Former MoMA chairman’s oddball art goes under the hammer

William Lieberman’s eclectic holdings yielded bargains


The collection of William Lieberman (1924-2005), chairman of 20th-century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was sold last month at Tepper, a little known auction house in New York.

The timing was improbable as it took place during Art Basel/Miami Beach, ensuring that many dealers were away, but the room was packed nonetheless. The sale included 250 lots, many portfolios and boxes bulging with countless works on paper. Lieberman’s collection included innumerable prints and posters (many from Puerto Rico) from the Belle Epoque to today, Surrealist objects and much Asian work, as befitted the curator of the key 1964 MoMA Japan show.

There were no reserves, and few estimates. Some things sold at just $10. And there were bargains galore especially with “unidentified” works such as trademark ear sculptures by neo-dadaist Tomio Miki (a set of which were given to MoMA by Philip Johnson) selling for $14,400 to a Japanese dealer against a $100 estimate.

A 1974 diptych by the Australian artist Fred Williams made $36,000 and a Franco Gentilini 1958 cat climbed to $42,500. The cover lot, a Martin Lewis print, made $31,200 and there was frenzied bidding for a complete set of Picabia’s 291 magazine which sold for $33,600 against a $500 estimate. A print of Lieberman himself by an artist called Davis began at $5 and sold for $300 as the auctioneer exhorted: “This is part of Tepper history.”

Curators’ collections have curious fates: in contrast, David Sylvester’s works made £2.7m ($5.3m) at Sotheby’s in London in April 2003 and Clement Greenberg’s entire holdings were sold to the Portland Museum in a private sale by his widow in 2000.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'MoMA man’s oddball art goes under the hammer'