Sunday, November 28, 2010

Miss Frick

No, I did not get that wrong. In Miss Frick’s day Ms. did not exist and, anyhow, I would have been scared to address her as such.

I had not been in the business that long and exactly why I was allowed to take care of Miss Frick shortly after I started I am not sure. But then people had favorites some preferred to deal with me , the younger Stiebel, and others with my father, the old world gentleman.

Helen Clay Frick (1888-1984) was the third child of Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), the Pittsburgh Steel Magnate, who built the Fifth Avenue Mansion and its fine collections. Miss Frick took her role as his daughter extremely seriously. I must be clear that I knew Miss Frick, only as a client, between 1968 until she moved back to Clayton the family home in Pittsburg a bit more than a decade later. We all see people from our own point of view and from mine Miss Frick was an independent soul who knew what she wanted and a spunky doyenne.

She never built as great a collection as her father but she had wonderful taste and when she no longer approved of the way things were run at the Frick Collection in New York she decided to open the Frick Museum in Pittsburgh. It was for this project that she came into my family gallery.

She arrived at the gallery one day ostensibly looking for a specific piece of furniture but she eventually ended up in our last show room with its red velvet walls in which we showed paintings. In those days an art handler would bring each painting or drawing in separately to display on our red velvet easels. On this particular day we had had a visitor just prior to Miss Frick and a portrait by Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) of Eléonore de Bourbon (1587-1619) had been left on the easel. In the same room were showcases which were opened to reveal medieval and renaissance treasures and Ms. Frick had been headed for them. When she saw the Rubens, however, she asked a few questions and bought it on the spot! Boy, were we surprised but then Miss Frick did not need a decorator or an art advisor to tell her what she liked.

Another time, in the room before the red velvet one she spotted a two tiered round table known as a gueridon. It was an extremely fine piece stamped M. Carlin, one of the best Louis XVI cabinet makers. The top was a Sèvres plaque of the period and coming out of the porcelain top was a gilded bronze candle holder for 2 candles. This table represented the best of its type that existed. In fact, I can remember few that were as good as this gueridon. She took one look at the table and said, “Mr. Stiebel, if you can find me the candles that fit into those candleholders I will buy the table. Now with some people who say things like that one might laugh. The difference here was she was dead serious! Some months later my wife and I were on holiday in New Hope, Pennsylvania antiquing (not for the gallery but for stuff at home). I spotted a candle maker’s shop and we stopped in. There I saw some short white candles that I thought might fit and laughing bought them. I was quite unsure either whether they would fit or if Miss Frick would remember but the investment was a not major!. Back in New York the candles fit perfectly so I phoned Miss Frick ANDS She said, “In that case, Mr. Stiebel, I will buy the table”. There was never any discussion about price or discounts. She either bought something or did not.

Finally, one other sale sticks in my mind. Miss Frick lived for many years in an apartment over the Frick Art Reference Library. In fact, until her death the story went, she insisted that in the library all women wear skirts and all men wear jackets, no matter the stifling heat without air conditioning in the summer. When one got off the elevator on the main library floor on the opposite wall there was a lunette by one of the Della Robbia brothers and Miss Frick asked me to find another that she could put in the Pittsburgh Frick. As luck would have it I found one almost immediately very close in size and it had belonged to the Vanderbilts in their house at the Breakers in Newport. I was most excited having found just what she wanted with a great provenance. But she turned it down and I was mystified. The religious subject was similar, it was the right form, it was just perfect. Finally, in frustration, I phoned her long time secretary, Mrs. Egan, and said that I did not know where to look if she turned down the one I had found and could she possibly enlighten me. “Well, Mr. Stiebel” she said. “frankly, Miss Frick is not going to buy anything that comes from the Vanderbilts”! I am sure therein lies another wonderful story. Eventually, I found Miss Frick another della Robbia which had been de-accessioned from the Metropolitan Museum.

It was not quite the same shape and possibly not as important, but she bought it. The price was $48,000 and Miss Frick said that she was afraid that she could only pay us $5,000 a month. This was most unusual and seemed very strange, but, of course, we said that we would accept her terms. What we did not know was that Mr. Cooley, her financial person, was away at the time and only on his return did he learn of Miss Frick’s arrangement. He phoned and apologizing said, “Mr. Stiebel, I think we can do better than that” Within the week we received a check for the full amount.

If the art business were only so simple today, collectors who know their own minds and have confidence both in themselves and the dealers that they visit.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

PADA Dinner and Award

It seems incredible to me but I find that I have already been writing these missives for over a year. Inevitably, I come back to themes of dinners and exhibitions and museums I have been to. It is all part of being an art dealer or probably anyone who leads a professional life. We go to fairs and exhibitions in the places we frequent and we attend functions of interest both personally and professionally.

So it is with the Private Art Dealers Association of America known as PADA. Every year it gives a dinner in honor of an institution or one of its departments that do work in the areas that interest our members. Winners of the PADA Grant in the last few years have been The Master Drawings Association, The Frick Art Reference Library, The International Foundation for Art Research and the Concerts & Lectures Department of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This year it was the Hispanic Society of America. A gem of a museum which has the misfortune of being on 155th Street on the west side of Manhattan. A friend of mine once said to me that in New York City we live in a 20 block (approximately 1 mile) radius of our homes. It sounds ridiculous but it is true. This, of course, does not include working in another location which I guess would add another 20 block radius. Think about it, New Yorkers, it is an amazingly accurate generalization.

It is actually not that difficult to get to the Hispanic Society by taking one of the West Side subway lines but few of us make the effort. Unfortunately, I must also plead guilty to that charge. I have been there less than a handful of times in my life. This city is rich in its cultural institutions but if they are not on the beaten track their number of visitors are always a small percentage of the institutions on Manhattan’s East Side from 34th to 91st streets.

The Hispanic Society is located on Audubon Terrace a landmark district consisting of eight early 20th century Beaux Arts Buildings with several cultural institutions. From the Society’s website it “is a museum of Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American art and artifacts, as well as a rare books and manuscripts research library”. If that doesn’t race your motor how about the fact that you can also view great paintings by the most famous Spanish Masters such as Velazsquez, Goya and El Greco! If you are watching your budget it does not hurt that there is no admission fee. Of course, you also have the bragging rights since fewer visitors to New York go there as opposed to the other museum in town.

The PADA dinner is given at the Lotos Club, situated in a mansion built for the daughter of William H. Vanderbilt in 1900. We had cocktails and hors d’oeuvres in the period library with its portraits and large fireplace and then there was a dinner for 64 in the banquet room.

The presentation of the grant was made by PADA’s President, Robert Dance and accepted for the museum by its Director, Mitchell A. Codding.

Robert Dance spoke of his early visits to the Museum when his mother took him and his enjoyment of what seemed to a child as a slightly spooky atmosphere with its narrow staircase up to a balcony filled with objects. In the recent renovation these walls are now devoted to paintings.

Mitchell Codding spoke of the renovation of the museum making it more accessible and the restoration of the 14 huge paintings by the Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923) known as the “Vision of Spain” illustrating the regions and people of his homeland. Sorolla received the commission from the founder of the Museum Archer Milton Huntington in 1911. Sorolla then travelled all over Spain making sketches and finally completed the commission in 1919. But the paintings were only installed at the museum in 1926. The artist had died three years earlier.

It took until the 21st century for this important cycle of pictures to make it’s pilgrimage through Spain in an exhibition that attracted more than two million visitors. Before they left their home they were first cleaned, their first bath in close to a century. The museum took advantage of their absence to do a major renovation of the gallery where the Sorrollas were installed 85 years ago with a new roof, skylights and lighting as well as a reinstallation of the surrounding galleries.

Robert Dance is retiring as President at the end of this year and the evening ended with an impromptu toast from a fellow founder of PADA, Jill Newhouse. She praised Robert’s inspiration and leadership over the many years he has served as President during two separate terms in office.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

I rented out my gallery!

Emanuel von Baeyer is originally from Bavaria. His interest in art began as a child of 12, with Japanese prints. So he started out as a collector and dealing became his passion. After all, we can become custodian of a lot more works of art if we sell some of them to feed our obsession. He moved to London 14 years ago as it is one of the centers of the art world where many passionate collectors meet at auctions, art fairs and at the galleries. It is hard to say precisely what his specialty is but one can narrow it down to works on paper with an emphasis on prints.

A few months ago Emanuel phoned to ask whether he could bring an exhibition of over 100 prints covering five centuries to exhibit in my gallery space. I had never done that before, but Emanuel was a good friend so I said yes.

A little late I thought, why does he want to do this exhibition here and now and how was this going to work? The first question was easily answered. New York in early November was the venue for three different works on paper fairs and about twenty galleries had their own shows. The second question took a little more thought. I had shared my walls with others including Emanuel when we did Master Drawings New York together but I had never totally given over my gallery to someone who was selling outside of my field. I thought that I would have to clear off the walls of my paintings and drawing as well as the French 18th century furniture from the floor and hire moving men to take everything to a warehouse, then store it for a week and bringing it back, but we wanted to do this without too many expenses.

The saving grace was that Emanuel wanted the gallery just as it was leaving enough wall space free for all of his prints. We live in a brownstone and he liked the ambience of showing the art as it would appear on the walls of a home. Therefore, we would only have to move some of the pictures and a few of the smaller pieces of furniture. Happily between Emanuel and a couple of very strong members of my staff the works of art could all be moved to other parts of the house.

When one does an exhibition either in a gallery or museum one must expect the unexpected. In this case, we were quite surprised when the FedEx truck pulled up in front of our house and the FedEx man informed us that he had two huge crates with all the prints framed and unframed and they were to be left curbside. There had been a snafu with the shippers and FedEx took the shipment with the designation of freight meaning that it had to be delivered to a loading dock or curbside. Thank goodness for a kind FedEx man who assisted in getting the crates into our house and with the help of an electric screwdriver the crates were soon opened and then emptied of their contents.

But then we had the two huge crates sitting in our small hallway so that one could hardly get around them and we were expecting visitors shortly. We couldn’t get hold of the London shippers to find someone to pick up the crates expeditiously. So we shoved them into the garden and got some heavy plastic in which to wrap the crates to protect them from the rain. Then we put a couple of garden chairs on top to keep the plastic from blowing away. Necessity is the mother of invention!

Now where to put all these prints? Over half were in 3 print boxes and the rest were shown on the walls. Emanuel had to figure out which of our pieces would need to be removed and whether he would use the staircases for some of the prints or pack the large parlor floor with prints as close together as tasteful. Deciding on the latter gave a very rich feel to the installation. And we could place some of our drawings and watercolors on the staircase trying to find ones that would not clash with the prints. Now what to do with the 3 large heavy boxes with the rest of the prints which the visitors would be free to sift through. I had to step in at this point and say that they could not be placed on the 18th century furniture which might get scratched and damaged if too many people worked at it at once.

What could we use without buying a special table for only a few days use? We did have a 6 foot work table in our basement on which we kept tools and packing materials etc. and I suggested that we bring that up from the basement and we took a magic marker to cover some of the bad scratches. It worked perfectly holding the print boxes and allowing visitors to move prints from one side of the boxes to the other. As a final touch we picked out a few objects from our collection that went well with the prints and moved them to appropriate places in the room.

The transformation was wonderful. The prints were top quality pieces from the mid fifteen century to the mid 20th and it all looked great in situ. Even I, not a print person, could easily see what a quality exhibition it was and, of course, ambience plays an important role in making people comfortable with the art. I asked Emanuel what his concept was in putting this particular group of prints together and he said that they were European in different techniques and that many were early or formerly unknown states as well as artists’ proofs.

Well, it worked. That the show was a success became obvious almost immediately. From the first morning on we had a steady flow of museum curators, collectors and dealers and a good number of them bought one or more of Emanuel’s treasures.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

J.P. Morgan's Library

As you have surely read by now, The Morgan Library and Museum recently opened their refurbished building, commissioned by J.P. Morgan (1837-1917) and designed by McKim, Mead and White architects in 1906. This is the first major restoration to the interior since that time and was done in a record four and one half months. Yet, if you do not go regularly to the Morgan you would hardly realize what all the fuss is about. It is a brilliant job, a perfect restoration that only brings out the original grandeur and beauty of the space without trying to improve upon it!

You don’t think about the use of non-reflective glass but the glass on the vitrines has been swapped out so that you now can see the objects and not your reflection in the vitrines. What probably makes the most obvious difference is the new lighting which shows off, for instance, the wonderful painting of the great men of the arts on the library ceiling and the mosaic work in the ceiling of the rotunda. If you think about it, these were probably never before as visible, since it was still early days for electric light when the building was originally put up.

Over the years other buildings have been added to the complex. The most recent of these additions is an award winning new entrance on Madison Avenue and Atrium by Renzo Piano which brings all the Morgan buildings together. Personally, however, I find it an eyesore, not in keeping with Morgan’s aesthetic, but then I am a dinosaur when it comes to tradition and do not embrace change for its own sake. This entrance, however, is in such stark contrast to the original space that when one goes up a short flight of steps on the right side at the back of the Atrium and through the glass door one feels as if one has walked through Alice’s looking glass into another world. I liked that, an oasis from 21st century New York.

The McKim building is relatively small including only three rooms connected by a rotunda. The library itself, study cum office and the annex to the library where the librarian was situated. When you enter into the rotunda that connects all three spaces, there is now installed a rotating exhibition of Americana from the Morgan’s collections. At the moment the cases include one of the 26 original copies of the Declaration of Independence, notes that Lincoln wrote before the Lincoln Douglas debates, a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to his daughter signed “Affectionately, Th. Jefferson”, a copy of the first bible printed in this country and a life mask of George Washington for which he had to lie down when the famous French Neo-Classical sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) came to visit him at Mount Vernon. Houdon was also known for the busts he made of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin when they, themselves, were in France.

The librarian’s office or library annex has for the first time been opened to the public and the only physical change that was made to the building during the restoration. It is a double storied room and the library shelves on the lower section have been turned into vitrines to show Near Eastern art from the collection.

Jennifer Tonkovitch, curator of drawings and prints headed the project renovation with the guidance of the director, William Griswold and the Deputy Director, Brian Egan and she was the one who gave us the tour. In this room she pointed out handles on the library shelves on the second story. These bookshelves pivoted to give access to the second floor of the building. Somehow quite exciting, particularly if you are fond of mystery stories!

The library itself is three stories tall and a most impressive room. A couple of manuscripts have been taken out to show both a spectacular modern and early binding. In some ways even more illuminating as to their importance than the fine manuscripts in the cases where you have to read the labels to learn why they are interesting. For this space a “new” large carpet appropriate for the period was needed and a net was cast internationally to find the right one. In the end it was found at a carpet dealer a few blocks from the Morgan itself!

It is hard to say whether it is the library or Morgan’s study cum office that is the most impressive. Never mind the great paintings, sculptures and manuscripts being shown but this double storied room itself in its fabric covered walls and red velvet upholstery (duplicated from the original fabric) with a large vault in the corner is quite something. So when you have a house full of treasures in the building what does the banker decide to put in his vault? Well, in Morgan’s case it was his 600 medieval manuscripts.

J.P. Morgan was 69 years old when he commissioned the building but it represented a very important statement. This was his private space in the image he wished to project and more importantly wanted to think of himself - the beneficent financier, philanthropist and man of the arts.

Monday, November 1, 2010


The World Monument’s Fund (WMF) had its genesis in 1965 as The International Fund for Monuments but changed its name and direction in 1985 to the World Monuments Fund . I have known the Executive Director, Bonnie Burnham, since 1976 when we both attended the first International Congress on art theft in Paris. She had been with ICOM, The International Council of Museums which was administered by UNESCO. They developed the “UNESCO Agreement”, the first effort made on an international basis, to repatriate works of art to their countries of origin. I, of course, was there as one of many representatives of the collecting community. After becoming Executive Director of IFAR, the International Foundation for Art Research, she was asked to join WMF as Executive Director in 1985 and proceeded to revive a rather sleepy institution.

WMF has an annual benefit dinner which I attended a few weeks ago. On this occasion WMF gave its prestigious Hadrian Award to a worthy benefactor of preservation of the world’s treasured art and architecture. The award is named after the Roman Emperor Hadrian (a.d. 76-138), who was himself concerned with the preservation of outstanding artistic works of his time. For a list of all the recipients go to click here. In an introduction to their many worthy projects Board Chairman. Christopher Ohrstrom stated their credo saying, "A society that has lost touch with it's past is a society that no longer knows who it is...... Because our past is what defines us. It gives us our identity".

WMF publishes every year a “Watch List” of approximately 100 sites that it considers most require attention. It gets directly involved in some of these and joins projects where it can contribute expertise to the local effort. At the moment it has about 150 projects on seven continents, to view click here.

They have not neglected their country of origin and have had projects near both my homes advising, for instance, at the Taos and Hopi Pueblos in the Southwest. To show how WMF works they took a group of us to Ellis Island in New York Harbor and demonstrated how a long term project can begin.

Ellis Island was the principal port of entry into the U.S. between 1892 and 1924 when 12 million immigrants were processed there. The Northside with its Registstry building began its restoration in the 1980’s at a final cost of around 260 million dollars and this is the site we can take the ferry to visit today. But there is a huge territory on the Southside of the Island where the original state of the art hospital complex was built. Having been neglected for many decades it had turned into a veritable jungle. Nature had taken over and literally grown into the buildings coming in with all the elements. It had been a most important part of Ellis Island at the time. It was where all those that showed any sign of physical or mental illness were held until they were thought fit to be admitted into the United States or sent back to where they came from and it is estimated that two to three percent were. Ellis Island became known as “The Island of Hope - The Island of Tears”.

Today, it would cost well over half a billion dollars to restore the Southside and the funds don’t exist for the time being. WMF, however, listed Ellis Island on their “Watch List” both in 1996 and 2006. The 1996 listing helped draw National and International attention to the amount of work that remained to restore the island in its entirety. A member of the Lowes family (Lowes Stores) pitched in with $25,000, which though generous and appreciated was not going to make a big dent in beginning this massive restoration.

Boiling down his impressive curriculum vitae, our tour guide, John H. Stubbs received his advanced training at Columbia University’s Graduate Program for Historic Preservation. In 1980 he started at Beyer Blinder Bell Architects & Plannners which specialized in the world of preservation architecture . The firm was hired from 1981 to 1984 by The U.S. National Park Service to restore the main Registry Building and survey the history and 'as found' conditions of all buildings on the island. This included for example, the original toilets and doorknobs. John Stubbs supervised several skilled teams in this herculean task and they gave those doing the actual restoration of the Northside the “blueprint” for the project which was detailed in an 11 volume report which John edited and wrote a great deal of. In 1990 he was hired by Bonnie Burnham to become WMF’s project manager and oversee their many projects.

He had the idea that they could use the Lowes grant to demonstrate what was possible. They took one small building, the Surgeons offices, as an example and showed how it could be cleared out and mothballed so that things wouldn’t get worse until there was the money to continue on a grander scale.

When this relatively small project was completed WMF again listed the Southside of the island in 2006. Now, more substantial funds started to flow in and with the 7 million dollars raised they could seriously begin to clear and clean up many of the buildings, and board up the windows with slanted slats for air.

Of course, since the Ellis Island project was started 30 years ago the question of how the property on the Southside could be best used and over the years many suggestions have been made. A hotel, a convention center with overnight facilities, a study center for immigration and many more, as well from famous architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson. Some of these ideas involved eliminating the original structures but considering the entire island’s landmark designation it is doubtful that these plans would ever be allowed.

Not only was it fascinating seeing new frontiers in the big city and what can be accomplished but thanks to our afternoon with John Stubbs and his enthusiasm, also in a subsequent interview, I do hope to be able to come back to the subject of Ellis Island in my Missives… there is so much more to tell.