A collection of 33 American paintings amassed over half a century by a self-made Kansas City millionaire and his wife sold Wednesday for $2.32 million at an auction in Chicago, shattering presale estimates.
One painting by Thomas Hart Benton, “Discussion,” depicting a laborer and a union representative, brought $1,052,500. The presale estimate was $200,000 to $400,000. The buyer was a private collector, said Colleen Thielen, director of collections for Leslie Hindman Auctioneers.
Thielen said her company is always conservative in its estimates, but the number of interested bidders pushed the price higher than her most optimistic expectations.
Four other works by Benton also sparked intense bidding, with 30 bidders in the room and close to 40 on the phone.
“There is a very strong base of collectors of Thomas Hart Benton, and these works were very representative of his work. ‘Discussion’ is quintessential Benton in composition, use of color and brushstroke,” Thielen said.
The collection grew out of a friendship forged between the collectors, Richard M. and Carol Levin, both deceased, and the painter Benton and his wife, Rita. The Bentons had settled in Kansas City, where Thomas Benton taught at the Kansas City Art Institute.
The Levins met the Bentons in the late 1940s or early 1950s, according to one of the couple’s three children, who did not wish to be identified. Richard Levin liked to tell how he thought every time you went to visit an artist, you bought a piece of their art — it was good form. The first two times he called on the Bentons, Levin bought a painting for $100 or $200. But the third time, Rita Benton told him he should not only buy Benton’s pieces but should get to know and appreciate other artists and buy their works.
And so he did. He focused on contemporary American painters particularly of the Ashcan school.
“It was a combination of what was interesting and what he could afford to buy,” the family member said.
A 1979 article in The Kansas City Times asked Levin as one of six local millionaires to give advice about how young people should invest. He had built his fortunes with Jason/Empire, an importing company. He did not mention art in the story, possibly because he didn’t view it as an investment at the time.
“It was decoration, it was part of the house,” the family member said. “The paintings that sold last night were all hanging in our home.”
Richard Levin’s interest in art extended to service. He sat on the boards of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and KCAI. After Carol Levin died of cancer in 2000, Richard Levin lived in a condo until his death in January 2014.
During that time, according to the family member, he opened his condo to out-of-town visitors and gallery owners to share his collection with other aficionados. The money from the auction will go to the Levin Family Foundation, the family member said.
Other American works from the Levin collection that drew higher-than-expected prices included John Steuart Curry’s 1946 “Self Portrait” ($62,500) and Charles Burchfield’s 1948 “Basswood Tree in Winter” ($98,500).
The results, Thielen said, reflect the “deep interest collectors continue to exhibit for early to mid 20th century American artists.”