"WHERE DO YOU want to me to start? I like cats." So begins my interview with collector John Mozart, owner of Carl Kahler's six-feet-tall, eight-and-a-half-feet-wide portrait of 42 cats, "My Wife's Lovers." As of press time, the 1891 painting is slated for installation at the Portland Art Museum by Friday, January 29.
The media attention that comes with purchasing the ur-Lisa Frank overwhelmed Mozart, who has kept a low profile since purchasing it at auction in November. When Artnet broke the news of the sale, Mozart's identity wasn't disclosed. He's rarely spoken on the record about the painting, but agreed to be identified for this piece.
Though you'd assume only a cat-loving art collector would buy what Cat Magazine once called "the world's greatest painting of cats," Mozart isn't a cat person, despite his initial joke. And he doesn't really consider himself an art collector, either ("I don't understand modern art," he says). He's collected cars for 35 years, and doesn't own any cats.
But his mother loved cats ("particularly those big white cats with a lot of fur"), and he bought her a reproduction of Kahler's painting 20 years ago. "She had it in her living room until the day she died," he says.
When the genuine article came up for auction, Mozart didn't hesitate. He bought it from Sotheby's 19th Century European Art Sale for more than $800,000, well above the estimated price of $300,000. When I ask him about this, he says, "I was emotionally into it. I'll never get a chance again. You're not gonna live forever, so I might as well do it."
When Mozart talks about the painting, it's not with the sometimes-cold distance of art historians. He doesn't throw art jargon at me, and he doesn't discuss Kahler's technique. He doesn't seem concerned with what owning the painting says about him. Instead, he frames it as a happy coincidence—which it is (sort of), albeit a crazy-expensive one—and he seems genuinely excited about the prospect of Kahler's painting being publicly accessible at the Portland Art Museum.
When it isn't touring, "My Wife's Lovers" hangs on a wall in Mozart's home in the Bay Area, where Kahler's cats face another painting—Alexander Pope's depiction of lion cubs.