Hilton Kramer, who founded this magazine in 1982, was one of the great defenders of the art of Edward Hopper. He was especially concerned with the scandalous treatment given to Hopper by the Whitney Museum of American Art following the artist’s death in 1967.

As the chief art critic for The New York Times, Kramer took the Whitney Museum to task for its response to inheriting Hopper’s estate—what he called “Selling a Windfall”:

But if you think that the Hopper bequest means that we shall now have a permanent archive at the Whitney where all this material can be studied by the scholars and critics of future generations, you would be guilty of harboring a very old-fashioned notion of how museums conceive of their responsibilities.

Kramer added that “The Whitney, it appears, plans to retain only a certain portion of the Hopper bequest for its permanent collection,” concluding that “The rest will be put up for sale on the open market—in gradual stages, of course, in order to keep the (high) price of Hoppers from suffering any precipitous decline.” The selling, or “deaccessioning,” of any art given to a museum’s permanent collection risks violating donor intent and undermining scholarship. But in fact, the Whitney had already been furtively selling Hopper’s art to collectors in its inner circle, decidedly not on the open market. As for the art by Hopper’s wife Jo in the bequest—ninety-six oils and watercolors—four went to New York University and ninety-two to hospitals, from which they all quickly disappeared.

Stung by Kramer’s speculations, the Whitney resorted to a relatively new idea in the scholarship of American art: a catalogue raisonné to include all authentic works by Edward Hopper. In 1976, Kramer welcomed me as the museum’s choice of curator for the Hopper catalogue, predicting that I would “produce a catalogue raisonné of the entire Hopper oeuvre and organize a major Hopper exhibition to take place in 1980.” He elaborated, “The Hopper project is particularly interesting as an index of the Whitney’s new intentions.” He called the bequest by the artist’s widow “the largest single gift of its kind the museum had ever received,” suggesting that

it seemed at the time to throw the museum into a great state of confusion. It was first announced, and then denied, that the museum would disperse this bequest after selecting a certain number of works for its own permanent collection.

In choosing a curator, the Whitney had passed over experienced scholars to pick me, a new Ph.D. in art history. I was still in my twenties, with little museum experience and no specialized knowledge of Hopper, let alone of the pitfalls of producing a catalogue raisonné. The opportunity was fraught but meaningful, as Kramer foresaw:

Miss Levin’s assignment is important, then, not only to the fate of the Hopper bequest but to the future of the Whitney as a significant repository of American art, and to the museum’s reputation as a place where the standards governing the study of American art will be based on something beyond the seasonal turnover of temporary exhibitions.

He added, generously,

It is almost enough to inspire some hope, especially as Miss Levin recently demonstrated, in the small but illuminating show of “Morgan Russell: Synchromist Studies, 1910–1922,” which she organized at the Museum of Modern Art, that she brings both a keen eye and a scholarly intelligence to the very large task that awaits her.

Despite Kramer’s vision for a new age in Hopper scholarship at the Whitney, the museum simply used me to avoid the scandal that would result if the public learned that many works said to be by Hopper and thus—if authentic—willed to the museum, were making their way not to the museum but to the market, with no proof of how they left the studio, which is to say no proper provenance. In 1976, the museum, instead of instructing me to investigate the hemorrhage of Hoppers from their rightful home, ordered me to write about Hopper for a show at a gallery that mingled works actually sold by Hopper, and thus authenticated with provenance, with works said to be by Hopper but offered for sale by a collector with no document as to how he got them, and thus no provenance. 

So it came to pass that the Whitney’s then-director, Tom Armstrong, had me write both an essay and a new chronology for a Hopper show at Kennedy Galleries organized by its proprietor, Larry Fleischman. The plot thickened when Armstrong sent each of the museum’s trustees an advance copy of my essay and copied me on his notice to them. At the time, I was flattered, but, in retrospect, it seems obvious that Armstrong did not explain why the museum’s new curator was writing for a commercial gallery, since the trustees already knew. Indeed, it was a pronouncement by the board that had first alerted Kramer to potential misdeeds.

The board’s impulse to cash in on the Hopper legacy had motivated one trustee to resign. In his 2002 memoir, The Passionate Collector: Eighty Years in the World of Art, Roy N. Neuberger told how he decided to leave the Whitney board in 1969 and become instead an honorary trustee at the Metropolitan Museum:

I began to question my role at the Whitney after the death of Edward Hopper’s wife Josephine (March 6, 1968). Jo Hopper left to the Whitney a whole body of her husband’s works, many of them small, but it was a large quantity—some 2,000 oils, prints, watercolors, and drawings. At the Whitney, discussions began about selling some of the paintings to raise cash. I did not like the idea of immediately thinking of these works as money, and I voiced my opinion at the board meeting quite sharply.

Despite Neuberger’s objections, the Whitney started marketing works by Hopper, whether through Kennedy Galleries or not. The transactions surrounding this Hopper show do not survive in the Archives of American Art (which Fleischman helped to found); also missing are records for the large number of undocumented works attributed to Hopper that Kennedy Galleries took on consignment in 1972 from the Rev. Arthayer R. Sanborn, a Baptist minister from Nyack, New York, the town on the Hudson River where Hopper grew up.

Recalling that consignment, Larry Fleischman’s wife, Barbara G. Fleischman, wrote in her 1995 book, No Substitute for Quality: The Many Worlds of Lawrence A. Fleischman:

He was thrilled to be called in on an important cache of Edward Hopper drawings and paintings by a minister in Nyack, New York, who had befriended the Hoppers and to whom Mrs. Hopper had willed the art work.

Perhaps that is what the minister told Fleischman, but the fact remains that Jo’s will very clearly left all Edward’s art to the Whitney, which the trustees and administration knew very well, yet chose not to enforce.

A variant story of how Sanborn got his Hoppers emerged in a 2011 interview for the Archives of American Art. Barbara Fleischman remarked on Sanborn: “We lost track of him because the deal was done, and Larry had wonderful things. And so that was a fascinating experience.” This remark prompted the interviewer, Avis Berman, to say, “Well, I know [Sanborn’s] son because I did his show. I wrote the catalogue—there was a Hopper show in Nyack—it was last spring at the Hopper House.” Berman adds: “Marion Hopper, the sister, still never married, . . . lived in that house. And [the Sanborns] helped her. They were doing so much for Marion that I think the Hoppers gave them some things.” Fleischman does not object, although her book claimed that Sanborn got art from Jo’s will.

More likely, Sanborn got his Hoppers by taking advantage of Jo’s circumscribed existence during the last few months of her life, after most of those concerned with Edward had ceased to take any interest in her, whereas the minister was assiduous. She was fragile, quite ill, visually impaired, and entirely alone. Lacking any close relatives, she depended on whatever friends and acquaintances she still had. One of her legs was so damaged that she could not walk the seventy-four steps up to her apartment, so the building’s janitor, Eddy Brady, did what little shopping she required. It was then that Sanborn got himself named in Jo’s will, but only, like Brady, as one of six residual legatees. Only one of the residual legatees, Mary Schiffenhaus, was willed any art. She alone was willed the Hoppers’ Cape Cod house and all of its contents, which included some artworks, most of which were preparatory sketches on paper, but also a few unfinished canvases.

The fully illustrated catalogue of the Kennedy Galleries exhibition omitted all record of provenance.

The lack of documentation for Sanborn’s consignment posed an obstacle for marketing those works. Larry Fleischman initially sold works from Sanborn privately to collectors in his orbit such as Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza. Fleischman’s goal with his 1977 exhibition was to mingle works from the minister with those documented as originally sold by the artist and then traded on the secondary market. Fleischman bought major Hopper oils such as Hotel Room (1931) and New York Office (1962) and watercolors such as Freight Car at Truro (1931) and Toward Boston (1936), all of which he used to make Sanborn’s hoard appear legitimate. The fully illustrated catalogue of the Kennedy Galleries exhibition omitted all record of provenance.

Fleischman not only excluded such information, but also failed to mention the minister, who had supposedly been “Hopper’s friend,” although such a documented friendship would have supported authenticity and added to the artworks’ value. Fleischman arranged for an essay by me to reinforce the air of authenticity surrounding the paintings. Armstrong himself called a meeting to dictate the assignment and boasted of it to his trustees. The veteran Whitney curator and Hopper expert Lloyd Goodrich, Fleischman’s close friend, was already on board with the plan. It’s not clear that the Whitney ever coordinated with Sanborn, but the two parties’ actions aided each other as the Whitney looked to deaccession Hopper’s work and Sanborn sought to sell his own questionable collection.

In the first months of my cataloguing mission, provoked by Kramer’s zealous predictions, I had to use my research skills to try to figure out where Kennedy Galleries had obtained its Hopper inventory. At the time of the show, for example, Fleischman gave me no clue that City Roofs, Hopper’s oil painting of 1932, had been consigned to the gallery by Sanborn. It certainly had not come out of the Nyack house, where, as the minister told, he had befriended Hopper’s spinster sister.

Had I been on the job longer, I might have discovered that it was Sanborn who had consigned City Roofs by reviewing the entry in the meticulous record book bequeathed by Jo to Goodrich, where she very specifically had penciled “Here in Studio,” hence indicating the canvas should have been in Jo’s bequest. Had Jo given City Roofs, a major canvas (worth tens of millions of dollars today), to Sanborn, as he later claimed, she would have taken care to note it in the record book, so that it would not seem stolen. City Roofs was not a minor work of slight value that suddenly slipped into the minister’s possession with no document whatsoever of the transfer. City Roofs, would, if in fact given to Sanborn, be the only canvas from Hopper’s maturity ever bestowed upon any individual.

Fleischman adroitly obtained essays from both the Whitney veteran (Goodrich) and novice (me) to make it clear that the museum approved of his show. He thus used me, the new curator, to mask the very kind of stealthy traffic that Kramer had denounced and that my work on a catalogue raisonné was supposed to correct.

Galleries then were not as regulated as the auction houses, and some dealers knew how to “launder” art. “Laundering” is not a term that I learned in graduate school. Indeed, I did not know it until I read the 2011 book Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, by the investigative reporters Jason Fetch and Ralph Frammolino, who quoted Fleischman as commenting about provenance: “Everything comes from somewhere.”

For Fleischman’s catalogue, Goodrich wrote, “the records and information now being assembled” by me at the Whitney “in preparation for the catalogue raisonné of Hopper’s works in all media, will fill a wide gap in our knowledge of his art and life.” He added,

[T]he Kennedy Galleries’ collection of over a hundred drawings, watercolors, and oils, with its full representation of early works, is of great interest for the information it furnishes on his production in his childhood, youth, and art student years.

Strategically, Goodrich avoided mention of where this unique collection had come from. At the time, it struck me as odd to find no mention of the minister.

In my essay, what I did not say and perhaps had not yet understood was how the minister had gotten hold of so much of the contents of that attic, including most of Hopper’s printed illustrations, which were surely a part of the “entire artistic estate,” bequeathed by Jo very specifically to the Whitney. I did not fully understand Jo Hopper’s bequest because I had not yet seen her last will, which the museum never shared with me.

My essay also announced the discovery of documents: “In the process of researching Hopper’s work for the catalogue raisonné, I have uncovered the letters he wrote home during his three trips to Europe from 1906 through 1910.” While I did not say that these early letters came from the minister, I illustrated how I was able to use these and other letters I collected from diverse recipients to construct a more detailed chronology than previously possible; it appeared at the end of the Kennedy Galleries catalogue.

Kramer had been early to notice a noxious smell in the Whitney’s Hopper affairs, but he was outfoxed by Fleischman. One reason that the sudden appearance of early works by Hopper was not questioned may have been a previous public interaction between Kramer and Fleischman. In a Times article from June 1969 captioned “Studying American Art History,” Kramer noted that new interest in American art was resulting from aesthetics, politics, and economics, correctly pointing out the relationship between “critical scholarship and the fluctuations of the art market.” Kramer then devoted about half of his article to attacking The American Art Journal, the newly announced publication sponsored by Kennedy Galleries and coedited by Fleischman—the gallery’s owner-director—and Milton Esterow, the associate director. Kramer bemoaned “an unhappy paradox, a scholarly journal edited by two non-scholars.” Fleischman deployed a veneer of scholarship to hide unethical practices, as in the show contrived in tandem with the Whitney.

When the dubious show opened at Kennedy Galleries in May 1977, Kramer was still the Times’s chief art critic, but he assigned this review to John Russell. Writing under the headline “The Truth in Hopper’s Art,” Russell concluded his positive account with an augury:

[S]ince 1969, when Hopper’s widow bequeathed more than 2,000 of his works to the Whitney Museum, and since Gail Levin became the curator in charge of that mammoth bequest, we have been no less interested in untypical Hoppers. The early drawings, the letters written from Europe between 1906 and 1910, the occasional foray into illustration—all these things will in time contribute to a revisionist view of Edward Hopper.

Russell then wrote that “Hopper didn’t like to give too much away at any one time. He will one day be a great subject for biography.” Yet Russell did not grasp that these early works by Hopper had no stated provenance, no legitimate way to have made it to the art market. Fleischman and Goodrich did not so much invent ownership histories as they concealed the way that so many original artworks moved from Hopper’s storage into Sanborn’s hands rather than the museum. It is as if they thought that they could just bury the truth. Had the Whitney not tried to cover its action with a catalogue raisonné, which meant tracking provenance to determine authenticity, and had the museum not hired me, an energetic and ethical scholar determined to execute the project professionally, they would have been home free.

But Sanborn, who understood the value for him of holding onto the papers, did not cooperate and kept most of the evidence under wraps.

In 1977, neither Russell nor Kramer understood that the newly found and rather revealing letters from Paris, which allowed me to construct a new Hopper chronology, were not owned by the museum, but had been taken by Sanborn. When it later became apparent to me that Sanborn had not consigned his entire cache of artworks, I spoke with Fleischman, who told me that he would try to buy the rest, including documents from Hopper’s papers, which he would then make available for my research. But Sanborn, who understood the value for him of holding onto the papers, did not cooperate and kept most of the evidence under wraps. Only when I read a Whitney press release from July 28, 2017, did I learn that Sanborn had taken and hidden all the Hoppers’ papers, from which some five thousand documents survived; four thousand were given to the Whitney to be known as the “Sanborn Hopper Archive.”

Five years passed before the Whitney opened those four thousand papers to scholars in October 2022. Celebrating the archive with the show “Edward Hopper’s New York” (reviewed by James Panero in The New Criterion of January 2023), the Whitney director Adam Weinberg wrote in its catalogue:

Great occasions often take a long time to realize. Discussions regarding the Sanborn Hopper Archive extend back more than two decades and began with Anita Duquette, our now retired manager of rights.

Here was a tacit acknowledgment of the trade in Hopper artworks that Kramer had decried. At last, it became clear to me that I had been laboring to complete the catalogue raisonné with my hands tied. Sanborn controlled and concealed so many documents from the Hoppers’ papers; neither he, nor Fleischman, nor Armstrong, really wanted an accurate catalogue. Indeed, when I reported to Armstrong in 1984 that my rigorous research made clear the problems and the Whitney’s refusal to pursue its inheritance, the museum trashed Kramer’s reformative mission and terminated me tout court.

A search through Sanborn’s four thousand papers recently given to the Whitney by his heirs has turned up further appearance of the impropriety. Although Sanborn’s name does not appear in the Hoppers’ careful recordings of all sales and gifts of artworks in the ledgers Jo bequeathed to Goodrich, she recorded elsewhere their only gift to Sanborn with a link to Edward Hopper’s art: for Christmas 1964, the Hoppers gave Sanborn a photomechanical reproduction of the Metropolitan Museum’s Hopper oil painting Lighthouse at Two Lights. On this same list, we see that the Hoppers gave the identical token gift to dozens of others, including some of the guards and secretaries at the Whitney and Eddy Brady.

Sanborn’s efforts to protect himself by hiding the Hoppers’ papers may be inferred from his obituary in the Orlando Sentinel of November 28, 2007:

Upon retiring, he moved to Melbourne Beach, FL, while continuing to summer in Newport, NH. In “retirement,” Art began his research and tireless efforts to document the artworks, diaries and other personal papers which advanced and made invaluable contributions to the scholarship on Edward Hopper and especially his wife Josephine.

To the contrary, far from aiding scholarship, Sanborn obstructed research for a very good reason: to conceal the details of his particular involvement with Hopper estate. Instead of making contributions to scholarship, he restricted and impeded scholarship on the Hoppers for a full fifty years after Edward’s death. He took and sequestered their papers, which Jo very surely intended to be part of her bequest, as she and Edward had planned and as she had signaled to the Whitney Museum staff, who ignored her written warning.

The Whitney delayed the publication of the Hopper catalogue raisonné until 1995. It was released in a set of three printed volumes, but with information on provenance available only on a compact disc, which cannot be read on contemporary computers. Searches can be made on titles, media, support, and locations, but not on collectors. Furthermore, phrases appended by me to Sanborn’s collection, such as “undocumented transfer,” were erased from my careful entries without my consent. Finally, I was not able to complete the drawings volume since the provenance information for hundreds of works was problematic because those works had passed through Sanborn’s hands. Auction houses refuse to divulge the names of consigners even after more than half a century.

That picture should, of course, have been inside the Whitney.

Kramer’s courage to sound the alarm when he sensed something was going wrong both with Fleischman’s guile at Kennedy Galleries and then with the Whitney’s mishandling of the Hopper bequest represents an important legacy that should not be forgotten. Kramer did not live to see the Whitney’s public sales of Hoppers from the bequest, most recently at Sotheby’s in May 2023, headlined by a 1930s oil, Cobb’s Barns, South Truro—which had hung as a loan in the Oval Office of the White House during Barack Obama’s presidency—that went under the hammer for over seven million dollars. Sotheby’s also sold three watercolors: Group of Houses (1923) for $698,500, Red Barn in Autumn Landscape (1927) for $635,000, and The Battery, Charleston, SC (1929) for $571,500. The Whitney’s own collection-management policy statement says a work should only be sold if it constitutes “an unnecessary duplicate of other objects in the collection, including objects which are repetitive of similar themes in a similar medium.” An analysis by Kabir Jhala in The Art Newspaper found that none of the above was obviously duplicative. Meanwhile, in the same sale, from Sanborn’s hoard, was Hopper’s early watercolor Sailboat, from 1899, which was estimated to fetch between $100,000 and $150,000 but did not sell through. That picture should, of course, have been inside the Whitney.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 5, on page 22
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