Business: The Art of the Sale

When Lupe Murchison died, she left behind a world-renowned, multimillion-dollar modern art collection and instructions to sell it all for charity. For dealer Ron Hall, it was the chance of a lifetime. But how could he pull it off during a time when no one

RON HALL WAS RECENTLY WIDOWED and had retired from the art world when he was offered the chance to sell one of the largest private collections of contemporary art in America. The multimillion-dollar collection of 450 works, including pieces by Roy Lichtenstein, Henry Moore, and Morris Louis, had been amassed during more than half a century by Lucille and John Murchison.

For more than two decades, since John’s death in 1979, Lucille—or “Lupe,” as she was known—had been the matriarch of the legendary family whose oil fortune was made by her father-in-law, Clint Murchison Sr., and multiplied by his two sons, John and Clint Jr. Just as Clint Jr. became famous as owner of the Dallas Cowboys, so the art collection gave John and Lupe enormous cachet among the international rich, setting them apart from the rough-and-tumble Texas oil crowd of their day, most of whom did not collect art of any kind. In fact, many of John and Lupe’s friends looked askance at the collection. Much of it was enormous in size and cutting-edge contemporary. Some pieces were outright shocking, like the 9-by-12-inch granite model of a woman’s vulva that stood on a pedestal in Lupe’s living room. But John and Lupe’s taste in art proved auspicious. Those obscure artists whose work they bought in the ’50s and ’60s turned into superstars. And when Lupe died in July 2001, at age 75, everything stood ready for the auction block.

“Of course, I knew who Lupe Murchison was, but she couldn’t have picked me out of a police lineup,” says 57-year-old Hall, who previously owned Hall Galleries in Dallas. “I never even got to first base with her in trying to sell her anything.” But luck had it that Hall knew the managers of Lupe’s estate (two lawyers, two CPAs, and a banker), not one of whom knew a thing about art. “They called me and said, ’We don’t know what to do with all this stuff.’” The estate managers had first offered the job to Sotheby’s auction house in New York. But Sotheby’s, which routinely handles large estates, found the job overwhelming and overlooked some 150 works in its appraisal.

If Lupe had chosen Hall herself, she could not have found anyone more to her liking. Like Lupe’s late husband, Hall is tall, handsome, sophisticated, and very much a cowboy. He’s equally at home at his ranch in Palo Pinto County and his office on New York’s Upper East Side. “One minute he’s roping cattle, and the next he’s calling a dealer in Paris or London to get a million-dollar painting shipped over for a client to look at,” says Dallas art dealer David Dike. “Ron has a tremendous eye for art, and he treats people fairly.” Such praise (and much envy) is echoed throughout Dallas’ art community.

Even with Hall’s credentials, though, selling the Murchison collection would be a difficult job. Besides the sheer size of it, there was the matter of timing. Selling millions in art during a down market would not be easy. Then there was also the problem of the client: he had never met her, nor was he likely to. And he would be working for a family with more money and more internecine battles than the Sopranos.

But along with the commissions he would be paid, the job came with an irresistible perk. While selling the collection, Hall could live in Lupe’s $7.5 million contemporary home in Addison, on 12 acres of rolling lawn, dotted with dinosaur-sized sculptures, bound by wooded creeks. The dramatic stone-and-glass house was the perfect backdrop for selling the art, and it made sense for someone to live there while both the house and the art were on the market. (The property had been heavily protected by armed guards since 1981, when Lupe was robbed at gunpoint and held in the trunk of her car in her garage.)

Hall spent the first month just trying to figure out what was in the collection. In going through paperwork, he discovered mention of a $350,000 Larry Rivers painting—but he couldn’t find the piece. His research led him to the Dallas Museum of Art, which had borrowed the painting and never returned it. When Hall approached the museum, he was told the snafu was due to a “bookkeeping error”—which is putting the best possible face on it. Then the DMA asked Hall to give them the Rivers.

I wrote a book about the Murchison family in 1989, and I can imagine Lupe spinning in her grave as the DMA tried to work this scheme. By the late 1990s, Lupe was appalled at what she considered the Dallas Museum’s mistreatment of donors. Although too polite to say so publicly, she had long thought the DMA’s collection second-rate and its public relations worse. Still, she made a last-ditch effort to do something to help the museum. The Murchison estate also included what the family called the “Big House,” a 22,000-square-foot mansion that Clint Sr. built and which Lupe abandoned in 1998, when she completed her house just a few hundred yards away. Lupe offered the Big House to the DMA. She was flatly rejected. “They treated her very badly,” says Rick Brettell, a former director of the DMA. But Ron Hall finally stood up for her and refused to donate the Larry Rivers painting.

Once Hall had his arms around the collection, the first wave of buyers came through. Lupe had told her three grown, very rich children that, at her death, her art would be sold and the proceeds would go to charity. If they wanted any of it, they would have to buy it from her estate. They would, however, get first refusal. Lupe’s son, John Jr., did not go to the house to take a look, but his wife Lisa did, as did Lupe’s daughters, Mary Noel Lamont and Barbara Jeanne Coffman. When they visited, Hall found himself in a very awkward position, and not just because they saw his cowboy boots and Armani suits in their mother’s closets and his toiletries in her 600-square-foot bathroom. “It was my job as a fiduciary to get as much money as I could for the works,” he explains. “There was no negotiating.” Not even with her children. Still, he sold both daughters a few pieces.

Lupe wanted her friends to be next in line to buy the art. “My friends all have plenty of money,” she had told her lawyers. “Let them come and buy the works.” After all, the proceeds would go to Lupe’s favorite charities. But some of the family’s friends bristled at the notion. Hall recalls an exchange with one high-profile oilman: “This friend calls and says, ’I’m interested in Ken Noland’s Montana Sun.’ I told him the price, and he shouts into the phone, ’Well, goddamn, I gave it to them, and I only paid $500 for it.’ And I said, ’Well, we’re selling it for $100,000.’ And he shouts, ’Hell, good luck!’” A Lake Tahoe collector paid the full asking price.

Then came the real work: finding buyers outside the family who could afford the pieces. This is hardly the best of times to be in the art business, as the formerly rich try to unload paintings to pay their utility bills. European Art Gallery on Fairmount Street closed 18 months ago, almost before the cheese and canapés from its opening party reached their expiration date. The well-established Karen Mitchell Frank Gallery closed in April. Florence Art Gallery, in business for 30 years, closed in June.

“The Dallas art market has never been anything to hoot and holler about,” says Brian Roughton, who sells 19th- and 20th-century traditional American paintings. “Galleries with more important works are doing well, because the economy doesn’t affect the very rich. But medium-priced art in the $1,000 to $10,000 range is not doing well.”

With Lupe’s thick address book in hand, Hall started with the very rich—and oftentimes titled—from around the world: England’s Princess Michael of Kent; Rome’s Father Allen Duston, Patron of the Arts at the Vatican Museum; Australia’s Lady June Porter; as well as celebrities Phyllis George Brown; Cliff Robertson; and Phyllis Diller. Hall also called his own former clients, many of whom didn’t know the Murchisons but had heard of them and wanted to see how they lived. “They lived big before living big was the thing,” Hall says. There was the glass house in Vail. The island in the Caribbean. The swimming pool that Time magazine said “could float the Titanic.” The 29-karat diamond ring, designed for Lupe by surrealist Salvador Dali, which she wore the night the Pointer Sisters rocked the Murchison estate at a black-tie party for 400 guests.

Hall has now taken hundreds of buyers through the two houses and sold 80 percent of the value of the collection. Some 100 works remain, worth perhaps $800,000. Many are priced in the hundreds, not thousands, of dollars. But Hall is in no hurry to finish his work and move out. Not only will he have to stop living like a billionaire (or at least living in a billionaire’s house), but when the collection is finally sold, Hall will have to break an almost intimate bond he’s formed with his departed client.

In the tradition of the Florentine arts patrons of the Renaissance, Lupe and John used to sponsor young artists from around the country, paying their rent and buying their works when they were getting started. Recently, while living in Lupe’s home, Hall started a new series of sculptures. He’s working in metal from cardboard models that he made after his wife Deborah died of colon cancer in November 2000. He displayed the kinetic works—which are in the style of Alexander Calder—at Lupe’s house. He has sold several.

Although Hall never met Lupe, she became much more than just a client. She became his patron. And he has done well by her. I’m sure Lupe would think so.

Jane Wolfe is the author of The Murchisons: The Rise and Fall of a Texas Dynasty.

IMPORTANT PIECES IN
THE
MURCHISON COLLECTION

Most of these works by major 20th-century artists
were priced between $10,000 and $300,000. Many
are sold, but some remain for a few lucky buyers.

 Tom Wesselmann, Still Life—Maquette for Belt, 1979

 Henry Moore, Sketches of Figures, 1934

 Helen Frankenthaler, Blue Head On 1965, Migration, 1968

 Sam Francis, Web, c. 1973

 Roy Lichtenstein, Seascape, 1965

 Claes Oldenburg, Pizza, 1965

 Mark Di Suvero, Untitled, 1966

 Ken Noland, Montana Sun 1960, Beam, 1964

 Morris Louis, Verdicchio, 1959-60

 Carl Andre, Untitled Poem, c. 1970

 Larry Rivers, French Money, 1962

 Nancy Graves, Pacific Ocean Floor II, 1972

 Esteban Vicente, Collage I, 1960

 Theodore Stamos, High Snow, Low Sun, 1957

 Antonio Saura, Portrait, 1960

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