Last week at Christie’s in London, a magnificent painting by Claude Monet, “Le Bassin aux Nympheas,” sold for an equally magnificent price: $80.4 million.
The 6-foot by 3-foot painting, one of the artist’s celebrated water lilies series, belonged to Columbus, Ind., collectors J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller. Mr. Miller was the chairman of Cummins Engine Co., long headquartered in Columbus.
He died during 2004, and Mrs. Miller passed away last February.
It’s fair to say that Miller was among the most successful, most visionary and most entrepreneurial businessmen of the 20th century. Born in 1909, he became general manager of the then-obscure diesel engine manufacturer during 1934. It wasn’t much more than a glorified machine shop, but Miller invested heavily in technology, in marketing and in research. Thanks largely to his efforts, Cummins became what it is today one of the world’s leading manufacturers of diesel engines, with annual sales in excess of $11 billion.
During 1954, Miller established the Cummins Foundation, which, beginning in 1957, paid internationally famous architects to design every new public building in Columbus. As a consequence, Columbus is a treasure trove of late modernist and contemporary architecture, with buildings by Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Kevin Roche, Richard Meier. During 1991, the American Institute of Architects named Columbus as one of the 10 most architecturally significant cities in America.
Miller’s life and career, although exceptional, was not an unusual one. He, and thousands of others like him, built the companies and the cities of 20th century America. Along the way, he built a significant art collection — and the manner of its dispersal might be symptomatic of America’s slow decline.
During the late 19th century, and throughout much of the 20th century, moneyed American collectors bought up Europe’s artistic patrimony and shipped it home to the USA.
Advised by dealers and connoisseurs such as Joseph Duveen and Bernard Berenson, and then by gallery owners in a dozen cities, wealthy industrialists and their heirs carted off treasures from decaying Italian palazzos, drafty English country houses and the Parisian garrets of then-obscure artists. America’s industrial might was unchallenged, and its currency, the mighty dollar, was the standard by which all others were measured.
But now the process has been reversed, and treasures such as Miller’s great Monet are flowing back across the Atlantic, to be snapped up by the brash, moneyed industrialists of a new age.
As the New York Times reported, “That the Miller collection was sold here rather than in New York is a sign that London is considered a crucial marketplace for the top end of the art market, as more rich Russian collectors put down roots here.”
Bloomberg News concurred, noting that “A weak dollar and strong demand from new Russian buyers have encouraged Americans to sell Impressionist works in the U.K. capital.”
The buyer was identified as Tania Buckrell Pos of Arts & Management International, a London company. Acting on behalf of a client whom she declined to identify, Pos is a well-known art consultant and the author of “Tea & Taste: the Visual Language of Tea.”
Like Bernard Berenson a century ago, she both facilitates and legitimizes the purchase of fine art by the careless magnates of a new century.
In our time, few Americans amass great fortunes by building manufacturing powerhouses such as Cummins. Ours is a time of consumption (eBay), of speculative money lending (Countrywide Financial) and of entertainment (Pixar). We have our entrepreneurial billionaires (not to mention our entrepreneurial jailbirds), but the new industrialists are in India, China and Russia.
Ours is a society of consumers, not producers, of spenders, not savers, of borrowers, not lenders. Our government spends what it takes in and borrows the rest from other governments — especially Russia, China, and India.
That’s why the cost of oil is going up and the value of the dollar is going down. And that’s why the moneyed elites of this new world order, armed with fistfuls of their own powerful currencies, are buying whatever they want — and we’re selling.
Good news if you have a major Monet hanging on the wall, but bad news if you have a shaky job, a mortgage and not much in the way of savings.
Too bad we weren’t around a couple of generations ago — we could have just asked J. Irwin Miller for a job at Cummins.
They were hiring.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.