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The exterior of the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan (photo by Linda/Flickr)

The Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan, a wealthy suburb north of Detroit, sold a Paul Cézanne painting for $100 million last year, the historic home’s 2013 tax forms recently revealed. According to the Detroit Free Press, the large landscape painting “La Montagne Sainte-Victoire vue du bosquet du Château Noir” (circa 1904) was sold privately to an anonymous buyer who had had made two previous unsolicited bids to acquire the work. Money from the sale will go toward establishing a new endowment devoted to funding conservation and restoration projects at the property.

“This was really a once-in-a-lifetime offer,” Kathleen Mullins, the president of the Ford House, told the Free Press. “The family thought it was a way to guarantee the estate would be taken care of the way Eleanor would have wanted.” The Ford House has been open to the public since 1978, two years after Eleanor Ford’s death, and receives some 60,000 visitors annually.

The Ford House already has an $86-million endowment that covers nearly all of its $3.8-million annual operating costs. The endowment created with funds from the Cézanne sale is expected to generate between $4.5–5 million annually for restoration and conservation work.

Though deaccessioning is a very frowned-upon practice at US museums, especially when the resulting funds are used for purposes than other acquisitions — see the recent drama at the Delaware Art Museum — the rules for historic homes are different. The guidelines of both the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) allow for the use of funds from the sale of deaccessioned works in order to acquire other works, or to care for the existing collections. In the case of the Ford House, the collection, broadly defined, includes the 30,000-square-foot home, the furnishings and art it contains, the 86-acre estate surrounding it, and the historic car collection.

“From the standpoint of ethical standards, I think they went about this in the right way and worked hard to make sure the money won’t be used inappropriately by setting up a separate endowment,” Ford Bell, the president of the AAM, told the Free Press.

The discreet handling of the sale, through the Ford House’s seven-person board — on which sit six members of the Ford family and their attorney — was partly done out of consideration for the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), which at the time was fighting the proposed sale of its collection to help settle the city of Detroit’s debts. Now that DIA’s collection has been safeguarded, news of the Ford House’s huge sale doesn’t run the risk of emboldening Detroit’s creditors.

“I am very glad the Ford House proceeded with such caution,” DIA’s director, Graham Beal, told the Free Press.

Among the projects that the new endowment will help fund are the restoration of Jens Jensen’s landscape designs, restoring the house’s staff wing so that tours may visit it, and rebuilding lost structures like the boathouse and pergola.

Meanwhile, a replica of Cézanne’s “La Montagne Sainte-Victoire vue du bosquet du Château Noir” will take the place of the original. Much of the Fords’s art collection was donated to the DIA, though originals by Diego Rivera and Henri Matisse remain at the house.

The $100-million sale of “La Montagne Sainte-Victoire vue du bosquet du Château Noir” marks the second-highest price ever paid for a Cézanne. In 2011 the nation of Qatar spent $259 million to acquire his painting “The Card Players” (1892–93), which remains the most expensive artwork ever sold. The French painter’s auction record is the comparatively modest sum of $60.5 million that was spent at Sotheby’s in 1999 on the bright still life “Rideau, cruchon et compôtier” (1893–94).

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...