Mr and Mrs William R. Hawn were racehorse owners and one-time owners of the Dallas Cowboys. They are the most recent owners listed for Nude Beside the Basin in the Whiteley catalogue raisonné (or full list of works) compiled by Melbourne art expert Kathie Sutherland.
If it were the Hawns who left it there, they never bothered to collect the work.
When the Dallas Museum of Art decided to sell the Whiteley, which had never been formally taken into its collection, it followed Texan law and advertised the work in a bid to flush out the owner, a museum spokesman told Saleroom.
With no one stepping forward to claim it, Nude Beside the Basin, 121.9 cm by 139.7 cm, was duly listed by Heritage Auctions at an estimate of $US10,000 to $US15,000 – a laughable amount, given Whiteley’s top auction price in Australia is more than $6 million.
“Whiteley’s work hadn’t sold very much in the US before, so we were conservative with the estimate and knew with online outreach we’d attract global bidders who would decide where to take it, as they did,” Heritage Auctions’ spokesperson said.
Come May 23, bidding opened at a respectable $US270,000 and finished at $US575,000 after a lively contest. With buyer’s premium, the total cost to the undisclosed buyer was $US705,000.
The artist’s former wife Wendy Whiteley was one of the unsuccessful bidders on the painting.
Word had quickly spread through the Australian art world that a major Whiteley was being auctioned in Dallas with a ridiculously low estimate. But if anyone had ideas of snaring a bargain, they were soon scotched.
“Apparently there were a few people in Australia thinking about it, consortiums and things,” Whiteley said.
“But they obviously dropped out when they realised it wasn’t going to be a huge bargain. Everybody realised that whoever was bidding had money and was determined to get it.”
Nude Beside the Basin was exhibited with Whiteley’s other bathroom paintings at the prestigious Marlborough New London Gallery, in London, in 1964. The show was a rocket launcher for Whiteley’s career, especially when London’s Tate gallery bought one of the pictures.
At the time of the Marlborough show, Brett and Wendy Whiteley were living in London and mixing with the great and the good. They were friendly with artists such as Francis Bacon and the wealthy Dallas-based Edward and Betty Marcus, of Neiman Marcus department store fame, who often whisked them out to dinner in the family Rolls-Royce when they visited London.
Kathie Sutherland told Saleroom the Marcuses might have acquired Nude Beside the Basin from the 1964 Marlborough show, according to information she had from the gallery in 2017.
As mentioned, the Hawns are listed as subsequent owners. Sutherland’s detective work is ongoing, but Wendy Whiteley agrees with her provenance findings so far.
“The Hawns would have been rich people who were friends of the Marcuses,” Whiteley said.
As for why anyone would have loaned the painting to the Dallas Museum of Art and left it there, Wendy Whiteley said: “I wouldn’t have a clue”. Perhaps it was simply that Whiteley was an Australian and little about him was known in America, particularly when he was young.
In the time it sat lonely in Dallas, the picture’s varnish yellowed with age, as the auction condition report noted with unintended pathos.
Nude beside the basin has now found a new home, but where? Heritage Auctions is not saying, of course. Wendy Whiteley heard the picture has gone to a European collection. But who knows? Having trailed a mystery behind it, the painting now starts its new life equally shrouded in mist.
Fortunately, more is known about other bathroom paintings. One is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales collection.
Two were bought back by Wendy Whiteley. She bought one of them, Nude Beside the Basin (the same title as the Dallas painting), in 2018, paying $829,600 including buyer’s premium through Sotheby’s.
Those two paintings will go on exhibition in August at the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills. This public gallery, part of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, was Whiteley’s last studio. He died in 1992, aged 53.