John Singer Sargent portrait sells for $8.8 million

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Originally published on Advocate.com May 20 2004 11:00 PM ET

A portrait of Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson by gay painter John Singer Sargent, which the writer once called "too eccentric to be exhibited," sold Wednesday for $8.8 million. Auction house Sotheby's said the 1885 painting, the top lot in the sale, was bought by casino owner Steve Wynn and would be included in his collection of art at Wynn's Las Vegas Resort and Country Club next year. The portrait and two other Sargent paintings in Sotheby's sale of American art sold for a total of $17.1 million. All three works were once in the private Greentree Collection of U.S. newspaper owner and diplomat John Hay "Jock" Whitney. The highlight of that collection was Picasso's Boy With the Pipe, which Sotheby's sold May 5 for more than $104 million, the most ever paid for a painting at auction. Sotheby's has declined to release any information on the buyer.

Far from the formal portraits of the day, Sargent's painting shows the author of Treasure Island and Kidnapped striding across a room in a velveteen jacket, twirling his mustache, while Mrs. Stevenson in Indian costume sits behind and to the side. Stevenson wrote of the work: "It is, I think, excellent, but is too eccentric to be exhibited." Sargent's Venetian Loggia, a scene of women in an arcade done in luminous whites, blacks, and grays, with accents of red and pink, sold for $5.6 million. A watercolor, Madame Roger-Jourdain, showing Sargent's Parisian friend and neighbor, with parasol, lying on grass, went for $2.7 million. All three Sargents attracted prices above Sotheby's highest estimates before the sale. Wynn, the buyer of the Stevenson portrait, bought a Cezanne and a Renoir a year ago for a total of $40.9 million. He said he planned to display those in Las Vegas as well.

The Greentree Collection derives its name from the mansion where Whitney and his wife lived in Manhasset, N.Y. Their Greentree Foundation will use the money from the art sales to further the foundation's work of promoting international cooperation, peace, and human rights.