Heirs Poised to Reap 1,400,000% Return Selling a Brass Brancusi

(Bloomberg) -- Great art investments often come down to one simple thing: holding for as long as possible.

That’s certainly true for a Constantin Brancusi sculpture to be offered at Christie’s Impressionist and modern art auction May 15. Americans Elizabeth and Frederick Stafford were in Paris in 1955 when they bought the work directly from the artist for about $5,000. Today, the 31-inch-tall piece is estimated at more than $70 million. That’s about a 1,400,000 percent return over 63 years (compared with a mere 39,000 percent for the S&P 500 Index).

The money will go to the couple’s three children, who plan to distribute some of it among the charitable causes they hold dear, including art, education and opera, said their daughter, Alexandra Stafford.

Cast in brass, the singular 1932 work is titled “La Jeune fille sophistiquee (Portrait de Nancy Cunard)" and depicts the head of a woman with a ponytail. The sculpture was inspired by the blue-eyed English heiress, a civil rights champion and wartime journalist who played tennis with Ernest Hemingway and was a muse to Surrealist artist Andre Breton.

Auction Record

Alexandra Stafford said she always thought the title represented her mother, who died in January.

“Coming from New Orleans and going to Paris, she was a bit shy and timid,” she said. “It took her a while to learn how to dress and be as sophisticated as a French lady.”

Christie’s estimate puts the work on track to smash last year’s $57.4 million auction record for the Romanian-born artist (1876-1957) and become one of the most expensive sculptures ever sold.

The record is held by Alberto Giacometti’s human-size bronze of a pointing man, purchased by hedge fund manager Steve Cohen in May 2015 for $141.3 million. Six months earlier, the billionaire dropped $100.9 million on the artist’s painted bronze, “Chariot." Heiress Lily Safra paid $103.9 million in 2010 for a Giacometti sculpture of a walking man. Amedeo Modigliani’s stone head of a woman, “Tete" -- sold by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev in 2014 -- fetched $70.7 million.

Prominent Place

The Staffords -- he, a Jewish immigrant from Romania, she a southern belle from New Orleans -- visited Brancusi’s studio in Paris on a tip from Frederick’s Romanian friend. They bought the sculpture as a gift for Elizabeth’s 28th birthday, according to their daughter.

“He lived like a hermit and looked a little bit like a saint with a long, white beard,” Elizabeth Stafford said of the artist in a 1966 interview.

The piece had occupied a prominent place on a pedestal in their homes in Paris and New York, amidst African art, antiquities, 18th century French furniture and Impressionist paintings. In 1978, the couple loaned it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it remained for the next 40 years, occasionally leaving for other exhibitions.

“They were very proud of it,” Alexandra Stafford said. “It was the star of their collection.”

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