Sunday, February 15, 2015


I looked up the definition for the fickle finger of fate, a term sometimes used in humor but with origins that are serious and profound. 1. An unseen and unforeseeable force that controls the direction of all living things, 2. A series of very unlucky or unfortunate events.

This Missive is about definition #2.  As most of you probably know by now, Walter Liedtke, curator of Dutch and Flemish art at the Metropolitan Museum died on February 3, 2015.  He lived in Bedford Hills New York with his wife, Nancy, who raised horses.  He took the 5:45 pm on the Metro-North line out of Grand Central Station and chose the first car because it was often designated as the quiet car.  In a freak accident the train hit a car stuck on the tracks and six people on the train died as a result.  It happened in Valhalla (according to Norse mythology the destination of soldiers who died in battle).

Photo Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

I had heard about the crash on the late night news and figured that less than 1% of the people on that train were killed and I could not think of anyone who commuted on that route.  The fact is I knew at least three Met curators who did and I know one decided to take the next train out.

We each learn from our significant other and it often comes together on some level.  With Walter Liedtke it was his book, “The Royal Horse and Rider:  Painting and Sculpture and Horsemanship 1500-1800” which was published in 1989 and won the C.I.N.O.A. Prize from the International Confederation of Art Dealers on whose board I served, also as President, for many years.  The prize was to help defray the costs of publication of an art history book that this body, involving associations in over 20 countries, found worthy of promoting.  It was published on the 20th Anniversary of the day he met his wife, who so loves horses and he dedicated the book to her.

Walter loved to write and share his knowledge.  Just five years after arriving at the Met he wrote the catalog of the Museum’s Flemish Paintings.  In our library alone we have that catalog, three of his exhibition catalogs and the book mentioned above.  In 2007 he published the catalog of Dutch painting in the museum’s collection and was beginning work on the Spanish paintings.

Photo Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

I cannot say that we were close to Walter, but he arrived at the Metropolitan during Penelope’s tenure there and he was always so nice and generous with his time and knowledge.  Funnily enough he could give the appearance of being aloof, but the minute you spoke to him he was quite the opposite.  He did little things like offer us early entrance into one of his blockbuster exhibitions so that we could see it quietly without jostling with the crowds that would arrive shortly thereafter.  Somehow we stayed in touch. 

His interests were broad and last year after I wrote a Missive on Pinhole photography he wrote, “Dear Gerald, I’m delighted to be receiving your missives and this one is especially interesting. Well done! Walter”.  It wasn’t his field, I did not even realize that he was interested in photography but that was part of Walter’s generosity of spirit.  Walter made you feel you were his friend.  Needless, to say many of my museum and art friends on Facebook posted notices and tributes.  What surprised me was that a museum friend here in Santa Fe said that many of his friends, artists or others involved in the Native American art world also posted expressions of sadness on Facebook.  They most probably had never met Walter but his reach went way beyond those in his own field.

Of course, we ask why, and can’t understand a fate that takes one so talented and who has contributed so much, but destiny is something we have no control over and must learn to live with.

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