Provenance is crucial when any work of art is sold. But in this month’s contemporary sales at Sotheby’s (6 and 7 May), what has been left unsaid may be most important. The sales will feature the collection of Bernardo Nadal-Ginard, the Boston cardiologist and Harvard Medical School professor who bought works considered to be the most daring or “cutting-edge” items in galleries from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. Such pieces rarely get tested at auction, and it its unlikely that they would have been consigned to such a public market place if this were not a forced sale.
On the block will be some 200 works by such artists as Matthew Barney “Transsexualis”, 1991, est. $100,000-150,000, Jeff Koons “Stacked”, 1989, est. $125,000-175,000, Rachel Whiteread’s “Amber Bed, 1991, est. $30,000-40,000, Robert Gober’s “Child’s leg”, 1992, est. $60,000-80,000, and Kiki Smith’s “Pee Body”, 1992, est. $60,000-80,000.
Sotheby’s has trusted Nadal’s reputation as a bold collector to boost interest and bring in other consignments to the sales, but the cardiologist’s name will not be found anywhere on press materials or in the dramatic colour invitation to the sale created by Robert Monk, former head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s.
Officially, the collection’s consigner is the Boston Children’s Heart Foundation (BCHF), to which proceeds will go. Presented as a charity, the foundation is a group practice of prominent academic cardiologists that Dr Nadal-Ginard founded, in part, to generate deferred compensation for himself and his colleagues.
There is a simple reason for omitting Dr Nadal-Ginard’s name. The physician is in jail for embezzling money from the BCHF and the sales have been organised to satisfy a $6-million judgment that the foundation won last year in civil court for Nadal’s tampering with its pension fund. In that civil trial, Nadal-Ginard told the court “I would give ten years of my life” to find out how a cheque for $300,000 of the foundation’s funds got into his bank account. The cardiologist was relatively lucky. He ended up only getting a one-year sentence in his criminal trial which ended in May 1995, and he is now serving that time in the Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston for mulcting the BCHF of some $117,000.
Before 1993 when charges against Nadal-Ginard were initially filed, the prominent cardiologist was a fixture in the art world’s trendiest circles. The collector was also a benefactor who claimed in an interview that he had given $28,000 of the BCHF’s funds to the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Those donations were intended to attract gifts from art patrons to the BCHF, Nadal claimed.
At his criminal trial, Nadal-Ginard’s defense was built on a diagnosis that the physician suffered from bipolar disorder 2 that led to extreme mood swings, which caused him to be addicted to the purchase of contemporary art. The jurors deadlocked on all of the ten art-related embezzlement charges that Nadal-Ginard faced. Under Massachusetts law, Nadal-Ginard faced a maximum of sixty years’ imprisonment and $102 million in fines. According to one dealer, “They took one look at the art and realized that he really was crazy.”
Sotheby’s seems to have got the BCHF consignment because Nadal-Ginard had gone to Christie’s in 1992 for an appraisal and possible sale of his collection, seeking liquidity to finance a flight from the US—or so his cardiologist colleagues suspected: “We thought he was going to leave the country,” said a source at Boston Children’s Hospital.” No one at the Boston Children’s Heart Foundation is discussing the sale, although its spokeswoman said triumphantly, “Our research is cutting-edge, just like the art.”
In art circles, the origin of the works is more than an open secret. Sotheby’s is counting on Nadal-Ginard’s notoriety to elevate prices. “Many people knew about his activities in the art community, so there’s already a known factor about what he was buying,” said Tobias Meyer, who heads Sotheby’s contemporary art department. Museums are particularly interested, adds Mr Meyer: “And they’re all seminal pieces. He really knew what he was doing at the time.”
So much for Dr Nadal-Ginard’s insanity defense. Not surprisingly, the cardiologist still has his defenders in the art trade. The physician and his wife Vijak Mahdavi “were among the few collectors who were not collecting trophies,” said Robert Monk. The dealer and physician Stefan Stux recalled Nadal-Ginard as “a fine upright person who was passionate about art and spent his resources making a difference for the arts. I wish more people had done what he had done.” According to the Boston dealer Mario Diacono, Nadal-Ginard and Mahdavi “were certainly searching for the very last word in contemporary art-making.”
Subsequent sales of Nadal-Ginard’s collection will be held in London on 26 and 27 June, and in New York in November.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Wanted: more collectors with bipolar disorder 2, the neurosis that makes you buy art'