23. COLLECTING MANIA
No one else in the medieval department saw the opportunity when Rorimer announced that, "Dr. Erich Steingraeber, a specialist of medieval art and forgeries from the great Bayerisches National Museum in Munich, will be here for six months to study everything in both medieval departments with an eye to rooting out forgeries and overly restored pieces. He will report to me."
I made it my first order of business to latch on to the guy. If he lived up to the advance billing I could pick his brain and would thus would add the fillip to my art education. I manipulated him and froze him out of most contacts with my colleagues. It was unspeakably selfish of me, but I turned out to be right. Because what I learned from Erich Steingraeber helped me immeasurably in my upward path.
The "Stein," as Nancy called him, was a thirty-five-year-old trim, highly amusing man who spoke good English with a Bavarian accent. He had a nervous tick that was to end virtually every sentence with the German phrase, "Nicht Wahr?" -- "Isn't it so?"
Being a pure connoisseur, he had a healthy disdain for art historical theory -- the finding of unknown Mithra bibles and manuscript recensions -- and cut right to the object itself. Although he was deeply grounded in art history, he tended to look askance at book learning.
We became close friends and he came to our Village house for many a dinner. He was a bit disconcerted by Nancy, who had become a slim, very sexy thirty-year-old and dressed to show it. Erich once complained to one of my medieval department mates of Nancy's mini-skirts. I think he was afraid of her. Although his stipend called for more luxurious digs, he lived in the YMCA at 63rd Street on the West side in order to save money. One late night when Erich and I did some pub-crawling near our house and got snozzled, he told me the story of how he had saved his life during the war.
On his eighteenth birthday he had been thrown into the Wehrmacht -- "everybody had to go in." He had been sent to the Russian front. He was badly wounded and, luckily, made it back to a hospital in Germany. He became friendly with his nurse and made a compact with her. If she would open his wound every day and make it difficult for him to heal, then he would marry her after the war. He explained he planned to become a professor in art history, was bright and would succeed. She did the grisly job and they got married, a life-saving marriage of convenience for him.
He was a near failure in the University. "I fell asleep at the dull lectures which were all theoretical stuff. All I wanted to do was to get my hands on the objects themselves, which these lecturers never seemed to have done."
Together we studied every one of the thousands of works of art in the medieval department and The Cloisters. Once we'd done that we got permission to open cases in the Western European Arts department and, after hours, we'd bring out tables covered with green felt and examine dozens of works. We spent hours in the Paintings Department as well for Erich was a universal connoisseur.
He'd approach a work of art like a hawk circling its prey. Erich would scrutinize the piece for several minutes, saying nothing, his eyes darting over every inch of it; then with a sure motion he'd seize it. He'd hold whatever it was far from his eyes and then bring it close, turning it completely around, upending the thing, glancing several times at its bottom and interior. He'd stare at it without comment. Eventually, words would slip from his thin line of a mouth in a litany, gathering speed: "Beautiful," "Grand," "Spezial, nicht wahr?"
He'd replace the work on the table, turn to me, eyes glowing with delight and say, "Tom, excellent piece! Condition perfect, better than the ones in Dresden, Berlin, the Cluny and Cleveland. A truly surprising example of brown enamel, nicht wahr?" And he'd launch into a learned and intriguing description of how the unusual substance of "brown enamel" had been manufactured during the Middle Ages, complete with statistics on the temperatures required in the oven to fire and produce the enamel which had a lovely matte brown hue like burnished ancient gold.
He never held back what he thought of a work of art and pointed out to Rorimer those he believed were fakes, even if it were a recent Rorimer acquisition. One, thankfully not acquired by Rorimer, was a gem of The Cloisters, a lovely little reliquary of the thirteenth century that had been given to the museum by one of its most generous benefactors, George Blumenthal, who had been entranced by medieval reliquaries and fine emeralds. This reliquary was in the shape of a svelte silver index finger wearing a ring with a sizable emerald set upon a circular mount with an inscription in niello, a kind of striking black enamel, and supported by a thin-legged tripod. The relic was supposedly contained inside the unusual receptacle. The thing had been published in art historical books and periodicals for decades and was considered the finest of finger reliquaries.
Steingraeber went through his examination dance, set the finger on the table and barked, "Fake!"
"Come on!" I protested, knowing how important the piece was to the museum.
"See these three tiny stamps on this leg?"
"I’ve been told they're makers' marks," I said.
"Sure, but not of the thirteenth century. This particular type of three marks set together is typical of French eighteenth century gold workers' marks."
"Added later, perhaps?" I asked haltingly.
"Here, take your glass. See, they are not stamped, but cast into the silver."
"Erich, one little deficiency. . . ."
"Here's another, ah, ‘little deficiency,’ Tom. Try to remove the ring."
"I can't, it's part of the silver making up the finger."
"Which means that the forger probably made it from photos. Because on all other genuine medieval finger reliquaries the ring can be removed. That's because the donor, moved by the religious nature of the saint's relic, slipped a ring off his finger and put it on the reliquary to honor the memory of the Saint. Nicht wahr? And, as for this 'saint,' just who is it?"
"We always assumed that the name is on this niello inscription surrounding the circular base. Though I admit we've never been able to decipher the name of the saint."
He took out a penknife and to my distress plucked out the tiniest of slivers of the niello.
It was a disgusting oily tar. "I guess it's not niello," I said, resigned. "But don't tell me that huge emerald is also. . . ?"
"Genuine. As you told me George Blumenthal collected reliquaries and appreciated emeralds, well, this fake was specially tailored for his desires -- typical, nicht wahr?"
He visited galleries with me and helped me judge the level of quality and condition of possible purchases. As the years went by I met him all over Europe and we'd scour the dealers from Madrid and Barcelona to Paris, Munich and Rome together. Erich was an amusingly disorganized fellow and impervious to time. He thought nothing of dining at midnight and then having a few drinks until three in the morning. On our trips away from home he would show up with a stunning young woman, his assistant or secretary. Of course, I'd say nothing.
Erich found out that Georges Wildenstein owned a splendid silver cross of the early thirteenth century decorated with square plaques at the ends engraved with images various saints by a renowned master by the name of Hugo d'Oignies. Hugo d'Oignies was a Belgian who had established a goldsmith's shop in Namur and his works were known for the delicacy of the drawing style and the vigor of the characters depicted.
"Utterly authentic, nicht wahr? Maybe you should buy it."
This cross was said to reside in Mr. Georges' chapel in his residence adjacent to the gallery. Which was, I thought, an imaginative way to justify the outrageously high price of $250,000. I couldn't quite imagine Wildenstein, the most eminent Jewish art dealer on earth, praying before it every day. After some haggling with Louis Goldenberg, I got the price down to $150,000 and showed the treasure to my colleagues and to Rorimer, who seemed eager to buy it.
Peg Freeman presented it to the acquisition committee and was flattened. "We lost it. James said he's changed his mind."
Losing that unique silver cross was a real blow. There's an adage among collectors that I subscribe to: you always remember the ones that got away.
In my curatorial career I had more winners than ones that got away. One Saturday I happened to enter the O'Reilly auction house and saw to my amazement a three-foot-high Crucifixion scene exquisitely carved in high relief from linden wood. There was a cast of dozens -- Christ on the cross flanked by the good and bad thieves, Roman Centurions and a host of soldiers and Mary and John at the foot of the cross all presented in the most impeccably realistic style. It was German, late 15th century, in super condition and I thought perhaps the work of a master known by the name Hans Wydyz. The estimate was around $3,000. I had to have it.
I called Rorimer for permission to bid, but he'd gone to Europe. Determined not to lose the lovely Crucifixion, I called a young dealer in medieval art, Edward Lubin, told him about the piece and asked him to meet me at O'Reilly's. He came and drooled over it. "What's the deal, Tom?"
I explained I had no one to turn to for money and asked him to bid on behalf of the Cloisters at a ten percent commission. In the unlikely chance that Rorimer didn’t like it Lubin could always sell it to some museum or private collector for a handsome profit. He agreed
He won it at a little over three thousand. Then he reneged on the deal, arguing that since I had neither authorization nor the funds to back up his winning bid, he'd have to ask ten thousand. I hit him hard about how pretty damned stupid he'd have felt if I hadn't told him about it and on Monday morning he had found out that his rival, Rosenberg & Stiebel, had secured a magnificent late Gothic German sculpture for fucking nothing."
I was livid and kept attacking him, cursing him roundly for his perfidy. I was truly outrageous and vile. But it worked. He was frightened at my rage, backed off and we cut the deal at five thousand.
When Rorimer returned I told him what had happened. He glanced at the Crucifixion and said, "Bought!" It resides near the Treasury in The Cloisters still today, attributed to Hans Wydyz.
At another auction at Christie's in London we bought at my recommendation a twelfth-century champleve enamel plaque depicting the Pentecost, which was clearly a mate to another plaque in the museum given by J. P. Morgan in 1914, showing the Baptism. Champleve enamel is a technique where the enamels of various colors are cooked into the already scooped-out places on a bronze plaque and then fired. The result is a wondrous rainbow coloration given special mystery by being back lighted by the gleaming bronze-gilt bed. There's a hint of gold within every color.
All scholars agreed that the Pentecost was by the hand of the best champleve enameller ever, Godefroid de Claire, who had a workshop in the Meuse valley. Plaques by Godefroid were the rarest of the rare. We won the piece with a $95,000 bid, beating the British Museum. The museum then blocked the export and sent the issue to the British Board of Trade. The rule is that if a British institution blocks export, they have to raise the money to equal the bid. The winner can appeal to a session of the Board.
Rorimer thought we'd lose the appeal, so why bother? I countered that we actually had a very strong argument, the very one the British had used a year before to block the Metropolitan's purchase of a drawing by Raphael of the Deposition. In that case we had argued that since the British Museum had six drawings in the Raphael series, they had plenty and so the Met deserved the one. The British Museum argued back that having the whole chain, getting another link was vital for scholarship. The Board of Trade agreed.
"Let's turn their argument right back at them," I suggested. "Hell, we already have the Baptism, they have nothing, so for us to get the only other surviving plaque in this chain is as vital as their Raphael."
We prevailed and Rorimer complimented me, saying that he had thought I was daft when I suggested the ploy.
In my collecting career I had a winning record against the British Board of Trade. Later on I bought an enormous Flemish bronze pulpit supported by a magnificent eagle, the symbol of Saint John, which the Victoria and Albert Museum blocked. I had agreed to pay $100,000 for it from a small church in England.
When I heard that the V&A had blocked its export, I confronted the vicar of the church and told him I wanted to bargain over the price.
"But you have already agreed to one hundred thousand," he stammered in confusion.
"Sorry, but I will pay not a farthing over one hundred and fifty thousand," I said in my best, whining, haggle-voice.
"Well, I simply don't know," he replied, beginning to get it.
"Okay, my final offer, one hundred and seventy-five thousand."
The Victoria and Albert bowed out.
Its director, John Pope-Hennessy, who had been so cordial to Nancy and me when we visited James Holderbaum that year in Italy, wasn't miffed in the slightest. He told me he thought the gimmick very clever.
One day Pope-Hennessy called and tipped me off that a fine linden wood work by Tilmann Riemenschneider was about to come on the market. It was a small sculpture measuring no more than two feet wide by eighteen inches high but the style was of the master's best. A woman had brought it in one day when the Victorian and Albert was having one of its public days when anyone could bring works in for authentication and evaluation. She didn't have any idea what it was and wanted to sell it. Would the V&A be interested?
John the Pope had recognized what it was instantly and had told her that she would do far better if she took it to Sotheby's and allowed that auction house to publicize it. He called me about it. We bought it for a decent price and after that I had an even higher opinion of Sir John.
My eye kept spotting things that no one else did. A dealer in Paris had displayed for years a reliquary bust of the early 15th century of a female saint coated with delicately painted plaster. The first time I saw it, I noticed that the florid, quite naturalistic face of the early 15th century didn’t jibe with the hair, which seemed typical late 13th century. On a hunch I bought the object, getting a fat discount. Once I had it back in the museum, I was able to open the top of the head and make a clay cast of the interior of the face. It turned out to be a sensational 13th century piece which had been updated a century and a half later. Two for the price of one.
Harry Sperling came back into my life and offered me the entire Italian Romanesque limestone doorway of the twelfth century. This was a singular opportunity for The Cloisters to acquire the rarest bird of all, a piece of Romanesque architectural decoration. That’s what the place was all about.
The door was said to be by the Italian master Biduino and consisted of an arch over a lintel carved with The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem. The jambs, actually an ancient Roman sarcophagus cut in half and reused, depicted the Annunciation and the Visitation on the right side and Saint Leonardo freeing a prisoner on the left. The style was the classicizing one typical of the works of the master, who had carried on the Tuscan classical revival of the early 12th century sparked by Nicola Pisano. The portal was from Saint Leonardo al Frigido, a small town east of Lucca. In the 19th century the door had been purchased by a Russian aristocratic family, the Benkendorff-Shouvaloffs, and had been re-erected in their villa in Nizza. In recent times a developer had gotten hold of the property and the doorway was lying on its back in the weeds about to be crunched by bulldozers. "Cheap at $50,000," Harry told me.
I showed the photographs to Rorimer and he said, "Get on it right away."
To show that I'd become a mature and responsible curator, I decided not to rush over myself to examine the work but to save some cash and ask Sperling to take a look -- he was in Cannes at the time. It was my thirtieth birthday and I was sitting in my tub luxuriating in the steaming water and drinking a giant old Fashioned my wife had just handed me. The doorbell rang and she came back with a telegram. It was from Sperling, "Don't bother to come, the stones are worn and not in good shape."
I sank beneath the waters, my drink mixing with the bath water. I moaned, "God, I'm thirty and haven't accomplished a fucking thing -- hell, at thirty Alexander the Great had conquered the whole world."
That spring I was wandering around Europe searching for medieval goodies when I was invited by Papa and Amelia Bell to join them in Opiot for a few days. It was not far from Nice and one day I borrowed their car and asked around for the old Benkendorf-Shouvaloff property. I stopped for directions at a hair salon where to my amazement I spotted on a shelf a 12th century head about six inches high in the same style as the heads on the lintel of that Biduino door. It was in decent condition.
I had the complete hairdo and after handing over a large tip asked, "How much for that old thing?" I bought it for the equivalent of two hundred bucks.
The site had been abandoned and the bulldozer I saw parked there hadn't been started in months. I found the pieces of the Biduino door in a weed patch. Again to my amazement, I found myself looking down on reliefs that were worn but in superior condition considering they were eight hundred years old. That head fit perfectly, too. Sperling made the deal in a few days.
"How am I supposed to get these heavy things out of France?" Sperling complained. "I know I'm the guy who can get anything from anywhere to anywhere, but this is big."
Thinking the exportation problem over I had one of my quick inspirations. There was no need to apply to the French for an export permit because, technically, the stones had never left Italy. The city of Nice, or, more properly, Nizza, had left Italy, having been ceded to France after the Treaty of Versailles. By God, if the Alpes-Maritimes Beaux Arts Commission didn't buy the argument! Needless to say, I didn't burden the Italian officials for an export license and the stones were transported by slow boat to The Cloisters where they can be seen in the Fuentiduena Apse.
The moral to the Biduino portal story is not to be "responsible" or "mature" -- I should have gone at once to Nice when I’d first heard about the piece.
Not too long after I had seized the Biduino door, I spotted in the Blumka Gallery on 57th street, a gallery rich in medieval art, a round marble holy water font carved with figures identical in style to the figures in Biduino’s portal. Leopold Blumka was the crustiest of men and in my first year at the Met he had once thrown me out of his shop for being so junior in rank. I got back at that slight by bargaining him down on the font. It had been in his inventory for decades. It cost a thousand bucks. When the Biduino door was installed I invited him and his darling, intelligent, sweet wife, Ruth, to the unveiling and he pretended to choke with rage to see his font standing to the left of the portal. That began a wary and profitable friendship with Ruth Blumka that lasted until her death many years later.
Rorimer congratulated me on the deals and then his voice became gloomy and he said, "Actually, I'm damned jealous of you. Here I am suffering through the daily agonies of running this complex museum with all the money raising and with the ticklish trustees and the prima donna staff and you are out there gallivanting around Europe picking up treasures of the high Romanesque for nothing. Someday when you're at my desk, you won't have so much fun." Now, what the hell did that mean, I wondered.
This is chapter 23 of Artful Tom, A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.