24. GETTING RESTLESS
As a curator I bought works that today would be impossible under the UNESCO Treaty forbidding the acquisition of pieces with no solid pedigree. In the Sixties I hardly gave a thought to provenance or national laws against exportation. In fact I loved dealing with illicit works of art.
Besides Harry Sperling another of my favorite dealer-smugglers was John J. Klejman. He and his wife owned an elegant gallery on Madison Avenue and 76th Street opposite the swank Carlyle Hotel, devoted to antiquities, both Greek and Roman and Byzantine. The smuggled goods came primarily from Syria and Lebanon,
The very first acquisition in my collecting career came from John Klejman. It was an early Byzantine bronze weight depicting Athena, costing just under a thousand dollars. Since I had haggled furiously for it, I’d made a favorable impression upon him and from then on he would telephone me with the latest thrillers he thought might interest me. One was a lovely marble bust of a Byzantine noblewoman smuggled out of Syria dating to the 6th century. To me she was as beautiful as Empress Theodora in San Vitale. The bust, at $75,000, was expensive for those days, but Rorimer was dazzled by it. It was purchased with Cloisters funds but displayed at the main museum where it is still today. In my collecting greed I soon convinced Rorimer to use acquisition funds normally restricted to The Cloisters to purchase works that belonged downtown where the early Christian and Byzantine material was shown.
Rorimer was utterly unimpressed by a series of late 3rd century early Christian marble sculptures about a foot and a half tall with scenes from the life of Jonah, the Good Shepherd and several pairs of portrait busts of a man and wife from a tomb Klejman proudly told me had been pillaged in the heart of Antioch. They were superior to any early Christian marbles found thus far and getting them would have put us on the early Christian map. I exhausted myself trying to persuade my boss that they were for us, but he declined and today they form the centerpiece of fabulous early medieval works at the Cleveland Museum. Under the circumstances I was not unhappy that my fiercest competitor got hold of the treasures.
Another time, a chap had come to the information desk in the Great Hall lugging a cardboard box that he said contained a very early Christian marble head. The staff member on duty, knowing that I was the one in the entire museum who would look at any stray offer, called me. In my office the fellow laid in front of me a splendid life-sized head of a bearded, bald man with large, staring eyes. I immediately dated it to the 3rd or early 4th century A.D. and speculated it was a saint, possibly St. Paul. Where the hell had he dredged up such a rarity? He was a G.I. who had returned to Greece after the war to marry his sweetheart and had settled on the family farm near Corinth. He’d found the head in a well. Would I think of $3,500? Dirt cheap! I wanted it badly not only because of its rarity but also because of its raw power. Objects like it numbered in the half dozen.
I sent it at once up to Rorimer who said he liked it but would leave its acquisition up to the Operating Administrator, Joe Noble. He proclaimed it a fake. Noble, if you recall, was the guy who had unmasked the Etruscan Warrior and who had taken a dislike to me. What Noble knew about early Byzantine art was miniscule -- he turned it down through personal pique. Once I heard I could not have it, I called the curator at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and he bought the stunning portrait.
Klejman asked me to come to his gallery one evening to show me the "greatest piece of Greek art found in the past half century." He guided me to his cellar where on a pedestal, surrounded by floodlights, was a life-sized Greek bronze of a handsome young athlete dating to the 4th century B. C. It had clearly been found in the sea since some barnacles still clung to its surface. Original Greek bronzes of the Hellenistic period are exceedingly rare.
"Hey, von Bothmer and Rorimer have to see this," I cried out. But Klejman said, "It is already placed. The President has fallen in love with it. He comes to my place whenever he’s staying across the street at the Carlyle. He plans to raise the money for the National Gallery to acquire it."
That was shortly before Kennedy’s assassination. Afterwards the breathtaking statue disappeared. It’ll show up on the art market sometime, no doubt with an invented pedigree -- "from the collection of an East German businessman who acquired it just after the war," or some such crap.
The most important acquisition of my career, which is possibly the single most important acquisition of medieval art ever made for any art museum either in America or in Europe, came about because of my knowledge of forgeries and my aptitude for inductive reasoning -- and a stroke of luck. This was the walrus ivory cross known today as The Cloisters Cross, to me, the Bury St. Edmunds cross. It is the most beautiful and expressive English Romanesque work of art to have survived. The cross, carved in 1156 from walrus ivory by master Hugo of Bury St. Edmunds, one of the world’s gifted sculptors, is two feet high and fourteen inches wide and is carved with ninety-eight diminutive figures and inscribed with ninety-two inscriptions in Latin and Greek describing and illustrating the events from the Crucifixion until the Resurrection. The figures are singularly dramatic. They lunge and twist. They strut and posture. They communicate with each other using expressive body language. Nothing else in England or on the Continent comes close to the power, drama and beauty of The Cloisters ivory cross.
I have written two tell-all books about my unorthodox ways of winning the cross away from my competition, the British Museum. One is King of The Confessors, published in 1981. The second is a re-appraisal by the same name I wrote in 2001 after the British government lifted the secrecy restrictions on the British Museum archives and I could see what my admirable competitors at that estimable institution had done in our wild race to the finish line. (They thought of me as "something of an unprincipled pirate"). For the second edition, I also received valuable material about the background of the mysterious owner of the cross, a certain Ante Topic-Mimara Matutin, a.k.a., the Count de Ina and numerous other monikers. Topic, I learned, was a thief, a murderer, a Communist spy, an art forger, a con man and a protean collector of fakes. The re-appraisal is available only on the Internet (from www.Cybereditions.com) and in the e-book section the New York Public Library in PDF format with lots of lovely photographs. There’s also an extensive article on the Bury St. Edmunds cross I wrote for Artnet Magazine
I learned about the cross from my predecessor at The Cloisters, Richard Randall. He came to our apartment for dinner and when he heard my moans about losing Wildenstein’s fabulous silver cross created by Hugo d’Oignies, he spun a tale about a "great" ivory cross in the possession of a man who was "Yugoslav by birth, lives in Tangier, Morocco, and keeps his art in a bank vault in Switzerland." The only problem with it was that it was the best -- or worst -- forgery he’d ever seen.
Why fake, I asked? Because the dumb forger had inscribed the tablet of the head of the crucified Christ not "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews," as the Bible had it, but "King of the Confessors." Ridiculous.
Hours later in the middle of the night I shot bolt upright realizing that the word, "Confessors," far from being a sign of fakery, was the virtual proof that the cross was authentic. No forger would have dared to change the biblical "King of the Jews."
I tracked down the mysterious owner and finally got to see his cross in his bank vault three stories down in the Unione de Banques Suisses in Zurich. In the hundredth of a second I knew the cross was real even though the bronze Christ Topic-Mimara had affixed to it was phony as were virtually all of his other phony "masterpieces." The price he was asking was in the stratospheric -- $600,000 -- the highest amount ever asked for a medieval work (then and now).
After a series of manipulations, which included my risking my career and reputation by breaking into a case in the Bargello museum in Florence to study a related ivory, I was able to get Topic-Mimara to agree to sell it to The Cloisters and, even harder, obtain Rorimer’s approval to free up the funds. Jim allowed me to make the presentation to the Acquisitions Committee -- my first -- and I did so with flair. I had The Cloisters carpenter make a wooden armature on which he glued life-sized black and white photographs. At the climax of my pitch, I whipped off a black cloth that shrouded my model and showed the cross to an impressed committee.
The truth is that The Cloisters had no right to purchase the wonderful work. Topic-Mimara favored the British Museum. He did everything he could to thwart my desire to acquire it. He never allowed me to have a set of photographs to study it properly. A full year before I showed up in his vault he had given the British team a set of life-sized photos. I had taken some with a spy camera in the vault when he ducked out for a short time but they were of little use for scholarly comparisons.
Although esthetically gorgeous, I discovered fairly early on that the message of the cross was harsh, being a brutal condemnation of the Jews. One of the large Latin inscriptions (in heavily abbreviated 12th century writing) on the front says, "Just as Ham laughed at the shameful nakedness of his father, the Jews laugh at the agony of the dying God," and another states, "Earth trembles, Death is conquered and bewails, from the opening graves life surges forth and Synagogue collapses after vain and stupid effort." Nothing in Christian art or, in fact, Christian writings match this vehemence. And Christian writings from the gospel of John on are filled with vicious anti-Jewish statements.
I have come to believe that the Metropolitan ought to give the cross to the British Museum on an indefinite loan in exchange for something equal in value and beauty. The British Museum had screwed up in their chase for the cross and their curatorial team was derelict in its duty. The curator in charge of the purchase, Ruppert Bruce-Mitford, and his assistant Peter Lasko, plus the committee of scholars they formed to work with them didn’t discover, as I did when I finally got the photos, that the cross is a treasure "carved in incomparable fashion by Master Hugo," the genius of Bury St. Edmunds who is praised lavishly in the monastery chronicles for his miraculous works.
The British government raised all the money but hesitated to commit at the last moment because they were worried that the oddball collector would never tell them where he had found the object. I didn’t much care. I argued that since Topic-Mimara’s wife was about to publish an article in an international art journal in which she would state that Topic had been the owner since before the war meant there were no provenance problems. (From what I learned about Topic for the second edition of the book, he may have easily have murdered his source).
I also figured the evidence pointing so powerfully to Master Hugo of Bury St. Edmunds would have squelched any other country’s claim to the incomparable cross.
It’s a pity that the cross has never even been loaned to the British Museum. It was sent to Italy for a spell and for several years it was loaned to Oslo where its figure of Christ resides. It is high time that the single most important English work of art to have survived time is exhibited in its finest, if fustiest, museum.
As soon as the golden ivory cross entered the Metropolitan Museum it suffered two near catastrophes that almost destroyed it. Since the safe in the Medieval department was too small for the two-foot-high work of art even when the cross was taken down into its three parts, it was stored in the capacious walk-in safe in the Western European Arts department.
In 1963 during the time when the Mona Lisa was on view in the Medieval Hall, set up proudly on a special pedestal in the central gate of the lofty choir screen from Valladolid, guarded by two Marines in dress blues, I came to work a little before nine, dashed to the Western European Arts to study my gorgeous acquisition. Only to find that Murray Pease, the head of the conservation studio and his assistant Kate Lefferts, along with the officials from the Louvre in charge of the Leonardo portrait, were rushing around with towels.
The security for the Mona Lisa was novel. The painting was set on an easel in the center of the storeroom with lights trained on it. Guards, taking shifts through the night, watched a black and white TV monitor outside the storeroom proper. No one ever discovered why but sometime during the night one of the fire sprinklers in the ceiling broke its glass ampoule and the masterpiece of painting and the masterwork of ivory carving had both been gently rained upon.
It took me a minute to realize that the cross was moist but undamaged. The Mona Lisa, according to the Louvre official, was okay too. He told me that the thick glass covering it had acted like an effective "impermeable," a handy dandy raincoat. The rainstorm was never mentioned to the outside world.
I decided to take off for Great Britain to pore through Bury St. Edmunds documents in various libraries. I noticed that in Lambeth palace there was an English ivory cross of the late twelfth century and I wanted to know if it did or did not belong to "my" cross. I had Murray Pease make a plaster cast of the bottom of the cross where a Christ figure had been attached and planned to take it to Lambeth palace for a physical test. The morning I arrived in the conservation studio both Pease and Kate Lefferts looked like they’d been hit by a bus. The bottom shaft of the cross had turned bilious green. The heat from the casting process had softened the green waxy paint in the large inscription and had, I thought, fatally discolored the shaft.
Convinced that my acquisition triumph was ruined for all time, the next morning I wrote out a letter of resignation and was about the take it by hand to James Rorimer’s office when the phone rang. It was Kate Lefferts. "We’ve saved it!" she cried out. I raced to the conservation studio and there, to my astonishment, I gazed upon the pristine lower shaft. The green had vanished, except in the letters of the inscription where the color belonged. Murray Pease had figured out what to do. He had cut tin foil in such a way to cover up the letters of the inscription and had bathed the exposed green walrus ivory all night with a battery of ultra-violet lamps. He knew that ivory when placed in direct sunlight always turned a lighter white.
My shining career was saved.
While I was whipping through thousands of photographs seeking parallels to the singular wet-drapery style of the ivory cross and finding only three works of art that looked very much like it, all made by Master Hugo, a brilliant painter and carver who worked at Bury Saint Edmunds, I happened to stop in at a gallery I loved, Piero Tozzi’s. He was a peppery and sage Italian dealer who had great stuff which he at times seemed reluctant to part with. I’d stop by every two weeks or so for conversation and a Marsala al Ouvo.
He was about to close his huge, ancient box safe -- the kind decorated with swirls of painted gold ormolu -- when I spotted in a small tray an inch by an inch and a quarter gold object with a tiny figure of a woman incised on it. From the sinuous "wet" drapery I knew even from ten feet away it had to be English, late 12th century. It was identical to the draperies I had been looking at for weeks.
I asked to see it and it was an empty locket with its crystal gouged out. The interior of the pendant was empty. Highly abbreviated Latin inscriptions appeared on the borders of the thing. It was on the back where the beautiful woman was incised. She wore a crown and before her an archbishop kneeled offering her something to her with his hands held out in supplication. The Queen was receiving whatever it was with compassion and grace.
This is chapter 24 of Artful Tom, A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.