of the American art market, there are whisperings of disappointment. That’s because the painting, from the estate of entrepreneur and collector Barney Ebsworth, was destined as a gift for the Seattle Art Museum—although the museum, for its part, is keeping mum about that promise.

In 2007, more than 40 patrons pledged the museum almost 1,000 priceless artworks to celebrate its 75th anniversary. Among the would-be benefactors was Ebsworth, who served on the museum’s board and pledged some 65 works from his collection, including Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1918 Music—Pink and Blue No. 1, Marsden Hartley’s Painting Number 49, Berlin, and Hopper’s Chop Suey. Still more significantly, he told ARTnewsletter he wanted his priceless collection of American modern art to remain together, and go to a museum. (He didn’t say which.)

At the time of his death, the painting, which depicts a favorite Chinese restaurant in Columbus Circle, Manhattan, had already spent some time within the museum’s walls, after going on show in 2009 as part of the exhibition Edward Hopper’s Women. It was seen as a preview for the main event: a permanent home in one of the finest museums in the Pacific Northwest.

But when Ebsworth died in April, he shocked the art world by leaving the balance of his $300 million collection to his family, to do whatever they liked with. It may be that his wishes that the works ultimately wind up in a single museum had changed, or weren’t known to his family. It may be that his family didn’t care, or could not ignore the call of an admittedly hefty chunk of change.

In the end, more than 85 artworks from the collection have gone on the market, to be dispersed around the world. The Seattle Art Museum declined to comment on the family’s decision, instead focusing on Ebsworth’s “transformative” largesse in life. “We are forever grateful for the generous support [he] bestowed upon SAM,” Kimerly Rorschach, the museum’s director and CEO, said in a statement. “Over the years, he contributed many works of art to the museum.”

Hopper aficionados may still have a glimmer of hope, however. Though Christie’s hasn’t revealed the buyer, there’s a distinct possibility that this painting may not be going from one private mansion to another. At a post-sale press conference, the auction house’s chairman Marc Porter hinted that the buyer with deep pockets might have been a museum or institution, adding that Christie’s “hopes to see it hanging again soon.”