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    The Story of Springtime
by Fred Ross
Pierre August Cot
Pierre August Cot
The Storm
William Adolphe Bouguereau
Nymphs and Satyr
A beautiful young maiden hangs from her lover's neck, coquettish and devoted. She smiles warmly to meet his protective gaze. The two are seated on a swing, hanging on heavy ropes suspended from unseen branches in a thick forest bathed with glowing primordial light. Her gown, diaphanous and white, more than slightly reveals her perfect sensual form. His arms hold tightly to the ropes that support the swing. Springtime is arguably the single greatest image of young romantic love ever conceived, poignantly touching the hearts of millions over the last 125 years.

Pierre August Cot painted Springtime in 1873. He exhibited it at the Paris Salon that year, where it created a sensation. In the decades that followed, Springtime became a virtual icon of 19th-century sensibilities and taste, with fame so widespread that most westerners still recognize the image, if not the artist. Reproduced millions of times on everything from wallpaper and porcelain to greeting cards and posters, the odyssey of this masterpiece is one of the fascinating stories of the art world.

At the 1873 Salon, Springtime was purchased by the wealthy industrialist John Wolfe, who also bought William Adolphe Bouguereau's Nymphs and Satyr. (As it happens, my own interest in collecting art from this era was sparked in the fall of 1977 when I first viewed Nymphs and Satyr at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.) It was Wolfe's sister, Catherine Lorillard Wolfe, who convinced him to acquire these great works, which hung together in his home for nine years.

In 1882 Springtime was sold to Brooklyn collector David Lyall. In 1903 it went from his estate to Mrs. Goodenow and Mrs. Bigelow, who loaned it to the Brooklyn Museum, where it remained for 35 years. In 1938, the painting was returned to the Goodenow family for unknown reasons. Then Springtime effectively disappeared, and for the next 41 years, all trace of it was lost.

In 1980, a young New York dealer, Joan Michelman, spotted Springtime in a flea-bitten hotel in Wilkes Barre, Pa. She had recently sold me works by Bouguereau and Alma-Tadema, and thought I might be interested. I had started collecting paintings of this period because I loved their poetry and beauty. Mounting evidence from my extensive research had brought me to conclude that the disparaging commentary piled on the art and artists of this era, was entirely false. Many of them are clearly among history's greatest.

We had never heard of Pierrre August Cot, but Joan discovered that he had painted a well-known work hanging in the Metropolitan Museum called The Storm. She sent photos to several museums, and told me that I'd better hurry if I wanted to be "in the running." I shrugged this off as a typical sales pitch. As I was due to be in the city the next day, I told her it would be my only opportunity for a viewing. She said the painting was dirty and unframed and seemed reluctant to show it as is. I said it was "now or never."

The next day, we met at Manhattan Warehouse, where she took me past an armed guard and down a dingy corridor lined with old paint-chipped doorways. When she opened her stall a dank odor wafted from within that made me gag. There was no light inside and she had to borrow a flashlight for us to see.

The piece was lying on its side, filthy, with black and red graffiti on the bottom. This bizarre scene has never been repeated in 25 years of collecting. When I saw the image, sideways and with streaked varnish, something clicked inside -- intuition or the energizing impact of being before a great masterpiece. Keeping my cool, I said I would consider it.

That night I thought of nothing else. I called the next morning on a pretext, and before closing said, "Oh, did you hear anything on that Cot painting?"

She said, "Fred, it's so frustrating. I don't understand. I thought everyone would respond." She asked $60,000, which back then was a lot for an academic painting. I said, "Joan it's not a Bouguereau, and that's the highest price that he's brought."

The auction record for Cot in 1979 was $7,500, but for a minor piece. I said the most I'd pay was $35,000. We dickered and settled on $45,000.

In the meantime, I'd discovered an article on the painting in Forbes' 19th Century magazine by the scholar James Henry Rubin. Entitled "Who was Pierre August Cot?" Rubin's article told of his 12-year search for the painting, which he called Cot's lost masterpiece. Rubin quoted sources who valued the original at $3,000,000. (Later, Rubin delightedly authenticated our purchase.)

The next day, Michelman called me, woefully pleading to cancel. She heard from two museums, both agreeing to her initial price. She offered to split the difference -- giving me an immediate profit of $7,500.

"Joan," I said, " I really want the painting." A year later she offered to buy it back for triple what I'd paid. I declined, but we remain good friends, and I consider her one of the few trustworthy dealers.

By 1985 the Met had heard that I owned the missing pendant to Cot's Storm, which is one of the five most requested works at the museum information booth. Ten years later, the Met actually asked to borrow it and in 1995 hung the two paintings together. The unveiling was done without pomp and circumstance, but the New York Times, not known for its interest in academic art, praised the installation. Springtime hung for three years with Storm in a prize spot in the 19th-century European wing. I assigned the museum my copyright to the picture, and every year it sells about $70,000 worth of reproductions.

In 1998 Sotheby's somehow learned that Springtime was being returned to me, to make room for other works from the Met's permanent collection. The auction house convinced me that it would bring an incredible price at auction. The deal seemed very attractive, and with family responsibilities in mind, I was swayed.

The painting went up for sale at Sotheby's on May 5, 1999, with a presale estimate of $1.4 million to $1.8 million. Everyone was shocked when it failed to meet its reserve, which was at the low estimate. There were suspicions that competitors had badmouthed the piece, or perhaps the ongoing modernist bias against 19th-century traditional Humanism is to blame. Sotheby's said it had an order bid of $1,800,000 that was withdrawn minutes before the sale.

Afterwards, I rejected six offers ranging up to $1,200,000. In the end, I was truly relieved to have it back on my walls. Springtime again is one of the star attractions for the scores of scholars, collectors, artists and curators who make the pilgrimage to our collection.

FRED ROSS is a collector of 19th-century European and Victorian paintings who also writes about art. More information about his collection can be found at the Gandy Gallery website.