Sunday, May 31, 2020

Barbara Piazecka Johnson (1937-2013)

In my time in the art business, I have had a number of eccentric clients and probably one of the most eccentric was Barbara  (known as Basia) Piazecka Johnson (1937-2013).  She was born in Poland and came to the States in 1968.  A year later she was hired by Essie Johnson, second wife of J. Seward Johnson, Sr.  heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune.  She was to cook for them, but it turns out her cooking was not to their liking, so the story goes that she became the upstairs maid.

Within a year, however, she left their employ to take art classes at New York University.  She had been set up in an apartment in New York City by Seward himself and he eventually moved in, divorcing Essie to marry Basia. He was 76, she was 34!  The marriage lasted until his death in 1983.   Though there are differing stories, this image shows the relationship that I witnessed between the two.

Basia had studied art history and philosophy in Poland at Wroclaw University and with Seward’s funds, she built a world-class art collection of Old Master paintings and royal French 18th-century furniture.  Seward left his fortune to Basia and after his death, his children sued even though trusts had been set up for them during his lifetime.  After 3 years and 24 million dollars in legal fees, there was a settlement and Basia received the lion’s share.  Here is Basia after her victory in front of Jasna Polana, (Polish for Bright Glade) her Princeton, NJ estate.

In 1993 David Margolick, a  former New York Times reporter,  wrote the book “Undue Influence,” about the case. He wrote, “The Basia that emerged from the case was alternately compassionate and cruel, cunning and na├»ve, loyal and fickle, generous and selfish, explosive and meek, articulate and tongue-tied, helpmate and tormentor, cheerful country girl and urbane shrew …”. 

That is the woman I knew long before the trial.  As a client of ours, she was quite knowledgeable about art and a perfect lady.  However, ask the shippers who took works of art from our gallery to Jasna Polana (today a golf course) and they will tell quite a different story.  It seems she screamed at them until everything was done and placed exactly her way!  Here an image of Basia in her living room.

I can tell you one error in the evidence used against her.  The word for a chest of drawers in French is commode.  In English, the term usually refers to a toilet.  Basia bought from our gallery an important pair of Louis XV black lacquer commodes and to show her extravagance they were reported as French black lacquer toilets!

Basia was totally mercurial and here are some examples.  We sat together at an auction in Monte Carlo at a two-day sale.  After one day she got bored and left saying to me, “You know what I like, buy for me”… no instructions…nothing.  At that point, the sale was into late 18th and early 19th-century furniture so I had an idea of what she wanted but would not buy without her there.  One rule of the gallery was never to accept unlimited bids and without specific instructions that would have been the case.

Another time Basia let me know she wanted to return 5 pairs of French 18th century armchairs in natural wood that she had bought over many years.  Why? Because she had found a complete set of gilded ones for far more money at another dealer.  I remember reselling all but one pair immediately and that pair hung around forever. Try returning 5 suits from Brooks Brothers that you bought over a dozen years.

The ultimate in my mind involved an extremely rare Louis XIV giltwood console table that fit perfectly on a small wall at Jasna Polana.  She phoned one day saying she wanted to return it.  I was quite upset because I thought it was a superb piece.  I was not worried about reselling it.  Then I heard a line I will never forget.  Basia said, “the wall is going, so the console and the Mondrian painting (Hung on that wall) have to go” Piet Mondrian was one of the most important artists of the 20th century.  Here is Broadway Boogie Woogie which is in the Museum of Modern Art.

In 1990, Basia invited my wife and me on a junket to Poland to see “Opus Sacrum,” an exhibition of her collection of Western religious art, at the Royal Castle in Warsaw. It was the first major art exhibition to be held in Poland after the fall of the Communist regime and was universally praised.  She had two planes fly her group to Krakow for a tour of the city. While we were lucky enough to fly with Basia the passengers on the other plane arrived looking quite green. It turned out that our pilot was the head of the Polish air force but the other plane was flown by his students. There was little shopping to be done in the impoverished country but on the trip home many on the junket showed off their finds of traditional painted Easter eggs. Someone on the plane had a copy of the New York Times and as they were thumbing through it they saw a large add showing Polish Easter eggs were for sale at Macy’s!

I will end with what sounds like a Polish Joke but is absolutely factual.  Our return flight from Warsaw was on Lot Airlines. Boarding was a unique experience as Lot simultaneously loaded first class through the back of the plane and the main cabin from the front. It was quite a tussle as we squeezed by each other to get to our seats!!!

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