ST. LOUIS • The estate of a baseball news mogul and his wife, a combative and popular Ladue mayor, has given the St. Louis Art Museum 225 works valued at no less than $50 million, including two paintings by Norman Rockwell, two each by Andrew and Jamie Wyeth, and more than 200 works of Asian art.
Charles Claude Johnson Spink was the publisher of The Sporting News, then a St. Louis-based weekly newspaper known as the nation’s “Bible of Baseball.” His wife, Edith Spink, was elected mayor of Ladue in 1975. When she retired in 1995, she was the longest-serving mayor in the area, known for tenaciously defending her city against unusual architecture and unwanted signs, among other things.
Museum Director Brent Benjamin said the donation stacks up among the most important in recent years. “It’s one of the biggest gifts in a generation,” he said.
The Spinks began collecting in the 1970s. Before their purchases could even be called a collection, they had committed to sending them to the museum here, according to officials. With curator input, the couple began buying Asian pieces specifically to fill holes in the museum’s ensemble.
C.C. Johnson Spink died in 1992 at age 75; Edie Spink continued collecting. She died in 2011, at 90.
“She would have said that this was Johnson’s passion,” Benjamin said. “She carried it on in honor and memory of his interest and commitment.”
The Spink donation, which curators researched for more than three years before accepting, contains 10 paintings by American artists and 215 pieces of Asian art.
Three of the paintings are American portraits, one, an “iconic” image, according to the museum, of George Washington by Rembrandt Peale. The four Wyeths are all watercolors: pastoral portraits of trees and logs by son Jamie; subdued studies of a window and gas lamps by father Andrew, also son to famous illustrator N.C. Wyeth.
The two Rockwells are the most recognizable and valuable of the paintings. One, “Thanksgiving,” was painted for a 1943 Saturday Evening Post cover, of an Italian girl offering thanks for a meal amid the destruction of World War II, an American serviceman’s jacket draped over her shoulders. The museum estimated its worth at $500,000.
The other Rockwell, “Hot Stove League,” is a humorous portrait of two old men and a dog warming themselves by a stove and arguing about baseball, worth perhaps $1 million, according to the museum.
But it is the Asian ceramics, bronzes, glass, pottery and jade, some 5,000 years old, that will make the largest impact on the museum’s collection, officials said Tuesday.
“The Spink Collection represents such a high level and wide range of collecting in Chinese art that is not likely to be repeated or surpassed in St. Louis for many generations, if at all,” wrote Philip Hu, associate curator of Asian art, in the acquisition paperwork presented to the museum collections committee Monday evening.
Hu said the gift will “transform” and “elevate” the museum’s collection, allowing it to present a history of Chinese ceramics from prehistoric to imperial times.
The collection includes 83 ceramics, 52 jade or stone pieces, 50 examples of metalwork, 22 works in lacquer, wood and other organic materials and eight works in glass. Highlights include a bronze food vessel with dragon feet from the 11th century B.C., a 5,000-year-old dark jade prismatic cylinder and a large, carved, pale blue- and celadon-glazed bowl from the early 18th century.
Hu estimated the 215 pieces would fetch at least $50 million if they were to be sold at auction; Benjamin said that estimate was “very conservative” and said the real number could stretch far beyond. The most unusual bronzes and porcelains could command prices well above $5 million each, they said.
With the recent spike in Chinese art prices, officials said it would have been impossible for the museum to purchase similar pieces at auction.
The museum’s collections committee officially accepted the donation Monday evening.
Some are already on display; the Spinks lent many of the works to the museum 10 years ago.
Officials said they would display several dozen ceramic pieces from the Spink collection next year.