When I stand in front of a masterpiece I like to think of all the other people who saw it, from artists to famous acquaintances to my friends and teachers and even earlier versions of myself. So next time I go to the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA), I happily think that Walt Whitman was such a fan of this ancient Egyptian statue that he visited it 20 times while his gallant bust was on display. Lower Manhattan
I heard about it in Lynley J. McAlpine's recent book Let's Not Boast About Our Earthly Possessions: The Genesis Story of the San Antonio Museum of Art . The title is a quote from a 1937 letter from newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. An avid collector, Hirst would wheelbarrow buy his art from Europe and often ship it direct to a five-story warehouse in the Bronx. Correspondents began requesting tours of the camp. Hearst instructed an employee to keep him away, saying that flaunting his wealth during the Great Depression "would just invite a bunch of rednecks to start something." SAMA now owns hundreds of Greek vases that Hirst collected. These vases form one of 19 'art biographies' in the book Let Us Not Be Proud of Our Worldly Goods , which also includes an overview of source research in its 75 attractive pages.
Provenance researchers like McAlpine are trying to find out who owns the artwork. While the work of a 19th-century artist usually contains enough information from the artist's and dealer's archives to tell the researcher exactly where they left the studio, older objects often offer a more complex mystery. The source researcher has to be a detective: reading in different languages, consulting and guessing well-known sources, and investigating alternative ways of gathering information, which auction houses, museums, private collectors and other big players in the industry are still doing. often they don't want to express it.
McAlpine, writing for a general audience, focuses on interesting details rather than archival details. For example, we hear about an antique that Gilbert M. Denman, co-founder of SAMA, bought. He bought it to add to his museum collection but kept it for a while before gifting it to his luxury apartment in one of San Antonio's social hubs. Of course, while it may be flat Texas, its owner has some limitations compared to the aristocratic Denman Big Tour collectors. In the 17th century he bought a seven foot portrait of Marcus Aurelius that had belonged to the first Marquess of Lansdowne and displayed it in a special sculpture room. The Emperor occupies a less than glamorous position on the porch of Denman's apartment building when unable to climb the stairs. McAlpine included a 1970s photo of Marcus Aurelius hunched over his staff and gazing absently at the stairs, like a chief guest gathering his strength before his final flight.
New York dealer Mathias Comor exploited Denman's aristocratic ambitions by claiming that Aphrodite's torso had previously been in the Earl of Sandwich's collection. However, recent research into Sandwich's family archives has shown that the clan does not date from the 18th century. By the great tourists of the 20th century, but by the much more recent and almost contemporary Denman. This re-examination of the original stories also leads to a re-examination of authenticity; the tribe is now considered modern.
In addition to counterfeiting, provenance research can also send stolen works of art home. Today, many museums and dealers are forced to investigate the provenance of works of art they suspect were on the European continent between 1933 and 1945 to ensure they are not stolen from their Jewish owners. While Nazi-era research remains a key area, museums are increasingly aware of the problem of other sources, including looted antiquities, stolen sacred art, and artifacts removed from countries during conflict or colonialism.
The SAMA is among a growing number of American museums employing their own researchers on a temporary or interim basis. Getty, Smithsonian, Philadelphia Museum of Art, MoMA, Denver Museum of Art, Nelson-Atkins, Carlos Emory Museum, Newfields, Yale University Art Gallery and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts have or have local research staff.
Such recruitments often occur when museums are faced with demands from the source community. But seeing provenance research as just a defensive measure misses what McAlpine clearly demonstrates: that provenance stories can increase the appreciation of a work of art by heightening the excitement and interest of the visitor. The success of books and films such as Edmund de Waal's The Hare With Amber Eyes (2010) or Helen Mirren's 2015 film The Woman in Gold has shown that audiences have an appetite for these stories. Surprisingly, few museums have attempted to make their origin stories available to the public (an exception is Victoria Reed, a researcher at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston).
This Greek vase is a good example that sometimes the history of ownership is much more interesting than the object itself. I wrote my dissertation on Greek vases but I have to say this is a simple example of the genre that only a collector could understand would like to have. But what a collector! The vase was brought home by the English romantic poet Samuel Rogers when he was traveling with Lord Byron until Byron did not wake up in time for his scheduled departure and they fell out. (We all have friends like that.) The vase was passed down through the Rogers family and appears in a 1934 portrait of some of his descendants with his proudest possessions: the vase and pet macaque Mach-Jongg (nicknamed). : Jongy) You bought it at Harrods.
Competition for the brightest character in the book is stiff, but my vote goes to turn-of-the-century beauty Martine-Marie-Paul de Bégague, who used her sprawling estate to shop for art and antiques almost daily while she was away. the world in his steamer Le Nirvana . When his heirs auctioned off his collection in 1987, Italian antiques dealer Giacomo Medici bought two broken vases. At the end of the auction, Medici met the disappointed SAMA curator, who was unable to acquire it for the museum. The Medici gave it to the commissioner as a gift.
Medici must have hoped that SAMA would buy him another job. Luckily they didn't, as it soon became known that the Medici were dealing in looted antiques. However, they did not fully escape. In February 2023, SAMA has to bring Adrian's head back to its homeland. It was smuggled out of Italy by the Medici and forged by the now equally famous Robin Symes. McAlpine didn't mention it or returned to the Greek Pottery Museum in 2021.
On the other hand, McAlpine points to problematic passages in other works. For example, he writes that the ancient tomb reliefs in the museum in the Syrian city of Palmyra came from a collector who had bought similar artifacts from the merchant Aziz Hayat, who admitted to bribing officials to get them out of what was then the Ottoman states . outside the area The museum lights have too little provenance information to determine if Hyatt ever touched them, but McAlpine has to be commended for the possibility of his involvement. (If only the museum's website could be edited to include this vital information!)
Thoroughly researched yet entertaining, I recommend this book to students, museum visitors, and anyone who wants to learn more about the origins of art in our museums and enjoy learning.
Showing Off Our Earthly Possessions: The Genesis of the San Antonio Museum of Art by Linley J. McAlpine is published by the San Antonio Museum of Art and is available in museums or online.
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