PHILADELPHIA Edward Hopper's Depression-era painting East Wind Over Weehawken, a bleak New Jersey streetscape owned by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for more than 60 years, was sold to an anonymous private buyer Thursday for $40.5 million at Christie's sale of American art.
The price, which includes the auction house cut, represents a record for a Hopper painting and far exceeds Christie's pre-auction estimates of $22 million to $28 million.
The academy, which will receive $36 million, intends to use the funds to establish an endowment for the purchase of additional art, particularly contemporary work.
The Hopper painting, purchased by the academy from the artist's dealer in 1952, had been one of only two Hopper paintings in public institutions in Philadelphia. The academy owns the other as well, Apartment Houses, painted in 1923 and purchased from the academy's prestigious annual show in 1924. It was the first Hopper oil acquired by a museum.
The buyer of Weehawken bid by phone and remains anonymous. It is highly unlikely, though not inconceivable, that the bidder represents a public institution, particularly given the high sale price.
Far more likely is that the painting has left the public realm.
Harry Philbrick, the director of the academy's museum, said in a statement that the proceeds from the sale "will keep PAFA active, vibrant, and always relevant in the years to come."
In an earlier interview, at the time the decision to sell was announced, Philbrick acknowledged that purchases of contemporary art are "a crapshoot." More often than not, today's genius fetching astronomical prices on the art market is tomorrow's forgotten mediocrity.
In the statement issued Thursday, Philbrick said the money from the Hopper sale "will revitalize the museum's historic practice, dating back to 1816, of building the collection through strategic purchases of art."
He added: "Because purchases will be made only with revenue generated by the fund, and not from the principal, the proceeds from the auction will strengthen the museum's acquisition program in perpetuity."
The academy regularly purchased contemporary art until the mid-1960s. But that practice was pursued almost entirely through shrewd low-price acquisitions at a prestigious annual exhibition held at the academy.
In fact, the other academy-owned Hopper, Apartment Houses, was acquired right out of the annual exhibition for next to nothing.
In the 1960s, the annual shows were discontinued and regular contemporary acquisitions ended at that time.
Many former students and teachers at the academy have criticized the Hopper sale. Some have found it disturbing because the academy sold a masterwork by Thomas Eakins in 2006, The Cello Player - in order to finance acquisition of Eakins' The Gross Clinic. Cello went into a private collection.
Philbrick said that Weehawken was chosen for sale because it was free of any donor restrictions. He also said Apartment Houses was historically more significant because it was the first Hopper oil sold to a museum.
Both Hoppers have been regularly exhibited by the academy and other institutions in the past and both were included in the academy's signature Bicentennial exhibition in 1976, "In This Academy."
Carol Troyen, an emeritus curator of American art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, said that Apartment Houses and East Wind Over Weehawken worked particularly well together, one an urban building scene, the other a streetscape-landscape. Both convey isolation, but in different contexts.
"The two pictures together do tell you what you need to know about Hopper," she said in a recent interview.
Weehawken, she noted, "is a card-carrying Hopper."