Dec 9, 2020

What Do You Do With an Original 44×65’ Chagall?

A dilemma awaits the buyer of a Metropolitan Opera stage curtain

By Ed Goldman

Throughout the past few decades, I’ve collected more art than I ever created. It’s a nice pastime when I have enough money and exhibition space. 

For an unrepentant freelance writer and consultant, the money requirement has always been iffy—but just as good business owners are known to pour their profits back into their companies, the first thing dedicated collectors do when they have some disposable income is look for a new work of art to buy. 

Marc’d Down

It’s not an addiction. I have no intention of selling my blood to acquire a painting or sculpture, or even a rare book (another unfortunate preoccupation of mine). I won’t be attending a meeting at which I introduce myself by first-name only, then say “and I am an art-oholic.” It’s just an enjoyable hobby that adds color and variety to the daily vista I call my home. During the past 147 months of voluntary and semi-enforced isolation, I can’t tell you how comforting it’s been to just quietly sit or stroll around my place and admire the stuff. It sure beats “countin’ flowers on the wall” or “playin’ solitaire ‘til dawn/with a deck of fifty-one,” as the Statler Brothers song describes the monotony of holing up.

Anyhow, that’s how the money issue plays out. 

Finding the wall space is another matter entirely. It became a  challenge when, almost four years ago, I moved from a four-story, 4,800-square-foot home—with extensive, open, vertical space, the better to clutter with paintings and projections—to a 1,400-square foot loft. 

At the time, people who’d known me for more years than they’d admit unless tortured or bribed, asked variations of, “Where the [choose your needless but entertaining expletive] will you hang all your paintings?!” (The brief answer to that: Where there’s a wall, there’s a way.)

Anyway, here’s what prompted all of the above. An extraordinary piece by the late artist Marc Chagall—a stage curtain that’s 44 feet wide by 65 feet high, created for a Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”—was the subject of an auction in mid-November. While the price point seemed quite reasonable, considering the artist—the auction house Bonhams expected it to go for between $250,000 and $500,000—the overarching question was this: If you bought it, where would you hang it?

To clarify, there are almost 11 feet in a single story. A 10-story building is therefore more than 100 feet high, not counting the gargoyles, flagpoles and billboards for Fox News (“Dependably Inaccurate. Nightly”). This means that Chagall’s curtain—which he co-designed with a Russian stage designer named Volodia Odinokov, who clearly didn’t have as good a press agent as Chagall did—would be almost seven stories high. 

Push Pin Travel Maps

My former home had four stories—so even if I’d been able to afford the piece, my choices would have been to either:

  • Hang it from the ceiling and let it unfurl to the bottom floor, then crease and spread out the curtain’s remaining 30 feet or so, making that portion the most glorious basement carpet in my neighborhood; or
  • Start it on the basement floor and open it skyward until it hit the top, then roll it out continuously across the fortunately, flat, ceiling. Now, before you say, ”Who the [choose another needless but entertaining expletive] puts a painting on the ceiling?!”, here are two words for you to consider: Sistine Chapel. And please watch your language. Parents who home-school are known to read this column to their children as they implore them to “Take your [okay, one final expletive] nap!”
I’m guessing that late Gerard L. Cafesjian, an Armenian collector who bought it from the opera house, must have had a home whose square footage competed with that of the Vatican—or at least the Met, which held onto the piece for a quarter of a century. His estate is the listed seller of the curtain, which could be photographed only in segments for the auction catalogue, according to various media accounts.

I sure wish I had the dough and wall space to buy it. But my condo only climbs to (maybe) 20 feet, and its peaked roof would definitely complicate how to display the multi-figured, multi-colored curtain. I’d have to turn it into a tent that covered my building, making it appear that termite challenges were being experienced by some very wealthy—or hopelessly addicted—art collectors. I wonder how much blood’s going for on the open market.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).