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The story behind Matisse's Backs: Tate's bargain buy

The gallery paid £11,000 for the four bronze sculptures in 1957 - Christie's just sold one for $48.8m

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The Tate bought its four “Backs” by Matisse for a bargain price, compared to the $48.8m paid on 3 November for a single panel, Back IV, at Christie’s in New York. But archival documents reveal that in 1956 Tate was criticised by the art establishment for wanting to acquire Matisse.

When the Tate purchased its four “Backs” it paid £11,000. If another four bronzes came onto the market now and fetched four times the price of the single piece at Christie’s, this would amount to £122m—a more than 10,000-fold rise in value in just over 50 years.

Matisse had made the four large reliefs of the backs of a female body between 1908 and 1931, refining the design so that it became less realistic and more simplified. His plasters were eventually cast in a bronze edition of 12 (the Christie’s example was a late cast, from 1978). Last month’s acquisition was by New York dealer Gagosian for a client.

The Tate began negotiations with Matisse to buy the “Backs” in 1953, but they were not completed by the time he died the following year. Documents in the Tate’s archive include a letter from Mark Batten, president of the Royal Society of British Sculptors, who wrote on 26 October 1956 to say they were unable to contribute to the appeal for “such highly priced works”. Batten added: “They are only replicas and not the creations of an artist mainly preoccupied with sculpture.”

The National Art Collections Fund, now the Art Fund) warned the Tate from even applying for a grant. The Earl of Crawford, fund chairman and a former Tate trustee, wrote a letter saying: “I don’t suppose you are proposing to ask the [fund] to help with the Matisse bronze—but, if you are, please don’t!”

The earl continued: “It would place us in a fix. As the result of helping over the Matisse oil [André Derain, 1905, acquired by the Tate in 1954], we have had a number of resignations (quite a lot of them) and already I am getting letters saying that if we give anything for the bronzes the writers will resign. So prudence is the better part of valour—and please don’t ask us to help!”

The Tate eventually raised the £11,000 for the “Backs”, which were bought in 1957 from Matisse’s daughter, Marguerite Duthuit-Matisse.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Tate’s bargain Matisse sculptures'

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