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ARTFUL TOM, A MEMOIR
by Thomas Hoving
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22. MISTER CURATOR

I dashed up the curatorial ladder of the medieval department and the Cloisters from the lowliest position in the museum to full curator in charge in six years and had the time of my life.

As I saw it, I was young, good-looking, my wife was vibrant and beautiful, our daughter was priceless and I was getting close to the top of my art intellectual powers. That knack of mine to see instantly relationships between works of art had never been sharper.

After a week in the medieval department I set my goal to become the curator of the department and after that the director of the museum. This was literally the first plan I had ever made in my life; before everything had just bumped into me.

I dedicated myself to acquiring, for collecting was where the action was. I haunted the dealers in New York -- back then there were half a dozen superior sources for the field -- and pored through every art magazine, checking out the ads and articles for things to buy.

The people in the department were friendly, bright, dedicated and, thankfully, unambitious.

The head of the Cloisters was Margaret B. "Peg" Freeman, a spinster in her early 60s who had been educational leader under Rorimer when he had built and run the place. She was a punctilious overseer -- one of her areas of expertise was the famous Herb Garden and under her that part of the “museum of ambiance” never looked better. She was a specialist in textiles and was a gifted writer as well. Her publications tended towards the popular side, which I appreciated since I was all for getting art across to the broadest possible public.

The Cloisters was the brainchild of Jim Rorimer's. He had persuaded philanthropist John Rockefeller Jr. to buy several fine medieval art collections, build and endow a new medieval museum in Fort Tryon Park at the northern tip of Manhattan with the then astounding sum of ten million dollars. That endowment had grown handsomely owing to sage investment policies. By 1959 the annual income for acquisitions alone was around $800,000, more than the entire income for purchases of most American museums, including the Met itself. The building was designed to look like a medieval monastery with a central tower of five stories patterned after a tower in Carcassone. The Cloisters incorporated the parts of a number of French and Spanish medieval cloisters and churches and was, according to one influential French art critic, "the most perfect musée d'ambiance ever conceived."

The collection was fabulous. The stunners ranged from the 6th century A.D. Syrian silver "Antioch Chalice" to the entire 12th century cloister in pink and white marble from San Michel-de-Cuxa in the Pyrenees, to the incomparable seven Unicorn tapestries of the early 16th century and to the gem-like triptych of the Annunciation, the so-called Merode altarpiece by Robert Campin. The most recent acquisition was the entire apse of a de-consecrated church of the 12th century from the town of Fuentiduena in the province of Segovia, known by us as the “Spanish Apse.” Rorimer had negotiated an "indefinite exchange loan" of the soaring apse for a series of Spanish Romanesque wall paintings The Cloisters had bought years before.

The medieval department downtown was headed by associate curator William Forsyth, a genial and dedicated scholar who’d been working for decades on a series of French carved tombs of the fifteenth century. Bill had an excellent eye but, oddly, wasn't interested in much outside of his field of Burgundian sculpture. Under Bill was assistant curator Carmen Gomez-Moreno, a handsome and gifted art historian who was the daughter of the legendary Spanish art historian Don Manuel Gomez-Moreno. He, at ninety years of age, began to write the 24-volume history of Spanish painting -- which he completed. The rumor was that Carmen had been offered the plum job in order to keep Don Manuel happy about the "indefinite loan" of the Fuentiduena apse. Truth was, however, that Rorimer had met Carmen in Spain when he was negotiating for the apse and had been so impressed that he hired her at once. She was also interested in acquisitions but had become frustrated because Rorimer seemed to veto her choices.

I had the luckiest of breaks in my first month in the medieval department.

Rorimer handed me a black-and-white photograph of an Annunciation in marble accented by jet-black inlays and told me to research it as a possible acquisition. I had gotten into the habit of writing down the first words to rush into my mind when I saw a work of art and I remember writing down: "12th. Lima bean faces stylistic key. Florence?" One of his favorite dealers, Harry Sperling, who was known to have the list of Europe’s most efficient art smugglers, had sent the photograph, writing that he knew little about Romanesque stuff but that the Annunciation was supposed to be Italian and was priced at a “mere” $50,000. Fifty thousand for a medieval work was immense.

I showed the photo to Forsyth who said it looked like a fake, patterned after an ivory carving. Fake? Ridiculous, I thought, for it was too exotic and not pretty enough for a fake. I studied it for a couple of days and then, not getting anywhere with my casual research, sent Sperling a standard note turning it down.

Yet, I couldn’t get the thing out of my mind. I closeted myself for days in the museum library until long after closing, seeking every book or periodical on Italian Romanesque sculpture the library had to see if I could find parallels to the style of the work. I had developed my own technique of pinning down a style. I’d go through dozens of photos very quickly so as not to get bogged down in too much detail, looking for the sudden, flashing stylistic comparison. In time, for the Annunciation, I had set aside five photos out of hundreds. The ones I set aside were all from Tuscany and dated to the 12th or early 13th centuries. Yet, nothing was so close as to be the connection.

I got out more books and periodicals focusing in on Florence and started over again. Early one the morning I hit it.

It was in a footnote of an article on a Romanesque pulpit in San Miniato al Monte and mentioned a little-known 12th century pulpit in Arcetri, a suburb near Florence, published in an article in an obscure periodical by the scholar Odoardo Giglioli. The museum had that very periodical. I opened to the page and there it was, a slightly out-of-focus photo showing a pulpit embedded into the wall decorated with six square marble plaques depicting the life of Christ. The Annunciation was missing. The pulpit had once adorned the choir of San Piero Scheraggio, which had been demolished when the Uffizi was built over it. The pieces of the pulpit had eventually been moved to Arcetri in the 18th century.

The style of the figures, architecture and that distinctive black inlay of the Sperling piece were identical to the ones in Arcetri. I saw the same draperies, same lima-bean faces, the same almond eyes and the same egg-and-dart arches in the architecture. I cabled Sperling to disregard my letter of declination and to hold the piece for us. I asked for precise measurements. They came back in a day and, to my delight, the Annunciation was identical in size to the other six. It was one of the happiest moments in my life.

What I couldn’t figure out was where the Annunciation had fit in to the Arcetri pulpit. There seemed to be no room since there were two panels on the front and two on each side. One entered the pulpit through a staircase in the wall. There was no room for a seventh panel. Had the artist or his patron rejected the Annunciation? Unlikely. But where the hell did it go?

I asked Sperling where this Annunciation was. "I saw the thing propped up against a wrecked Fiat 600 in a garage in Genoa." His reply got my blood fizzling.

"How will it get it out of Italy?" I asked.

"That's my specialty," Sperling replied.

And that's when I began my distinguished career of smuggling great works of art out of Europe.

Rorimer was impressed, especially because he'd learned that my colleagues had spurned the piece.

"I'm promoting you to assistant curator and you and Nancy will join us -- if you can -- on a tour of France, Spain and Italy for a month this summer and then you and I will go to this garage in Genoa and take a look at the relief."

We arrived in Paris in June, 1960, having left the baby with Nancy's cousins. Nancy would come for two weeks and I'd continue on with Rorimer for another two. Throughout Europe Rorimer introduced me to key art dealers and museum folks. The trip was madcap and entertaining. I found Mrs. Rorimer, "Kay," funny and sympathetic. I suspect she found me a bit dark; for she once asked me what my philosophy of life was and I retorted, "Hope for the best and expect the worst." She thought the remark was the ultimate of cynicism. It isn’t, of course, and I have lived by it my whole life. The two teenaged Rorimer's, Louis and Ann, were a pair of explosive enthusiasts. As was Jim.

He had shipped over a Chevrolet station wagon with an abundant luggage rack and we all squeezed in. The plan was to follow the ancient pilgrimage route from Paris to Santiago de Compostela and on to Madrid. Nancy would return while Jim, Kay, Louis, Ann and I would stop on the Costa Brava for a few days. Then Jim and I would drive to Italy through Torino and then Genova to scope out the Annunciation relief in Genoa and back up to Paris.

We had some antic escapades. Once, trapped in a tour group with a chattering guide in some Chateau in the Loire, Jim cried out, "C’est une farce typique du pays,” and led us to a window where we all scrambled out of the boring tour. From then on the words became our refrain for all things nutty and disorganized.

In Salamanca's great Cathedral, Jim and I argued over the authenticity of an enameled cross on an altar and to see who was right we both climbed up on the sacred platform to make the judgment, to the dismay of a passing priest. I was right; it was authentic and Jim beamed.

We had a marvelous time in Santiago and stayed in the oldest hotel in Spain, the Hostal Dos Reis Catolicos in the Plaza do Obradoiro, which had opened in 1499. It was luxurious beyond imagining -- it even had its own 17th century bowling alley. We managed to see the awesome swinging of the giant silver censer in the Cathedral on Saint James' day. The flight of the censer was impelled by ropes pulled by ten red-robed acolytes -- five on each side of the transept -- and soon it was soaring to the vaults hundreds of feet above and then pulled down with frightening speed and up again, spewing smoke and occasional bursts of flame. The sound the ten-foot high silver censer made as it passed the midpoint was ear splitting as if it had gone through the sound barrier. The acolytes swinging the giant censer also held small censers, which looked like purses and Louis Rorimer muttered, “Another typical farce of the country.”

In Madrid Rorimer left for a week and handed over to me several appointments, including one with the director of the Prado. I knew little Spanish so I hired a university student to live with me for three days and literally walk me over and over though a day in Spanish while I memorized it all. From waking up, brushing my teeth, shaving, dressing, ordering breakfast, having lunch, visiting a gallery, popping in on the director of the Prado and so forth. The day before the meeting I practiced with my student friend what I had to say on Jim's behalf plus a lot of chatter about the museum world and the glory of the Prado.

The meeting went off without a hitch. Years later the director doubled over in laughter when I told him what I had done. At that second meeting I stayed in a guest room in the director's house, which was a part of the Prado. After a typically late Spanish dinner in the lavish dining room, he handed me a large ring of keys and a portable floodlight and told me I could enter the deserted galleries all night if I wished. And I did. There's nothing like being in a deserted museum full of masterpieces at night and alone.

Jim returned and in Barcelona I learned the courage of the man. He had purchased a Romanesque Catalonian painted altar, cross and liturgical chest from the Junyer brothers, legendary collectors in Barcelona, for a staggering three hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The items were to be placed in the Fuentiduena Chapel. The museum members Bulletin announcing the acquisition was ready for publication and the altar was slated to be the cover. We visited the elderly Junyers so I could meet important resources. One brother was so far gone that he peed in his pants repeatedly as we walked through his house loaded down with Catalonian treasures, most of which I thought were rather ugly.

The next day Rorimer and I paid a courtesy call on the director of Barcelona's sprawling Catalan museum, Pit' Andrade, and Jim mentioned our visit to the Junyers. The director chuckled and asked how we liked the “wonderful series of fakes?” He told us that the Junyers owned a bunch of Catalan “medieval works,” political fakes, as it were, made for passionate supporters of the Catalonian independence movement -- altars, crosses and church furniture. Did we want to see a prime example?

We gulped.

The director ordered two guards to fetch the “Madonna.” Soon a painted, wooden seated Virgin of the "12th" century was carried toward us. From fifty feet away I could see that the painted saints on the side of the object were identical in style to our items. We said not a word. The director further enlightened us, that "the things were made by two accomplished forgers, one of whom, amusingly enough, was José Ruiz Blasco, Pablo Picasso's father," a painter and an art teacher.

Rorimer wired the museum to halt all publication of the items and, of course, their installation in the Apse.

"My fault,” he said. “I was in a rush and greedy. Never be hurried! And to think that our conservators guaranteed the stuff was authentic. Never believe scientists!"

From then on I was always a bit skeptical of scientific analysis and relied on my eye and gut for the true story.

Sperling had given us the phone number of the contact in Genoa and we met him in a wreck-filled garage on the outskirts of town. Rorimer, who loved the cloak and dagger business of seeing an illicit work of art in its country of origin, acted the part of the spy, insisting we speak French and leaving a Marseilles newspaper to conceal our identities.

We thought the relief was fabulous and in stunning condition. Rorimer was determined to buy it although he kept moaning about the "huge price of fifty thousand." I suggested we take a day off and go to Florence and scope out the pulpit in San Leonardo in Arcetri.

He said we'd better go incognito since the town would be full of museum folks who would gossip about the appearance of James J. Rorimer. My brothel hotel was filled so we went to a modest place away from the center of town. Straight off we drove to San Leonardo in Arcetri and after studying the style of the pulpit reliefs were convinced that the relief in Genoa belonged to it. I bought a set of sepia postcards of the six reliefs and made note of all the inscriptions beneath the panels on the three-sided pulpit. I saw that the inscriptions were often fragmentary. We still couldn't figure out where the Annunciation might have fitted in to the pulpit when it was in its original church. All night I kept awake wondering how I could prove the relief was provably part of it.

I left the room alone very early and arrived as the custodian was opening the doors of San Leonardo. He got me a ladder to study the reliefs and the inscriptions. I took out my Swiss Army knife and started to pick a way at some plaster when the custodian asked what the hell I was doing.

I joked that I was a rich American collector and wanted to take a relief or two with me. He chortled and said, "Go ahead, no one here cares about them."

It was clever Nancy who solved the problem of where the Annunciation had originally fit into the pulpit. I was showing her the sepia postcards one evening in bed back in Greenwich Village, when she observed that the “i” on the word, “Angeli,” in a patchwork inscription below the Deposition of Christ -- “Angeli pendentem Christus” -- was a “u” not an “i.” I had wondered why angels had anything to do with taking Christ from the cross. Once I saw that the letter was a “u,” that could only mean that the word, "Angeli" was really "Angelus" and the word had originally accompanied the Annunciation, which would have had the standard inscription, "Angelus Domini." It meant that our seventh plaque had never made it from the old church of San Piero in Scheraggio to Arcetri in the eighteenth century.

I told Rorimer about what my wife had found and he muttered, “She ought to be the curator here.” The evidence was crucial for it proved that in its original church the pulpit had been freestanding. The Annunciation would have been in the back next to the opening for the priest to enter. Rorimer recommended its purchase to the acquisitions committee of the board and we bought it, for $45,000 because Harry Sperling, liking my style, gave us ten percent off. Years later when he died he left his fabulous collection of old master drawings to the museum.

Rorimer sent for me after the trustee acquisitions committee had voted in favor of the purchase and said, "From now on you will be in charge of all acquisitions in both medieval and The Cloisters. Not that you'll present actual works to the acquisitions committee because I want to do that. Yet, all proposed acquisitions will come through you. Have fun."

It was during the early halcyon years of being a junior curator that I stumbled into one of the extra-curricular loves of my life -- hard charging and frequently dangerous blue water racing in big sailboats. Nancy and I had joined some friends on a rented motor yacht participating in the prestigious New York Yacht Club cruise from Newport to Hadley's Harbor, Nantucket, Padanaram and back. The fifty-foot boat, "The Betsy," which had large cabins and hot showers, served as tender to a racing ketch, "Blixtar," owned by a Hartford stockbroker named Danforth Miller. In Newport, two of his crewmembers left and Nancy and I were asked to fill in. She was invigorated by the starts with boats charging around at flank speed missing each other by inches. I took to racing enthusiastically yet creakily but in a few years had mastered the complex work of the foredeck and was anointed an official member of "Blixtar's" crew. My specialty became the wild and wooly territory of the foredeck involving sail changes. In time I became the captain of the foredeck.

The crewmembers were people from Hartford or the vicinity. My best buddy was Charles Lord and his wife Peggy. Lord was a wry, witty, brilliant man who eventually became the president of the Hartford National Bank. We spent hours on our night watches talking about intellectual matters and national politics. Peggy, an active young woman who talked incessantly (her knick name was the "foghorn," but what she had to say was usually riveting) became one of the closest friends in our lives. Her children, two girls and two boys, became my daughter's friends. The Lords had a house near the Vermont ski area at Stratton and for years we rented one downstairs bedroom on alternate weekends.

I was asked to crew on the 1962 Newport to Bermuda race and have seldom in my life had such a thrilling experience. We got a good start in our class of fifteen boats or so and lucked out by having two days of a broad reach, just on the edge of hiking up the spinnaker. The reach was the "Blixtar's" dream point of sail and we roared along at six knots.

I was intrigued at what the Gulf Stream would be like; it was supposed to be some twelve degrees warmer than the ocean, which I found hard to believe. The famous stream literally hit me when we entered it. I had been up on the forward rail shivering in the waves that kept breaking over me and, suddenly, I called out, "We’re in!" For the temperature of the wave that had just dowsed me was 83 degrees instead of 68.

In one fierce squall with winds up to forty knots I had the responsibility of hanging onto the forestay with my "umbilical cord" safety belt clipped on stanchions and to unclip as fast as I could the hanks of the large Genoa as it came down so that in a trice a smaller one could be raised. I did it without a flaw.

In Bermuda races we always seemed to cross the finish line in the middle of the night and, to our annoyance, pretty much in the same order as we'd started four or five days previously in Newport. Over the years the "Blixtar" and another boat I sailed on won a few firsts and several seconds and one third in their classes.

Almost everything that could happen in blue water racing happened to me. I remember the lovely sunny days with perfect breezes and the heavenly nights ghosting along through the Gulf Stream following a ribbon of light cast by the full moon. I could be contented and entranced for days just looking at the waves. On one placid night I was relaxing, my butt on the leeward rigging post at the bottom of the mast, my "umbilical cord" unlatched, when the vessel was shoved violently a yard sideways. It was as if a giant hand had hammered it aside. Then we were shoved again. I almost fell overboard. The off-watch raced up on deck. I worked my way to leeward, by now attached to the rail, and looked down. There was a great white shark at least three-quarters the length of the 42-foot long "Blixtar" scratching his back on our undersides. We all retired nervously to the wheelhouse until the shark swam away.

Another time in calm open waters, ambling along at five knots, I slipped and, like a boxer, deliberately slammed my butt against the life lines that encircled the boat, expecting to bounce back towards the mast, which I’d done many times. But the life lines snapped and I found myself plunging straight down the side of the vessel. It’s amazing what the body can do when the adrenalin starts pumping. In a split-second I reached up just before hitting the water and with one arm lifted myself rapidly back onto the deck. Normally, I can barely chin myself ten times with two arms.

Once we were almost dismasted in a thunderous squall in the Gulf Stream. I was at the helm when a mile-wide black and puss-yellow cloud came roaring at us. I screamed for the captain to get our Genoa down. A larger boat near us dropped all their sails. The skipper looked up from the gangway at me and snarled, "No. We're racing!" Then the maelstrom hit and I saw the anemometer peg at ninety knots. The boat keeled over to the right until the spreader near the top of the sixty-five foot mast tipped into the water. I could feel "Blixtar," this one a new fifty-foot one-design, shuddering painfully. We were going down, I could feel it. I had no control over the helm. My only thought was, "God, I should get my car keys out of my backpack before we sink."

Then the most awkward member of the crew, a paunchy doctor who seldom left the cockpit, shot up from below holding a rigging knife. He scrambled nimbly to the winch, which was already under water, cut the jib sheet from it, and, after the pressure was relieved, the boat righted herself and we raced on. The larger boat near us running on bare poles finished an hour later than we did.

We did get dismasted in a race off Block Island when the wind was blowing 60 knots in gusts. I was sitting at my post near the stays on the foredeck and saw the top of the mast wobbling in crazy circles. I’d never seen that before but knew it meant disaster. I called to the skipper to lighten sail, but he just laughed. Then I heard what sounded like a jet plane going by three inches away from my ear. The steel rod rigging stays had exploded. If my head had been four inches to the right it would have been torn off. The aluminum mast shattered and was whipped under the boat along with the sails and yards of rigging. We couldn't start the engine because the prop would have fouled. As we drifted helplessly towards some rocks the younger, stronger members of the crew collapsed on the deck in fear and we oldsters had to saw and chop the stays and the broken mast into pieces to free the sails and then winch them on board so we could start the engine. We rigged a partial mast and just made it away from the rocks.

The bi-annual summer race week at Block Island was the hairiest, most irresponsible, drunken time of them all. Several hundred hot racing machines and cruising boats congregated in Great Harbor for cutthroat competition that attracted the best skippers from the country. It was held in June on odd-numbered years when there was no Bermuda Race. Our behavior during Block week was scandalous. One member of the crew got blasted one night and, while walking back to the dock from some disco joint, became fascinated by a large low building illuminated with dozens of spotlights, humming away. He strolled inside and, seeing a massive red handle, yanked it down to amuse himself. Once they found him passed out underneath the master switch, power was restored to the island.

It was because of racing that I first cheated on my wife. The woman was a gorgeous and accomplished sailor from a friend’s boat and, heady with the aphrodisiac of being competitors -- her boat had beaten us soundly because of one of my foredeck miscues -- we seduced each other. One late night on Block Island, drunk as hell, we wandered into a small hotel, found someone’s empty room and settled in. I had placed a chair against the doorknob and the tenant was puzzled but apparently not all that put off since he stumbled into another occupied room and passed out cold. We met several times over the next year but the romance eventually became too much of a hassle for simple sex to sustain it.

On one night race from Stamford around the Buzzard's Bay light and back we were charging along at full speed with the spinnaker and Genoa wing and wing. A fledgling helmsman was at the wheel. I was off watch in my bunk when he lost control and the boat suffered a knockdown -- an involuntary jibe that could shred the sails and threaten to rip out the mast. My skipper screamed "All hands!" and in my underwear I scrambled topside only to be slammed in the forehead by the heavy, sharp butt end of the spinnaker pole, which had ripped out of its bell on the mast. Seconds before I passed out, I heard my skipper shout, "Don't let him bleed on the sails."

Peggy Lord made a hasty and efficient butterfly stitch and, after an hour of sleep, I started working the foredeck again. When we landed back in Noank, I wrapped my head in bandages, donned my helmet and rode my new Honda motorcycle the four hours to New York City in driving rain -- just loving the danger of it all.

This is chapter 22 of Artful Tom, A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.


THOMAS HOVING is author of Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game (2005). He is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He can be reached at Send Email



 



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