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Famous 'Washington' painting, a Winona museum attraction, goes for $45 million, twice its estimated value

The selling signals a change for Winona's art scene.

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Washington Crossing the Delaware, arguably the most iconic piece of art in America, will be auctions at Christie's auction house in New York on Thursday, May 12, 2022. The painting had long been one of the main attractions at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona, Minn.
Jerry Olson / Post Bulletin file photo
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WINONA — “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” a renowned painting that has been on display at Winona’s Minnesota Marine Art Museum for several years, was sold for $45 million Thursday at Christie’s auction house in New York.

The amount was a record for the artist, German immigrant Emmanuel Leutz, and sold for more than double high pre-auction estimate.

Christie's had put the estimated value at $15 million to $20 million.

The smaller version hung in the White House from the 1970s to 2014 in the West Wing reception room. The collector how had loaned it to the White House sold it to Bob Kierlin and Mary Burrichter, the founders of Winona;s Marine Art Museum.

In 2015, the painting went from the walls of the White House to a place at the museum along the Mississippi River in Winona.

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When the sale was announced late last month, it created a tremor in the art world with CNN, Barron’s, The New York Times, and state and local media all trumpeting stories on this once-in-generation buying opportunity.

When it was sold at auction in the 1970s, it went for $260,000, a record sum at the time for any American painting, said Paige Kestenman, a specialist in American painting at Christie’s.

“Washington Crossing the Delaware is one of those images that has transcended the artist, Emmanuel Leutz,” Kestenman said. “It’s an image that has become so essential to the way that America imagines its history.”

The painting, one of two existing versions, depicts then-Gen. George Washington standing in a boat being rowed across the frigid Delaware River as they head to the Battle of Trenton during the American Revolutionary War.

But one person’s gain is another institution’s loss. The breathless headlines created at the national level by the impending sale have overshadowed shifts unfolding within Winona’s arts-oriented community.

Kierlin is founder of Fastenal, a Fortune 500 company that sells fasteners and other hardware supplies.

Putting the Leutz painting up for sale was part of a larger decision by the couple to pull all their loaned paintings from the MMAM, according to local media accounts. The collection included paintings by Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe and others.

Kierlin and Burrichter did not respond to voice messages requesting comment. But in statements made to the Winona Post last month, Kierlin explained that the decision to pull their holdings from the Winona museum stemmed from a conviction that the MMAM has fallen short of the couple’s hoped-for economic development goals.

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When it loaned its collection of paintings to the museum, the hope was to make the Winona museum a national and international arts venue that would draw as many as 100,000 visitors a year. The number of visitors instead has hovered around 30,000 visitors a year, more than three times fewer the number of people hoped for.

“For all the money we invested in it, it has not had a big return in and of itself,” Kierlin told the Winona Post. ”So, we thought, what could we do to get more tourism in Winona?”

The couple decided to use their collection as the foundation stone for a proposed new downtown music and art gallery called Minnesota Masterpiece Hall. The $35 million arts edifice would include both a music hall and visual gallery.

Some of their collection will be displayed in the new gallery space at Masterpiece Hall, while others, such as “Washington Crossing the Delaware," will be sold to finance its construction. The venue would pair Sunday afternoon musical performances with art exhibits featuring paintings from the couple’s collection.

“It should be a shot in the arm for downtown on Sunday,” Burrichter told the Post.

The question is whether the shift in strategy will diminish the MMAM, a museum that has long punched above its weight class given its distance far from a metro area. Or will the combination create a synthesis making Winona a greater arts destination?

Roger Boulay, a Winona State University assistant professor and gallery coordinator, said the Leutz painting was a “singular draw” to the museum and a “very popular piece.” The community will miss it.

But he believes the Masterpiece Hall, rather than being a competitor that will overshadow the MMAM, could complement the museum. For out-of-towners, it could change their calculations for making a trip to Winona, a 45-minute drive east from Rochester.

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Rather than a two-hour drive for one hour of art viewing at one venue, families could make a day of it: An hour spent at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, then lunch, followed by an afternoon at the new hall, Boulay said.

"I think there is room for a variety of art institutions in Winona,” Boulay said. “The Marine art museum has brought a lot of tourism to Winona, and the Masterpiece Hall will inevitably have a different feel and atmosphere and tenor to it.

“It will make visiting Winona richer,” he said.

For Scott Pollock, who became the MMAM’s new executive director in January, all the change and turmoil has felt like “drinking from a fire hydrant.”

He said the museum will maintain its “trajectory” and mission as a smaller market venue that engages visitors “with work you don’t expect in those spaces.”

In fact, the circumstances could present an opportunity for the museum, he said. He notes that many public museums and collectors have collections that are sitting in basements, unseen by the public. The MMAM offers a destination and showcase for them.

“I think that’s part of the big story here. We know that 95 percent of most museum collections never see the light of day. And we are talking about masters from Monet to Picasso,” Pollock said. "We want to be seen as one of the problem-solving institutions that’s working collaboratively with all these other museums around the world.”

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Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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