|photo via zillow.com
Nathan Wildenstein was a tailor in Paris when his career took a surprising turn. He promised a well-heeled client that he could sell an Old Master painting for her although (most likely unknown to her) he knew little about fine art. After spending hours in the Louvre Museum to educate himself, he sold the painting and used his commission to begin an art gallery.
Wildenstein became an authority of 18th century French art and his firm, Wildenstein et Cie, was among the foremost dealers in Europe. In 1903 he opened a Manhattan branch, headed by his son George after 1912. (Interestingly, Nathan would never cross the ocean to visit the United States.)
George slightly changed the face of Wildenstein & Co. While he was as impassioned about the Old Masters which made his father's gallery famous, he embraced modern movements as well--such as Impressionism and Realism. American tycoons routinely acquired works of arts from the gallery. The New York Sun later commented that it "added extensively to the Altman, Henry Clay Frick, E. J. Berwind, Jules S. Bache and William Randolph Hearst collections.
Benjamin Altman, for example, had purchased Velasquez's The Christ and the Disciples from Wildenstein & Co., Henry Frick acquired Jean-Baptise-Simeon Chardin's La Serinette and the Portrait of Madame d'Haussonville by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
|Portrait of Madame d'Haussonville by Ingres. Frick Collection
Felix Wildenstein had been associated with the family business since 1902. In 1925 he was named president of the New York branch. (George had moved on to spearhead the international business.) The firm had been renting space its gallery space for years, the lease set to expire in 1932. Wilderstein would not renew it.
On May 12, 1931 The New York Times reported, "An important upper east side real estate transaction that foreshadows the erection of a fine building designed especially to exhibit objects of art was disclosed yesterday through the purchase of 19 and 21 East Sixty-fourth Street by Wildenstein & Co., Inc., art dealers, now at 645 Fifth Avenue." The two old buildings sat within a block from Central Park amid the mansions of Manhattan's social elite. Wildenstein & Co. paid about $800,000 for properties, about $13.4 million today. (A significant outlay in the Depression years.)
Wildenstein & Co. handled the delicate issue of inserting a commercial structure into an exclusive residential block by hiring society architect Horace Trumbauer to design the building. Based in Philadelphia, he was responsible for some of Manhattan's most lavish mansions, including the James Speyer residence and the James B. Duke mansion.
Completed the following year, the Wildenstein & Co. gallery building gave no hint that it was anything but a private mansion. At a time when other architects were working in the jazzy Art Deco style, Trumbauer turned the clock back, designing a neo-French Classic structure that appeared to have been on the site for three decades. The stone-faced structure rose five stories including a mansard level. Three arched openings pierced the base, each of which was adorned with a Versailles-worthy portrait keystone. Two-story pilasters separated the windows of the mid-section. The fourth floor and mansard sat behind a stone baluster atop the cornice.
The sedate French façade was not the only deception. Trumbauer's plans and subsequent Department of Buildings documents described an art gallery on the first floor and "showrooms" throughout the rest of the building, with no residential space. That was a notable stretch of the truth. In fact, the upper floors (which like the exterior were lavishly decorated in turn-of-the-century French style) included space intended as the home of the Wildenstein family.
The galleries were routinely the venue for charity events, among the earliest being the exhibition of paintings by Giovanni Boldini for the benefit of the Child Welfare Committee of Belleville Hospital in March 1933. Works were loaned by socialites and organizations like Mrs. Charles T. Barney, Virginia Fair Vanderbilt, Baron Maurice de Rothschild, the Brooklyn Museum and the Paris headquarters of Wildenstein & Co.
The Great Depression did not necessarily affect large sales for the firm. On December 6, 1934, for instance, The New York Sun reported that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had purchased Antoine Watteau's Le Mezzettino which had been purchased by Catherine the Great in 1767. The museum disclosed only that it had paid "less than $250,000" for the masterpiece (about $4.77 million today).
|Le Mezzetino, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Among the other important events held in the galleries was the exhibition of Eduard Manet in February through April 1937. The New York Sun noted "This is the first large and important Manet exhibition ever held in this country."
An anticipated annual event here was the Hallmark Art Award exhibition. Sponsored by the greeting card company, it offered cash prizes to artists, but more importantly provided funds for various charities. In 1949 the proceeds went to the New York Chapter of the American Red Cross. That year the firm offered $28,000 in awards for Christmas-themed paintings with the first prize being $3,500.
The competition drew major names in the art field. In 1957 artists like Andrew Wyeth, Loren MacIver and John Wilde submitted works. The first prize that year went to Edward Hopper.
As the Wildenstein & Co. galleries exhibited and sold high-end art for decades, the family continued to live in the upper floors. At one point there were 11 members in the house, prompting art dealer Harry Brooks to quip in New York Magazine in 1997 that it was "the most expensive tenement in Manhattan."
In 2013 the David Wildenstein entered into negotiations with the Government of Qatar to purchase the property, but the talks ended with no deal. It sold in 2017 for $79.5 million to the Chinese conglomerate HNA, which intended to convert it to offices. Then the firm changed its mind. Less than a year later, on February 15, 2018, Curbed New York reported that it had sold again, this time to billionaire Len Blavatnik who paid $90 million.
In January 2019 another art gallery, Skarstedt, moved into former Waldenstein & Co. space. Founded in 1994, the gallery features contemporary European and American artists.