Sunday, October 28, 2012

Halloween


Back in New York, I was going to write about one of the many exhibitions in town and I will get around to that but I have been side tracked in my neighborhood.  In Santa Fe much of the walking I do is from the house to the car and the car to the store, theater or museum.

New York, however, is a walking town.  Of course, there are taxis and an excellent mass transit system but since we spend most of our lives within a one mile radius of our residences we tend to walk a lot.

As I have been walking around the neighborhood I have been struck once again with the amazing Halloween decorations that people have put out.  There are, of course, those who have spent fortunes.  As I was writing this I saw an article in Time Magazine saying that Americans will have spent a record $8 billion this year on Halloween related products, that is an awful lot of candy corn!  One finds decorations predominantly on private houses because apartment buildings usually confine themselves to Christmas decorations and that is it.   In the latter you find trick or treating which, these days, is confined to tenants who opt in.  In one building we lived in Frank Langella (Count Dracula on Broadway and in the movies) went around with his kids.  That seemed most appropriate.


I remember, however, when I was rather young I went around in our small apartment building by myself and I did not go trick or treating for candy but rather for money for UNICEF (The United Nations Children’s Fund), which was a school project.  I went around predominantly to people I knew and everyone was very nice.  In every building, however, there is one really scary apartment or individual and for me that was an old refugee living next door.  I was always scared that he would be in the elevator hall when I went out!  His English was not very good and heavily accented which added to my fear.  I wanted to skip him but my parents encouraged me to ring his doorbell. I guess they knew he wouldn’t eat me but I was not so sure when I rang the bell, he answered and asked me to come in and explain exactly what I was collecting for.



I am sure that I didn’t explain it that well but he walked away and went into the other room probably, I thought, heating the cauldron, but when he came out he put a $5 bill in my plastic container.  I could not believe it.  At that time it would have bought me 100 candy bars.  Wow!  I definitely was the winner at school the next day in the UNICEF competition.

But there is more to it than money.  People seem to have this urge to create something special and maybe also want to outdo their neighbors.  You will see in this Missive images of some of the ingenuity with which these decorations have been put together.  Since one sometimes sees the same house with the same ghouls as last year and  a few new additions I suspect that like we store Christmas ornaments others, collect Halloween howlers.



If you look up Halloween on the web there is an incredible amount of material and it is not all in agreement.  What I believe to be generally agreed to, however, is that Halloween is an ancient pagan holiday started by the Celts before Christ as the Samhain Feast.  A feast of the dead that marked the beginning of winter as well as the Celtic new year.  The Romans adopted the holiday almost immediately but the Catholic Church did not much like Christians celebrating a pagan holiday so Pope Boniface IV, in the 6th century, changed the holiday to associate it with All Saints day.

The holiday seems to exist in many countries but always adapted to the peculiar circumstances in that country.  In Mexico it is called "El Dia de los Muertos" ( The Days of the Dead), a 3 day holiday that starts on the night of October 31 and culminates on November 2nd when they celebrate All Souls Day.



With the spread of the Protestant faith in England Halloween as a holiday fell out of favor.  The British were rather resourceful, however, and in it’s stead came up with Guy Fawkes Day celebrating the execution of Guy Fawkes who had plotted with a small group of Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament and the Protestant King James with it.  On the night of November 5th people light bonfires and burn Fawkes in effigy.  Now there is a ghoulish celebration for you!

The Puritans did not approve of celebrating Halloween and it did not exist in this country until the immigration of the Irish and Scottish in the mid 19th century and even then it was kept in their communities.  But slowly it did creep into the general culture and by the early 20th century it was celebrated from coast to coast and its popularity seems to be increasing still today. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The First Girl I Kissed


When I was young I was sent off to various camps on the east coast and one was Killooleet in Hancock, Vermont.  It was run by the brother of my idol Pete Seeger, the folk singer.  It was probably the only camp I really enjoyed.  There was a lot of freedom with responsibility for the campers and in this story I was a month shy of my 13th birthday.

I wish I could remember all the details but, alas, I can’t.  I do remember falling in love for the first time.  Maybe I shouldn’t even use that term, but I know I had this great urge to kiss this girl, Ellie, and I finally mustered up the courage to do so. 

My mother died a few years ago and I found all sorts of interesting souvenirs that she kept and among them I found a plastic barometer and it rang a bell.  I was not sure I could trust my memory that this was the Bar Mitzvah present that Ellie gave me a couple of months after we met.  I found, however, my mother’s notebook where she wrote down all my gifts and there it said, barometer from Elinor Gollay.  There also were letters I had sent home from camp reporting on important matters such as sitting next to Ellie at the dinner table and other exciting tidbits.  Then back in New York, Ellie invited me to Broadway theater and I remember seeing West Side Story from the house seats.  My parents usually took me upstairs somewhere.  Now that made an impression on a 13 year old.

Bar Mitzvah Barometer

Elinor Gollay

This was not something I obsessed over but some 50 odd years later I came across an article in an art blog talking about the modern collection that was on exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida lent by Elinor Gollay and her step mother, Jean.  Coincidentally, shortly, before I read the article, I had been to St. Petersburg, Florida and seen their gem of a museum and met the curator of the exhibition and chief curator, Jennifer Hardin.

By getting in touch with Jennifer I found out how to reach Ellie. She had actually lived in Santa Fe years ago and still travels back to New Mexico from time to time with her husband to visit his family. Two weeks ago Ellie with her spouse and I with mine had lunch together in Bernalillo situated between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

All our lives are so much about the connections we make and the serendipity of life. Ellie’s father’s collection is the hook that allows me to tell you about my early love life in my Missives from the Art World.  When I met Elinor her parents were already divorced and all I remember is a reference to her father being a lawyer for some famous artists.

Benjamin Gollay (1906-1983) was a New York lawyer living in the West Village.  He became good friends with, the art critic and champion of the abstract expressionists Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978) and through him in the 1950’s he met quite a number of members of New York School.  He became an avid fan of many, such as Franz Klein, Robert Motherwell and Elaine and Willem de Kooning.

"Harold Rosenberg" by Elaine De Kooning
See credit line 1, below

Eventually Gollay bought a house in East Hampton, which was then not the posh location it is today, but an inexpensive retreat from the city that became a haven for artists. There he became close personal friends with these not yet household names.  Ellie does not refer to her father as an art collector because his love was for the artists themselves.  He often did favors for them in the way of legal services and out of friendship and gratitude they would bring him examples of their art. Every once in a while he would realize that one of the artists had fallen on particularly hard times and he would buy a painting, sometimes without even seeing it before hand.

In 1966 Gollay remarried to Jean Block.  Willem de Kooning inscribed one of his paintings from his famous “Woman Series” as a wedding gift and dedicated it "To Ben and Jean from Bill."

From "Woman Series" by Willem De Kooning
See credit line 2, below

He never asked for art and some artists therefore thought that he did not like their work.  Such was the case of Franz Klein: when Harold Rosenberg told Gollay this he went over to Klein’s house the next day and found he had died that very same day!

In this way he eventually amassed 150 paintings by artists who are now famous.  Truth be told they did not all become famous, but even works by the lesser-known, such as Norman Bluhm (1920-1999), are, none-the-less, good representations of the New York School.

"Untitled" by Norman Bluhm
See credit line 3, below

Benjamin Gollay died in 1983 and the collection was inherited by his wife and daughter   who have generously lent and made gifts to the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg.

Life has many funny twists and turns and it can be great fun to follow them.  It was so exciting to see Ellie again, and to learn more about her father’s collection, and that our paths might have crossed before here in Santa Fe, or even where she lives now in Portland, Oregon, where my wife worked for a decade!

*************************************************

Photo Credit Lines:

1) Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978)
By ELAINE DE KOOING, (1918-1989)
Oil on canvas, 1956
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

2) NORMAN BLUHM
American, 1920-1999
Untitled, 1974
Acrylic on canvas
Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida
Gift of Elinor Gollay from the Benjamin Gollay Collection

3) WILLEM DE KOONING
American, b. the Netherlands (1904–1998)
UNTITLED, from the WOMAN series, c.1966
Oil on newspaper mounted on board
Extended loan to the Museum by Elinor Gollay
from the Benjamin Gollay Collection

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Autumn Color


We had been coming out to Santa Fe for about ten years when we decided to look for a house.  I remember saying to my wife that we had experienced this town during about three months of the year and how would we like it in other months. She assured me that I would love all but I was not totally convinced.


You have seen Missives that I have written in the winter months buried in snow, and we have enjoyed all the months so far, but this is the first October that I have been out here.

What a treat it has turned out to be! Now I am not what you would normally call a nature lover.  I do appreciate it, but I do not usually wax lyrical on the subject. But over the last two weeks in the Santa Fe area I have experienced a living work of art.

We live on a dry sandy riverbed, called in these parts, an arroyo.   At the moment it is awash in yellow flowers and looks absolutely lush.  The color comes from the chamisa which is not exactly a flower.  A clinical definition is “a saltbush, Atriplex canescens,  of the western U.S. and Mexico, having grayish, scurfy foliage”.  From that who would believe how beautiful it could be!  But just take a look at some of the images taken in front of our home.  You won’t be surprised to learn that our arroyo is known as Arroyo Chamisa and it runs for miles.



As beautiful as it can be, chamisa does have a downside.  Some people are extremely allergic to it and even leave town during the worst allergy seasons.  Though I have always had allergies and sneeze my head off on a regular basis, the chamisa, for me at least, does not add to the discomfort.

The beautiful color of the arroyo is not the only vibrant yellow that we see from our town.  When we look up into the mountains we see dense areas of yellow which we believed for years was just effects created by the incredible sunlight that has drawn artist to the area since the early 20th century. This year we discovered there is more to it than that.  We have forests of Aspen trees which all turn color at this time of year making the hills into a fairy tale.

Since we do not ski we have never visited the well known ski basin of Santa Fe which is so popular in the winter months.  I thought that it was a long road trip miles above us.  It turns out that it is only 15 miles and though it is a winding mountain road we can get up close and personal with the aspens in just a little over 30 minutes.  So one day last week we got in the car and went up to Aspen Vista trail and walked into the mountains.





In this part of the world we dread wild fires, which are not infrequent, and the smell of smoke from the controlled fires, like that set by the Forestry Service the day before our walk, fills us with apprehension. Yet, we have learned that clearing the underbrush indirectly benefits the aspens. It allows the sun to shine on the saplings that grow in quickly, regenerating from sprouts. Since aspens need a lot of sun they are found on the side of the mountain that gets the most hours of exposure and that is the side we see from town. It was amazing how a short drive brought to life what had previously been no more than a backdrop to the city we live in.

I will return to New York next week for a month and leave this all behind. When I come back to Santa Fe there will be a new season and a new month to enjoy.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Behind the Scenes Glimpse


People always wonder what an art dealer does besides buy and sell.  The first, of course, is necessary and the second is fervently sought after but there are many other demands on our time.

Much of that occurs in fielding enquiries which we often enjoy doing but in the last 15 or so years a great deal is in provenance research.  For me it started in 1996 as we were about to go into a gallery exhibition opening the director of the Metropolitan Museum at the time stopped me.  He said to me “You sold that small wooden renaissance sculpture of the Madonna and Child attributed to Nicolaus Gerhaert von Leiden that the Met just acquired and we want you to write up it’s provenance for us”.  I said, “Philippe we sold that in 1947 (when I was 3 years old) for $3,000 and the Met just paid a reported $3 million and you want me to do the research on the piece?”  He replied that $3,000 then was the equivalent of $3 million in 1996.  Well, Philippe de Montebello was not considered the great museum director that he was for his currency conversion skills and I thought he was teasing me.  But sure enough the next day I had a phone call from the chairman of the Medieval department, William Wixom, at the Metropolitan making the same request.  It was not as if I could say “no” so I went to our warehouse archives and dug out the papers from the Vienna Rothschilds giving the details on the original purchase and sale.



This was the very beginning of the search for Nazi War Loot.  The art that the Nazis seized during World War II and that had not found it’s way back to its rightful owners.  The period in question are the years that Hitler was in power from 1933 to 1945.  Luckily, we have archival material but since the firm had to first leave Germany in a hurry, and then leave the Netherlands even quicker, much was lost.

If this happened once in a great while it would not be so difficult, but this summer more than 15 years later I have received one or two enquiries a week, and often from museum individuals who have not done the basic research, such as finding their original invoice which might have the information they are looking for right there in front of them.  I also had an enquiry recently from an auction house that wanted me to do research on the possibility that since we had handled works of art from the Rothschilds, it was not impossible that we might have handled this specific painting as well (we hadn’t).  Philippe de Montebello had an expression that I always loved.  He would say that he did certain things for “proven friends of the museum” and I like to subscribe to a similar code.

If I am asked by a curator I know who has been helpful to us in the past I usually do the research without complaint but if it is a person hired by the museum just to do this kind of work and they do not even know where to start, if it was acquired more than a decade ago, considering the time involved on my or my staff’s part, I will tell them that I charge $250 for each search whether I turn something up or not.  I had several curators at one museum who kept pestering me with provenance questions urge me to continue to charge because they felt badly about how many times they came back to the well.



It has been suggested to me by lawyers and family that if we no longer had the archive we would no longer have to look anything up, but then you can become the victim of suspicion that you cannot prove is wrong, even though you are sure it is.  In all but one case we have been able to prove the provenance of every work of art, and that was not a question of Nazi War Loot but a piece of porcelain stolen from a European museum a few years after WWII that we had purchased from a long-time European colleague. We settled reasonably and amicably with the museum.

Another example of the typically frustrating enquiry occurred several years ago regarding a set of paintings by an 18th century Italian artist that had been sold by a German Jewish banker living in Switzerland and our German Jewish firm in Amsterdam at the time.  The banker owned this group of works and he gave these to our firm on consignment against a loan with a right to sell.  We succeeded in selling them to museums and private collectors in the States.  Suddenly his nephew appears 60 years later and says that his uncle’s pictures constituted Nazi war loot!  By a total fluke the documentation had been saved from the archives in Holland and was in our archive.  All the details were there, including the consignment/loan agreements and bank drafts.  On top of this the brother of the owner lived in Amsterdam at the time and oversaw the entire transaction!

While there are many legitimate claims regarding Nazi War Loot, a claim alone is not sufficient and I am glad that I can back up my family’s good name.