Events 2002 - Rodin exhibition in Canberra, Australia

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Three days before the Rodin show opens in Canberra, the Art Gallery of NSW has announced a gift of nine sculptures by Rodin.

By Sharon Verghis.

Jetlagged or not, Edmund Capon appeared inordinately pleased. It's not every day that a corporate giant donates an art collection valued "comfortably" in excess of the million dollar mark, he would be pleased to remind everyone.

When the bequest is of nine bronze sculptures by Auguste Rodin, it's a red-letter day for the Art Gallery of NSW, more used to the generosity of private patronage than cultural munificence from the big end of town.

Standing before the collection of bronze casts donated by David Jones yesterday, Capon was joined by a group of admirers. The frail painter Margaret Olley, the proud owner of an original Rodin sketch herself, circled the works briskly on her walking frame, veering precariously close at times, while an equally frail Lady (Mary) Fairfax looked on, surrounded by minders.

Nearby, the chief sculpture curator for the Musee Rodin in Paris, Antoinette Romain, looked over the collection, the largest single corporate bequest the gallery has ever received.

And in what looks suspiciously like a classic piece of one-upmanship, it was unveiled just three days before the opening of one of the biggest exhibitions of the sculptor's work, Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession, featuring works and 30 rare drawings from the Musee Rodin in Paris, at the National Gallery of Australia.

A Machiavellian spoiling tactic? Both Capon and Peter Wilkinson, the rotund chief executive officer of David Jones, emphatically deny it.

"The timing was purely coincidental," says Wilkinson, who unveiled the collection at the gallery yesterday. "We had been trying to launch it a few times before but it was a matter of Edmund's schedule as he only came back to the country today. I think it is pleasing, anyway, that the two have come together because they will leverage each other."

For Wilkinson, basking in the glow of public approbation, it was also a better day than most, given the recent shareholder-driven controversy over shares issued to him by chairman Dick Warburton.

Wilkinson said the collection, put together by the former director of the David Jones Art Gallery, Robert Haines, had been hidden away and almost forgotten for 16 years in a little-used meeting room after the closure of the gallery in 1985.

These works - a complete set of bronze casts of six figures making up the sculptor's famous second sketch model for The Burghers of Calais, cast in bronze in 1895 to commemorate an act of heroism in Calais during the Hundred Years' War - were supplemented by three other pieces.

Wilkinson was already feeling a "sense of absence" for these works - bronze casts of an armless muse, Monument to Whistler, a sensual female figure, Invocation, and the enigmatic Mask of Iris - that had been on display in his own office over that time.

He had no nicknames for the figures but they have offered a certain companionship and grace nonetheless, he said.

"But it always seemed to me and my board and the management of David Jones that they were wholly wasted in that environment and that they were much better placed in front of the people," Wilkinson said.

Capon said he had been aware of this buried treasure for a long time and gave credit to the museum staff for their hard work in negotiating the handover.

The gallery bought a Rodin work, The Prodigal Son, from the David Jones Art Gallery, for $10,000 in 1979, so this collection represented a "very, very generous gift", as well as a unique legacy, he said.

The works also represent a good investment. In 1999, one of Haines's Rodin works, Le Baiser, was sold to a phone bidder for $184,000 at a Sotheby's sale. Three years earlier, a Rodin bronze of Adam, originally acquired at the David Jones Art Gallery for $5,050 in 1974, was sold for $19,800.

Wilkinson said that the tradition of corporate philanthropy was alive and well in Australia.



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