"My Wife's Lovers" -- Well at Least Forty-Two of Them -- Go Under the Hammer at Sotheby's for a Sultry US$826,000
|Sultan Stands at the Center with His Highness on His Immediate Left|
"I purchased "My Wife's Lovers" by Karl Kahler based on my mother's fond memories of the image. I bought a print of it for her, and it hung in her living room until she passed away at ninety-one. Its California history made it all the better."
-- the painting's new anonymous owner
Ars longa, vita brevis and the veracity of that age-old adage is clearly applicable to Austrian painter Karl Kahler's 1891 masterpiece, "My Wife's Lovers." The oil on canvas painting faithfully preserves in still life forty-two of the three-hundred-fifty cats that San Francisco socialite and philanthropist Kate Birdsall Johnson kept at her three-thousand-ace home in Buena Vista, Sonoma County.
Some of the Persians and Turkish Angoras are standing at rapt attention while others are depicted as reclining disinterestedly on the carpet and what appears to be a large curtain-draped window seat built especially for them. Standing smack-dab in the middle of the clowder is a regal-looking brown and yellow Persian with a white chest and green eyes named, appropriately enough, Sultan.
In what was surely a classic example of Liebe auf den ersten Blick, Johnson purchased him from his reluctant owner in Paris for a whopping US$3,000 sometime in the late 1880's. Although the web site, United States Inflation Calculator, only goes back as far as 1913, US$3,000 even back then would have been worth the equivalent of US$72,072.12 today.
It therefore is not much of a stretch to conclude that she ponied up for him close to what today would be US$100,000. Quite obviously, she thought the world of that truly magnificent tom.
Seated to his immediate left is a white Angora with blue eyes named His Highness. Other than that he is featured in another of Kahler's paintings, little else is known about him. Even more lamentably, absolutely nothing at all is known about the other felines in the painting.
Prior to coming to California, Kahler had spent seven years in Australia and New Zealand painting primarily horse races and as a result he never before had so much as even attempted to paint a solitary feline. In order to make amends for that grievous oversight, he devoted three years of his time to studying the various personalities and poses of Johnson's cats and from his sketches of them he crafted "My Wife's Lovers." For his due diligence, he reportedly was paid US$5,000, which was decent money back in those days.
Regardless of whatever pose has been assigned to them, all the cats represent the very essence of elegance and beauty. Best of all, for the past one-hundred-twenty-four years they have remained forever young, vibrant, and healthy while on their way to, if The Fates so allow, becoming immortal.
As things have a way of so often turning out, Johnson did not have long to enjoy the feline masterpiece that she had commissioned because after exhibiting it to much fanfare at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago she departed this vale of tears later in that same year in favor of that "undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns." As a result, the painting was sold to Ernest Haquette at auction a year later for a paltry $500 and he subsequently put it on display at his Palace of Art Salon in San Francisco.
As best as the early days of its elliptical provenance can be pieced together, the remainder of the gay nineties and on into the early days of the next century were tranquil times for it. Disaster struck without warning during the early hours of April 18, 1906, however, when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake and an ensuing fire destroyed eighty per cent of San Francisco and claimed three-thousand lives. The upheaval destroyed the Palace of Art Salon and cost Kahler his life but the painting, somehow, made it out intact and unscathed.
In the years since then it has had numerous owners and has been bandied about the continental United States much like the legendary ghost ship, the Flying Dutchman. Consequently, it was anything but surprising that Johnson's long-suffering and peripatetic cats found themselves once again under the hammer on November 3rd.
The thing that was different this time around is that the painting finally was able to fetch a price that was worthy of it and that occurred when an anonymous buyer from Los Angeles coughed up an astounding US$826,000 for it an auction held at Sotheby's on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Going into the sale it had been expected to go for as little as US$300,000 but an unexpected bidding war between two determined collectors drove up the price to a level where those faint of wallet dare not to tread.
Thus, after having been away from their native California for a good portion of their lives the cats finally are returning home where they will hang in a private gallery. Perhaps every bit as extraordinary as its sales price is the fact that the buyer was motivated more by une affaire de coeur than simply wanting to possess an extraordinary work of art.
"I purchased "My Wife's Lovers" by Carl Kahler based on my mother's fond memories of the image," the new owner disclosed to Architectural Digest of New York on November 4th. (See "How a Painting of One Woman's Forty-Two Cats Earned More Than $820,000 at Auction.") "I bought a print of it for her, and it hung in her living room until she passed away at ninety-one. Its California history made it all the better."
In addition to Kahler's true-to-life depictions of the cats, the painting also is extraordinary for its sheer size. Weighing two-hundred twenty-seven pounds and measuring six by eight and one-half feet, Sotheby's was forced into constructing a special wall just in order to exhibit it. "When we originally put the painting up on a normal wall it pulled the nails right out of the wall," the auction house's Polly Sartori told the Daily Mail on November 3rd. (See "It's a Purrfect Picture.") "For a nineteenth century (work), that's extraordinary."
Whereas the painting's new custodian may have been motivated by sentimental reasons, that was hardly the case as far as Sotheby's was concerned. "We are thrilled with the $826,000 price achieved for "My Wife's Lovers" in our auction," Sartori paused just long enough in between drooling and divvying up her take in order to gush to Architectural Digest. "It has been a great pleasure being the temporary custodian of this fabulous painting."
Other than the problems associated with trying to figure out how to properly display a painting of that size, the work pretty much sold itself. "We knew we had a winner about two months ago, when we had it leaning up in our cataloging area, and many of our staffers would take a photograph in front of it and post it on Instagram and we hadn't even posted our press release yet," Sartori added to the Daily Mail.
The painting's life following the earthquake was considerably less traumatic but by no means any less compelling. It first was acquired at some unknown date after the turmoil in San Francisco by Frank C. Havens who exhibited it at the Piedmont Art Gallery across the bay in the Oakland suburb of the same name, twenty-one kilometers west of San Francisco.
It changed hands several more times throughout the 1920's and 1930's without, apparently, attracting much public attention. Most notably, the usually thorough Carl Van Vechten fails to even mention its existence in his 1922 seminal work on cats, The Tiger in the House.
All of that abruptly changed in the early 1940's when it enjoyed a brief renaissance after it was acquired by the Julian Art Gallery in Detroit. In particular, its new owners took it on a tour of the country that included, appropriately enough, a stop at a cat show at the old (number three) Madison Square Garden (MSG) located at Eight Avenue and Fiftieth Street in the rough and tumble Hell's Kitchen section of Manhattan.
The painting subsequently became so popular that nine-thousand prints of it were made and sold including, most likely, the one that its new owner purchased for his mother. In 1949, the now defunct Cat Magazine even went so far as to call it "the world's greatest painting of cats." Sadly, that was destined to be the painting's last hurrah for a long time.
In 1961, it returned to California when it was purchased by John and Helen Gaydon of the Old Stage Antique Shop in Buena Park, thirty-four kilometers south of Los Angeles. The historical record is pretty sketchy but apparently they did not even bother to exhibit it, at least not for very long.
The cats thus were condemned to cruelly spend the better part of the next four decades collecting dust and dirt in a storage room. Their reprieve came, apparently, in the late 1990's when cat lover and collector Kaja Veilleux, founder and owner of Veilleux Kaja Appraiser and Auctioneer of Thomaston, Maine, discovered its existence and put it up for sale at the Boston auction house Skinner on September 20, 2002. (See Animal Fair of New York, October 27, 2002, "Pussycat, Pussycat, Where Have You Been? To Skinner's in Boston, for an Auction.")
An article appearing in the May-June 2008 edition of The Wayback Times of Hastings, Ontario, however, dates Veilleux's discovery of the painting and its subsequent sale as early as 1988. (See "Inside Antiques: Cat Collectibles, A Purr-fect World.")
Regardless of that discrepancy, the painting's return to the world of the living did not mean that its perambulations were at an end. Rather, they continued just as before as it later was acquired by an anonymous buyer before eventually moving on for a short stay at the Alexander Gallery on East 68th Street in Manhattan. In 2005, it was acquired by yet still another private collector who held on to it until its sale last month at Sotheby's
As far as the painting's provocative title is concerned, the cats have Johnson's husband, Robert C., to thank for that. Whereas his appellation thinly suggests that he may not have been all that enthusiastic about her fondness for them, he most assuredly must have been astute enough to have realized that if a woman has a passion for toms it is far preferable that such an ardor be directed toward the four-legged variety as opposed to either Peeping Toms or, worst still, every Tom, Dick, and Harry on the planet.
Money certainly never was an object for him in that he not only was a successful San Francisco businessman but his father had left him a packet that he had made as a ship's captain selling pork to prospectors during the California Gold Rush of 1848 to 1855. That in turn not only allowed his wife to travel the world and to become a patron of the arts but, most importantly of all, to lavish her money and affections on cats.
The horrific crimes committed against pigs which made the Johnsons' lavish lifestyle possible is an altogether different matter. (See the San Francisco Chronicle, November 4, 2015, "World's Greatest Cat Painting, Commissioned by San Francisco Woman in 1800's, Sold for $826,000.")
Caring for as many cats as she did certainly was neither cheap nor easy and toward that end she assigned a gaggle of servants to attend to their daily needs. Despite that delegation of responsibility, she apparently was far more than an absentee owner in that each of her cats not only had a name but would respond appropriately when she called them.
If true, that was quite a remarkable achievement in its own right in that most managers of TNR colonies cannot even remember which cats that they have sterilized and as a result are forced into mutilating their ears as a cruel mnemonic expedient. On top of all of that, cats are notorious for blowing off their owners whenever they are summoned.
Big-hearted, generous, and thoughtful throughout her days, Johnson was not about to allow her magnanimity to come to an end with the interring of her mortal coil and toward that objective she left US$500,000 in her will for the cats' perpetual care and comfort.
Unfortunately, it has not proven possible to determine whatever became of either them or her estate in Buena Vista. It would be simply wonderful if the descendants of Sultan, High Highness, and her other cats were still alive today but even that is unknown.
At the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West the polydactyls that currently reside there are alleged to be the direct descendants of a cat named Snow White that was given to the author's sons by a ship's captain way back in the 1930's but even that never has been authenticated. Besides, the cats now have problems of their own. (See Cat Defender post of January 24, 2013 entitled "The Feds Now Have Cats and Their Owners Exactly Where They Want Them Thanks to an Outrageous Court Ruling Targeting the Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West.")
In addition to preserving for posterity the memory of forty-two of Johnson's beloved feline companions, being a stupendous work of art in its own right, and its own extraordinary provenance, "My Wife's Lovers" represents something considerably more than all of that. Principally, it is and always has been from its inception and throughout all of its perambulations and misadventures a labor of love and in a world filled with so much hatred that is not any mean achievement.
First and foremost, there was Johnson's boundless love and appreciation for the species. Secondly, Kahler's skill as an artist as well as the painstaking work and devotion that he put into capturing and preserving the cats' likenesses and personalities are clearly evident to this very day.
Thirdly, although it is not known if the painting's new owner is a cat fancier, his love and devotion to his departed mother is unmistakable. Fourthly, even the coarse, shekel-counters at Sotheby's have not proven not to be totally immune to the love that radiates from Kahler's canvas.
"The reception that it has received, in person during our exhibition and on social media, has been extraordinary," Sartori added to Architectural Digest in the article cited supra. "It just confirms how many cat lovers there are in the world, and I include myself in this esteemed category."
The painting also is a survivor. Not only are both Johnson and Kahler long gone but so too are the Palace of Art, the Piedmont Gallery, the Julian Art Gallery, the Old Stage Antique Shop, Cat Magazine, and the old MSG, but it still perseveres.
Soon after its naissance, the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth century which in turn was supplanted by the twenty-first century. Two world wars have come and gone as well as those in Korea and Vietnam but "My Wife's Lovers" still endures.
"There are people who reshape the world by force or argument, but the cat just lies there, dozing, and the world reshapes itself to suit his comfort and convenience," Allen R. and Ivy Dodd, authors of a 1978 tome entitled, A Tale of Two Cats, once opined.
That, however, is only occasionally the case. More often than not the best that they and the objets d'art that depict them can expect from their human counterparts is benign neglect.
In that light, what Ted Dreiser once noted about mankind is equally applicable to cats. "...the world goes its way past all who will not partake of its folly," he wrote in his 1900 novel, Sister Carrie.
No one can predict what The Fates have in store for "My Wife's Lovers." It can only be devoutly hoped that after more than a century of abject neglect and ceaseless wanderings it at long last has found a safe harbor with an owner who will cherish and safeguard it from its detractors, enemies and, above all, complacency and indifference.
The most pressing concern of the moment is the lamentable reality that the public will enjoy only limited, if any at all, access to it in its new home. As an enduring expression of Johnson's great love and respect not only for Sultan and his mates but all cats in general, the painting really belongs to, not its new caretaker who is after all only a mere mortal, but all individuals who share her passion.
It therefore is impossible to arrive at any other conclusion than that she would abhor its being locked away in obscurity; im Gegenteil, she would want the public to have full and unfettered access to it. In the end, that would be the best way that both the cats and her great love for them could continue to not only endure but to captivate and inspire for all time to come.
Photo: Sotheby's via the New York Post.