How Ruthmere came to sell a sculpture for millions

Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone, a limestone sculpture by French artist Auguste Rodin was recently sold by the Ruthmere Museum for $7.55 million.

ELKHART — After more than 40 years at Ruthmere Museum, a sculpture by 19th-century French artist Auguste Rodin has been sold for $7.55 million at a recent auction.

The limestone sculpture named La Cariatide Tombée Portant Sa Pierre, or The Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone, is one of several Rodin pieces that have been in Ruthmere's possession. However, this one was certainly the most valuable.

It came to the museum in 1978 when Walter Beardsley gifted it to Ruthmere Museum. Beardsley had bought it from a Los Angeles gallery in 1969. Before coming to America, the sculpture belonged to three separate Belgians after it was completed by Rodin in 1894.

For Ruthmere, or any museum, to sell a piece of art is rare, according to the museum's executive director, Bill Firstenberger.

"However, this piece was a real outlier from everything else that we have," he said.

The Fallen Caruatyd has no Elkhart connection, other than it has been here for 50 years. Given the estimated value and the fact that limestone sculptures cannot just be fixed if they break, the insurance premium had also reached a level where continuing to own the piece came at a significant cost and would likely require the museum to take extra steps for protecting the sculpture.

So on Aug. 9, the museum's boards made a unanimous decision to sell.

But the final price, $7,553,600, was beyond what the museum board had anticipated.

"It was a shock that it sold for that much. A very pleasant shock," Firstenberger said.

Auction house Sotheby's, through which the sculpture was sold, estimated its value to be between $4 million and $6 million before the auction began.

There is some secrecy surrounding the piece still, as the buyer is undisclosed. Sotheby's will take a piece of the $7.55 million, though Firstenberger would not say how much. That is to pay for services ranging far beyond talking fast and wielding a hammer.

"On Monday (Aug.) 12, Sotheby's picked it up with an armed guard," Firstenberger said.

The truck made for moving fine arts then transported the sculpture, with the help of two armed guard vehicles, to New York.

"That was my first sign that I think this might really sell well," Firstenberger said.

Though the auction house felt certain of the sculpture's authenticity, the artwork was shipped to Paris for Comité Rodin to double-check. The authentication found that the piece was perhaps more important than had first been thought.

After that, the sculpture was shipped back to New York for some light conservation before being sent to London to be on display at Sotheby's London gallery for a week and a half. It then crossed the Atlantic Ocean for the fourth time this year to be at Sotheby's New York gallery for the auction on Nov. 12.

The sale comes with mixed feelings for the people at Ruthmere.

"This is absolutely a one-off, one-time decision thing. There is no appetite or desire to see what else we can get for something else. It's never been done before and we hope it's never ever needed to be done again," Firstenberger said.

He added that the decision to sell was not made out of desperation, but that there were multiple good reasons to make this step. One of them is to help build a $10 million endowment, which the museum is asking donors to help with. Showing that the museum takes the job seriously, Firstenberger said, might show donors that Ruthmere is a place worth supporting.

"We don't want to capriciously sit on a resource that's not only draining some of that resource away but could be used toward the goal," he said.

Ruthmere generally has an annual budget of $450,000, according to Firstenberger. But the money from the Fallen Caryatid should not be going toward just keeping the museum's doors open. Instead, there are several preservation projects that the museum has been wanting to address but have not had to funds for until now. One project that has been put on hold is the restoration of Ruthmere's perimeter wall, and that can now be restarted.

Finally, Firstenberger is hoping to improve museum-goers' experience by bringing in more touring exhibits. That, he said, is the most exciting aspect of having this new money.

"We now have the opportunity to bring to Elkhart's doorstep some absolutely incredible traveling exhibits from around the country, if not the world," he said.

It may also be possible to bring in a new level of musical performers for concerts, according to Firstenberger.

Those dreams do not mean that the money will be gone by this time next year. It will be safeguarded, and Firstenberger said the museum will mostly avoid spending from the principal.

As to whether potential supporters might now determine that Ruthmere has enough money and not cut they check they would otherwise have, Firstenberger said that is a possibility but that he doesn't expect that to be common.

"Elkhart County is known for 'Show me what you make and the quality that you make it, and that's what I'm going to judge you on,'" he said.

In conversations he has had with all the museum's top donors, not one has said the sale was a bad idea or that they would stop their financial support, according to Firstenberger.

He feels confident that selling was the right decision.

"We've had it for 40 years. We've been the stewards of it for 40 years and were able to share it with everyone," he said. "It was time for it to serve a new purpose."

Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus

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