Sunday, February 3, 2019

“The Grand Gallery” Revisited

From October 19, 1974 to January 5, 1975 something unheard-of occurred at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  Art dealers had an exhibition with works of art that were actually on the market … but nothing was for sale. The show was called “The Grand Gallery”.

La Confédération Internationale des Négotiants en Oeuvres d’Art (the international Confederation of Dealers in Works of Art, C.I.N.O.A., for short consisted at that time of about 3,000 dealers from 12 countries represented by 15 art associations.  C.I.N. O.A. had done exhibitions in museums before, such as the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris and the Americans wanted one closer to home. 

It is a long story but, in the end, by instruction from the director of the Museum, Thomas Hoving, I became the sole representative of the art dealers and Penelope Hunter, who would eventually become my wife, became the representative for the Metropolitan.  She had to take each work of art submitted by the individual dealers to the curator in charge of that area to have it vetted for authenticity.  Obviously, the dealers wanted to put their best foot forward and I do not remember anything in the end being rejected.

Still there was criticism of having dealers exhibit at the museum and it was assumed the works exhibited were not of museum quality.  In order to cover their bets the Met inserted a small exhibition of works acquired through the gallery of the late Ernest and Joseph Brummer. We joked that they were saying “Tthe only good dealer is a dead dealer”.  During the last four plus decades I have seen more and more of the works of art in The Grand Gallery exhibition acquired by museums and I thought it would be fun to research some of these pieces.

I will start with a work of art that ended up in the permanent collection at the Met.  It is a bronze by the Renaissance artist Giovanni Francesco Susini.  His Sleeping Hermaphrodite dated 1639 was presented in The Grand Gallery by the London dealer, William Redford.  He sold it to the philanthropist Claus von Bulow who gave it, together with his wife, to the Met in 1977.  I wonder if the Met curator of European sculpture had her eye on it when it was exhibited in the C.I.N.O.A. show.

I am proud to say that the three  works of art submitted to the exhibition by my gallery, Rosenberg & Stiebel, have all ended up in museums.  I will just mention one here.  It is a Astronomical Longcase clock with a armillary sphere on top.  It was attributed to the master cabinet maker Jean-Pierre Latz and was created circa 1745.  The provenance of Baron Gustave de Rothschild is a nice touch as well.  Though it did not have all its original works as serious clock collectors want,  this was purchased from us  for the cabinetry and gilt bronzes of its case by the J. Paul Getty Museum.

One of the foremost French artists from the end of the eighteenth century is Marie Louise Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun.  Galerie Heim in Paris lent her Portrait of Prince Henry Lubomirski as a Genius of Fame, 1789.  As art history progresses it is now known as , “Prince Henryk Lubomirski as Love of Glory”.  When it was exhibited again at the Met in a monographic show of the artist, “The Grand Gallery” had been dropped from its exhibition history, conveniently forgotten in the prejudice against art dealers.

Hirschl & Adler, dealers well known for their American historical art lent a wonderful still-life called “After the Hunt”.  It is signed WM Harnett Munchen, 1883.  Harnett was born in Ireland in 1848 but his parents soon moved to the States and he became a U.S. citizen in 1868.  From 1881 until early 1885 he lived in Munich where he painted this still life.  After having passed through private collection(s) it has found its way into the Huntington Library in Pasadena.

I am going to end with a painting that has not gone to a museum.  Andrea Mantegna’s “Christ’s Descent into Limbo” from 1492.  When this painting arrived in this country for the exhibition from the firm of P.& D. Colnaghi of London, it was quite the sensation since it had a declared value of over one million dollars.  In 1974 this was  a very high value particularly for a work that was actually on the market.  Later it went into the private collection of Barbara Piasecka Johnson, who was from Poland where she had studied art history and then married Seward Johnson one of the founders of Johnson & Johnson.  She lent the Mantegna to the Frick Collection from 2000 to 2002 with the hope that they would buy it. When they did not, it was put up for auction in London where it brought £17,600 million over 28 million dollars, going to an unidentified purchaser..   There had been speculation that the painting had been cut down and just last year the curator Giovanni Valagussa from the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, Italy discovered that a painting formerly attributed to the school of Mantegna was the missing part. The two were recently shown together at the National Gallery, London.

There were over 300 works of art in “The Grand Gallery” in many media from Europe, America, China and Africa .  It would be fun to trace more of them and maybe I will.  For now, the catalog is still available on line for those who wish to do their own sleuthing.

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