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Broach with Sapphire, 260.37-carats.
In "Jewels of the Romanovs: Treasures of the Russian Imperial Court,"
at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts
till July 20, 1997.

Gothic-style bracelet with the largest table-cut diamond in the world (27 carats) and portrait of Alexander II.

Caesar's Ruby, rubalite and tormaline, 300+ carats.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art
Washington, DC

Andrew Lloyd Weber

President, Microsoft Corporation
Bill Gates

The Parthenon
at the Acropolis
Athens, Greece

Panel of the friezes
at the Parthenon
showing Poseidon,
Apollo, and Artemis

visual reality

by Lee Rosenbaum  
Beef Romanov
Did the Russians have a legitimate beef? While the Russian and American organizers of the beleaguered "Jewels of the Romanovs" show continue to bad-mouth each other (even after their agreement allowing the jewels to travel from Washington to their current venue, Houston), there is one Russian complaint that's undeniable: The installation of the show at its first stop, the Corcoran Gallery, was substandard in terms of security, conservation and presentation. The main problem: shoddy exhibition cases, hastily provided by the American organizers, the American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation.

The cases (which were jettisoned when the show traveled to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, where it is on view till July 20) were poorly lit, inadequately alarmed for security, insufficiently shatterproof or dustproof and exceedingly ugly. The Corcoran did its best to patch things up, retrofitting the cases at a cost of about $25,000, diligently dusting the jewels and assuring the Russian Organizing Committee that museum security was Tiffany, even if the cases were Woolworths.

The jewel caper is the latest in a series of unorthodox deals struck by Russian cultural institutions with non-museum organizers who promise to generate not only international goodwill but also hard cash -- an important consideration for institutions recently deprived of Soviet-style government subsidies. But with a few more botches like this one, the Russians may finally get the idea that the new entrepreneurial impresarios are not the equals of museum professionals when it comes to exhibition expertise. For a show that marked the debut in this country of Czarist treasures from the Russian State Diamond Fund, that institution and four other lenders -- the Pavlovsk State Museum-Preserve, Tsarskoye Selo State Museum-Preserve, State Archives of the Russian Federation and Yaroslavl State Architectural and Historical Museum-Preserve -- cast their lot with operators who were politically savvy but relatively unseasoned in organizing major museum shows: Mikhail Gusman, executive director of the Moscow-based Russian Organizing Committee, whose business card (according to one Corcoran official) characterized him as "capitalist-at-large," and former Missouri Congressman James Symington, president of the Washington-based ARCCF. Organizing exhibitions "is not the sort of thing we normally engage in," Symington candidly admitted.

The Russians had threatened to whisk the jewels home after the Corcoran exhibition closed, cancelling the rest of the tour. The dispute was settled with a sweetened financial deal giving the Russians 65 percent of the show's revenues after expenses, rather than their original 50 percent share, and with the assurance that Houston's new display cases would be appropriate to their precious contents. The lenders have not yet decided whether to send the exhibition on to San Diego and Memphis, as originally planned.

But odds look good for a continued tour of the hugely popular show, consisting of approximately 200 Romanov dynasty jewels, costumes, paintings, icons and religious artifacts: It is expected to recoup expenses by the end of its Houston run, thereafter turning a profit for its lending institutions, according to Peter Marzio, director of the Houston museum. After deducting its own expenses, the Corcoran expects to pay the ARCCF more than $200,000 from admission fees, according to David Levy, its director. The Houston museum, the San Diego Museum of Art and the Memphis Brooks Museum are each to pay ARCCF a $150,000 fee for the show, as well as a share of the gate. (Houston will pay ARCCF $3 out of its $6 admission fee for the first 50,000 visitors; $4 for the next 50,000 and $5 for additional visitors over 100,000. Discounted visitors pay $3, of which $2.50 goes to ARCCF.) Symington suggests that not enough of the money funneled by his group to Gusman's has actually gone to the lending institutions; Gusman alleges that Symington's group keeps too much of the exhibition proceeds for itself.

Marzio philosophically views the Affair Romanov as a manifestation of the difficult transition between Cold War suspicion and peaceful cooperation between Russia and the U.S. "It doesn't take much to bring up the old doubts and concerns," he observed.

Emotions Run High at the High
Impressed by the popular success of its recent Olympics-inspired megashow, Atlanta's High Museum has decided to run "Rings" around its permanent collection. Like the critically panned "Rings: Five Passions in World Art," the High's newly reinstalled permanent collection is grouped not by period, culture or medium, but by concept: "Life in Art," "Reflections of Faith," "The City Seen," etc.

"The idea is to show art as a reflection of human experience," explained Ned Rifkin, the High's director, who says he and his staff will spend an hour or two a week roaming the museum's galleries to chat with visitors and "give face to the institution." The unorthodox reinstallation, which will occupy two-thirds of the museum's public exhibition space for at least two years, "shows the value of culture to people's lives," Rifkin added. "Some people call it 'dumbing down.' I think it's opening up." Well maybe, but art lovers attempting to use the museum as a resource for understanding art history will be seriously stymied by fanciful juxtapositions of Giovanni Bellini's Madonna and Child (1510) with Benny Andrews' On the Right (1972) or Robert Henri's Lady in Black Velvet (1911) with Cindy Sherman's recent photographic self-portraits.

"Rings" was organized to coincide with last summer's Olympics by J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery's former director. Its unusual curatorial format neatly pigeonholed 125 works borrowed from major museums around the world into categories illustrating one of five different emotions: love, anguish, awe, triumph and joy. This touchy-feely approach appalled the connoisseurs but was a great popular and financial success, drawing the second-highest attendance in the museum's history and netting record-breaking sales and membership revenues for the High. The museum also has high-attendance hopes for its upcoming Picasso show (Nov. 8, 1997-Feb. 15, 1998), drawn exclusively from the Museum of Modern Art's collection -- the second in a series of five annual shows called "Great Forces in XXth-Century Culture." (The first was a MOMA-sourced Matisse show; the third is to be another MOMA show, focusing on a contemporary art movement, rather than a single artist.)

Smugglers' Snuggler
Did I hear Gil Edelson, administrative vice president and counsel of the Art Dealers Association of America, rationalize art smuggling? The occasion: a recent symposium on "The Art Market: Current Legal Issues" presented by the Committee on Art Law of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. One of the topics: Sotheby's damaged reputation after a British television program aired footage of the auction house's Milan-based specialist agreeing to smuggle from Italy to England an 18th-century painting, An Old Woman with Cup by Giuseppe Nogari. Departing from his usual script as auction-house gadfly and dealer advocate, Edelson gallantly leaped to Sotheby's defense:

"I think they [Sotheby's] got a bad deal. This was a third-rate painting by a fourth- rate artist. It should have had an export license overnight without any question. The problem is that you can't get an export license even for a fourth-rate picture by a fifth-rate artist. And the result is that people do things they shouldn't do. I think the real problem is that there is not a reasonable regime for export licenses in Italy. If they had one, you might not have these situations."

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
This is a quiz. Connect each of the following three collectors -- Andrew Lloyd Webber, Carl Icahn, Bill Gates -- to the scenario that accurately describes him.

1) Recently took a group of high-powered CEOs and politicos on a private tour of the library in his new mansion, revealing an impressive collection of the papers of Napoleon, who, like this collector, is best known for his drive for world conquest.

2) Compared himself favorably to Picasso in the text accompanying the theatrical Blue Period portrait loaned to New York's recent International Fine Art Fair: "It seems appropriate that in the final years of this century, this great picture should become associated with another of the century's extraordinarily gifted talents" (to wit, the collector himself).

3) In a case of bad timing, got his "private" presale tour of Christie's recent Impressionist/modern offerings while the entire art-market press was in attendance. This reporter experienced a sudden urge to examine Bord de Seine à Argenteuil at the moment when the collector questioned his Christie's guide about the artist, Caillebotte: "Who is this? Why is it I never heard of him?" Then, upon eyeing the $500,000 to $700,000 presale estimate: "Is it worth it?"

(Correct answers: 1. Bill Gates; 2. Andrew Lloyd Webber; 3. Carl Icahn.)

Did the editorial staff of Il Giornale del'Arte break out the Chianti after the substance of their May exposé, "Leak from Hong Kong," got front-page treatment in the New York Times on May 27? Might they have been a bit more celebratory if, somewhere in its long article, the Times had credited the Italian art periodical for its scoop on the billion-dollar art drain from the soon-to-be former British colony?

Why do published accounts invariably omit one of the most likely reasons why the Reina Sofia, Madrid, refuses to lend Picasso's Guernica to the inaugural show of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain's troubled Basque region? "It's probably fear of terrorism," confided Robert Rosenblum, the Guggenheim's own curator of 20th-century art. Inspired by the horrors of the 1937 Nazi bombing of a Basque city, the much-traveled painting has now been deemed not travel-worthy by Madrid museum's conservators, who might well fret over the renowned painting's condition in surroundings where cars, buses, stores and people are periodically blown up by members of the Basque Homeland and Freedom group (ETA).

Why didn't the Greeks give Tony Blair a few weeks to find his way around 10 Downing before hitting him with renewed claims for the Elgin Marbles? And why do those who argue against repatriation as a bad precedent ignore a crucial distinction between the Acropolis marbles and other exiled artworks: Not only are the sculptural friezes among the world's great masterpieces, but they constitute a single work of art, meant to be seen together in proper sequence, as envisioned in the planned new Acropolis Museum in Athens.

Correct answers to be broadcast after the BMW promo at the end of the next installment of Robert Hughes' docudrama on PBS. Winners get free copies of the May Il Giornale del'Arte along with passes to the Venice Biennale.

LEE ROSENBAUM is contributing editor of Art in America magazine and writes frequently for the Wall Street Journal "Leisure & Arts" page. She is author of The Complete Guide to Collecting Art (Knopf).