INSIDE ART; A Passion For Manuscripts
Although illuminated medieval manuscripts are considered an arcane collecting category, they have attracted considerable attention recently.
At Christie's in London last week, five bidders competed for a medieval prayer book with 67 full-page miniatures. It was offered by the Austrian branch of the Rothschild family and was sold to an unidentified telephone bidder for $13.3 million, close to three times its high estimate of $4.9 million.
The manuscript was the most expensive work in the $90 million sale, which included Old Master paintings, 18th-century French furniture and rare carpets.
The new owner remains a mystery. The auction house would say only that the buyer was a European and was better known to the world of Old Master paintings than to the small but passionate cadre of manuscript experts.
One known unsuccessful bidder was the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. But the prayer book wasn't the only rare medieval manuscript for sale, and elsewhere the Getty bought an early-13th-century illuminated manuscript known as the Avranches Psalter from a Paris dealer.
The 334-page work, which is 12 1/2 inches tall and has nine illustrations inspired by the Book of Psalms, was something the Getty had had its eye on for years.
It appeared in the mid-1980's at a tiny auction in Avranches, France, where it caused a big stir among manuscript experts. The Getty and other museums would have tried to buy the work then, manuscripts experts say, but the French Government said it would probably not be allowed to leave France.
The buyer was Guy Ladriere, a Paris-based dealer who was thought to have paid about $1.5 million for it. It was only two years ago that Mr. Ladriere received an export license. While the Getty did not disclose the price it paid, experts say the museum spent about $7 million.
''It's a very sexy book,'' said Tom Kren, the Getty's curator of manuscripts. ''Art historically, it represents the very beginning of the Gothic style.'' While the Getty already has several French Gothic manuscripts, Mr. Kren said, none were this important.
The style of its illuminations is an example of a turning point in European painting, when artists left behind stylized painting in favor of a more realistic representation of the visible world. The anonymous painter, known to specialists as the Master of the Ingeborg Psalter, is considered one of the greatest painters of the Middle Ages.
It will go on view at the Getty in February as the centerpiece of an exhibition on the psalms and their illustrations.
Additions in Houston
While curators at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston await the completion of a new $50 million building, which is scheduled to open in March, they are strengthening the museum's holdings in contemporary art.
The latest acquisitions include a cycle of six paintings by Gerhard Richter, the first works by the German artist to enter the Houston collection, and a group of contemporary African photographs and sculptures known as ''The Clubs of Bamako.'' Both were gifts from trustees.
The Richter paintings were commissioned by the architect Renzo Piano for a church near Foggia in southern Italy. They were inspired by the life of St. Francis of Assisi and were to be installed in an interior chapel.
But local officials later decided they did not want abstract art in the church.
All six are on diamond-shaped canvases because, the artist said, the shape reminded him of a cross. They are on view in the museum's Upper Brown Galleries, which will become the permanent home for the museum's 20th-century collection when its new building opens.
''The Clubs of Bamako'' are 16 photographs taken by Malick Sidibe at dance clubs in Bamako, Mali, in the 1960's and 70's and 11 life-size sculptures by Emile Guebehi, Koffi Kouakou and Coulibaly Siaka Paul, based on the photographs. They depict contemporary urban life in Africa. Although not yet on view, they will complement the museum's collection of African gold and art of sub-Saharan Africa.
''Alfred Glassel, president of the museum, donated a collection of African gold,'' said Alison de Lima Greene, curator of 20th-century art at the museum. ''And we have been looking to expand our collection of African art ever since.''
A Change at Christie's
Edward Dolman, managing director of Christie's in Europe and a 15-year veteran of the auction house, has been appointed managing director of Christie's in North and South America. Mr. Dolman will be based in New York and will oversee day-to-day operations and new business development.
Patricia Hambrecht, Christie's president for North and South America, who has been with the auction house for 11 years, will take a sabbatical beginning next month.
After seven years of working in London and New York for Anthony d'Offay, the London dealer, James Cohan is opening a 2,300-square-foot space at 41 West 57th Street in September. It will be called the James Cohan Gallery, but Mr. d'Offay will be a partner.
''I will have an affiliation with the d'Offay Gallery, but the 57th Street space will have its own exhibitions program,'' Mr. Cohan said.
In addition to representing the estate of Robert Smithson, Mr. Cohan will show international artists like Bill Viola and Gilbert and George. He will also exhibit popular young British artists like Ron Mueck and Richard Patterson, who have been getting attention in both New York and London.
Photo: ''Initial C: David Playing Bells'' from the Avranches Psalter, which the Getty recently bought, reportedly for about $7 million. (J. Paul Getty Museum)