Thoughts on Patronage and Collecting: Then and Now

Dr. Elin Lake-Ewald 


One of the fascinating aspects of being a professional in the Art World is that you get invited to a lot of events at organizations you have never heard of before but which often have considerable followings. And then you feel “out of it” because you’ve never heard of them before, but also “in” because now you have.

Last Friday I attend the National Symposium of Collectors For Connoisseurship, held at the Sacerdote Auditorium of the Uris Center at the Metropolitan Museum. Titled Patronage and Collecting: Then & Now, I was addressed by curators at the MET, the Frick and the Morgan Library, followed by a panel of speakers representing different aspects of the market.  Perhaps in an audience of diverse backgrounds different people took away different messages, but the main one seemed to me was that collectors in the past were often deeply involved in the intellectual and aesthetic aspects of their collections, while today’s collector may be seduced by branding and name recognition.

Will brick & mortar galleries continue as they have or will art fairs and online sales take over? We were all interested in that question which, of course, cannot be resolved in one symposium or even in 50, which I am certain will probably occur in the next year. What makes it so necessary for people to keep chewing over the same question so often without reaching for a resolution? Sort of like the talk talk talk re the current plethora of stories about abuse of women in business. A thousand stories so far, but haven’t heard one suggestion about a real solution.


Exhibition Review: Relative Value systems in the renaissance era

Relative Value: The Cost of Art in the Northern Renaissance 

On view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art 

62 masterpieces of varying media and function that invite the examination of historical worth and relative value systems of the era 

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt   Follower of Quentin Metsys (Netherlandish, mid-16th century) and Master of the Liège Disciples at Emmaus (Netherlandish, active mid-16th century), ca. 1540

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Follower of Quentin Metsys (Netherlandish, mid-16th century) and Master of the Liège Disciples at Emmaus (Netherlandish, active mid-16th century), ca. 1540

The most original show at the MET these days is on the first floor – back of the building.

Maybe the curators have tired of listening to museum-goers speculate out loud how much a particular painting or ivory object is worth.

Okay, if that’s what they’re interested it let’s give it to them, but let’s not make it too easy or too obvious. We will inform them as to what a particular artwork is worth in the equivalent of a coin of the realm in the 16th-17th centuries. Mostly in cow power.

The need to equate art with money – or what the Northern Renaissance collectors would pay for a precious item in terms of what was of approximately the same value in more mundane objects – that’s the crux of the show and more than well worth the visit.

How much is that gorgeous goblet worth, that gold chalice with intricately sculpted and inch high jeweled and elaborately costumed figures so meticulously carved that each finger is individually rendered? I’d say 255 cows. And that crystal bird from Nuremberg with ruby eyes? That’s 275 cows and worth every moo. Suppose a baron wanted a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer for his wall (although it was probably kept in an album in those days), he’d only have to come up with half a cow in payment. Not sure how that worked. Another object that’s not much more than a commoner’s earthenware vessel with a decorative lead glaze would have been an eighth of the value of a cow. Would that include prime ribs?

I like the idea of a new approach to arousing interest in the many gorgeous, but often overlooked objects in this treasure chest of a museum. The MET has created another way of showing us that there is so much of such interest within its metaphorical vaults that it isn’t absolutely necessary to bring in objects from elsewhere to excite the viewers. I would like to give my thanks to the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts and the curator(s) of the exhibition and the effort he/she made to think beyond the obvious and arouse new interest in old things that the Met owns. And, of course, for the audiences of 2017, it had to be about value – or do I mean price?


A Night at Blumka Gallery

The cocktail reception at Blumka Gallery, hosted by Anthony Blumka and Florian Eitle-Böhler on January 27. The night most of Manhattan closed down for the snow blizzard that never happened. Fortunately, that did not keep the die-hard art connoisseurs of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque fine and decorative arts at home.

Open only by appointment, even with a room filled with the art patrons, museum donors, curators, educators, and in this case an appraiser, the gallery space still had a calm and serene museum cathedral-like environment. Just take a look inside one of their vitrines, which could have been as well inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the British Museum.

The Blumka gallery is one of the most important galleries that cater to private clients who collect these centuries old master works. Seen were curators and educators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection. The appraiser’s former professors were there who also work at these museums. These art professionals appreciate the well edited works of art that Blumka provides to its patrons, who often donate these works to art museums and institutions.

It was a very enriching and entertaining night even if most of the city was hunkered down at home. At least, we learned something about what the highest aspirations of Western cultural heritage can offer. At Blumka Gallery, you will be rewarded many times over.

Fragments of Adam: an OTE Case

The separated head and torso looked disconcertingly familiar to me when they appeared in a photo on the front page of The New York Times on Sunday, November 9th. “Recreating Adam, From Hundreds of Fragments, After the Fall.”

Screen capture of the New York Times article 

Screen capture of the New York Times article 

The history of how it happened, the secrecy that ensued, the resurrection, and finally, revelation is the plot of this terrifying tale of Tullio Lombardo’s great Renaissance marble masterpiece. I hadn’t felt able to speak about it in detail for 12 years. A promise is a promise.

After the fall, when the initial horror of the museum staff had worn off, but only slightly, a few of us,  engineers , technicians and art specialists, were called upon to render professional opinions about what had gone wrong and what was going to be done about it. I and a colleague from this firm were led, as if to a chamber of horrors, into the conservation laboratory where the sculpture lay, shattered  yet still magnificent .

The papers write of it as if it had been scattered in a thousand fragments across the marble floor of the Velez Blanco Patio at the Met, but I remember it as retaining recognition as a very late 15th century Lombardo, head and much of the torso and one leg intact. I can’t recall exactly because I had to turn over all my photographs immediately after our report was rendered. Those were the days before digital where nothing dies. I guess those were the “28 recognizable pieces” that Met conservator Jack Soultanian mentioned in the newspaper article. The rubble had been bagged and identified.

From time to time, from hushed voices, we learned a little about what was going on in the lab, but very little. Massive amount of research were undertaken by this firm and we traced the sculpture back to its original site. The Renaissance scholar on staff, Leatrice Mendelsohn, was amazing in her pursuit of all the critical information required to help me arrive at a value of the sculpture before the fall and how much the piece had lost in value because of the damage.

A few months later I sat at an endlessly long wood table in a secluded section of the Met of which I had not been previously aware, facing what seemed to be an endlessly long  line of dark suited attorneys representing the multiple organizations and firms involved in the disaster.  Oddly enough, I don’t remember being scared because I was so overwhelmed by the grandeur of the setting, with light streaming down behind the group of what appeared to be judge types sitting to my left. I felt like it was an old Warner Brothers film about the trial of Charles the First.

Okay, not to prolong this because, after all, I survived and am writing this blog now. I mean, I wasn’t the one at fault anyway. I didn’t push Adam off his pedestal. The fact that its six foot three, one thousand pound marble body had been standing for so many years on a modest wooden pedestal might have had something to do with the disaster.

So it was with relief that I found that the Met has decided to open the floodgates of information, always a wise course to take, and one that suddenly seems in favor at major museums nationally. So much better than having misinformation leaking out in bits and pieces and that can prove far more detrimental than a simple admission and explanation.

I wonder if reality shows have been influencing all of us.

Written by Elin Lake-Ewald