My American readers are probably familiar with the White House Historical Association, founded by former First Lady Jackie Kennedy, which helps coordinate the efforts of the National Park Service and several other government agencies to catalogue, conserve, and study the hundreds of artistic treasures in the permanent collection of the Executive Mansion. Over the past two centuries, the home has acquired everything from bronzes by Frederic Remington to Tiffany Studios designs for White House carpets, such as the example shown below. These items are documented and cared for by a group of civil servants and volunteers who recognize the historic and artistic importance of these items, which ultimately belong to the people of the United States.
Unfortunately, despite their love of fine and decorative art, the French don’t appear to be as good at such things. A new report published this past Friday indicates that an astonishing 50,000+ items – yes, you read that correctly – including paintings, furniture, porcelain, etc., have disappeared from the Élysée Palace, the official residence of the President of France in Paris, as well as from other government buildings. As Naomi Rea reports in ArtNet, in 2018 alone 87 items were reported missing by the Élysée – and that’s just what the staff of the Presidential palace happened to notice.
This story adds additional urgency, albeit on a much, much smaller scale, to the to-date haphazard effort I’ve made to inventory items in my own collection. I’ve been inconsistent about this over the years, which has led to a few unfortunate consequences. In some cases, I have everything from receipts, sales catalogue entries, and backup documentation concerning a piece and the artist who created it; in others, that information may be partly or entirely missing.
Now, to be fair, most of what I own isn’t particularly important stuff, and those pieces that are of greater importance are fairly well-documented. The majority of the items in my collection however, I like either because they are visually attractive, or because they hold a personal meaning for me in some way. Therefore it behooves me to make the effort to put together as much of that information as I can, not only regarding the who, when, and where, but also, where necessary, the why.
So take some time to photograph, document, and write down everything you know about those pieces in your collection, gentle reader, whether it’s a collection of Civil War medals or Great-Grandmother’s china or Charlie Brown comic strips. Otherwise, not only do you have a decent chance of forgetting some of what you own, but those who come after you will not have the knowledge that you’re currently carrying around in your head to help them identify these things after you’re gone. There are plenty of days when it’s too hot or too rainy or too snowy to be out and about doing much, when you can devote some time to this activity, in order to keep up with what you have in your home – unlike the President of France.
And now, on to some of the other art news that I’ve found interesting over the past week.
Speaking of France, there’s been a snag in French billionaire Patrick Drahi’s plan to acquire Sotheby’s and take it private – which I told you about back in June – so as to better compete with its arch-rival, Christie’s, which is privately held by a company headed by French billionaire François-Henri Pinault. Three of Sotheby’s shareholders have sued the corporation and the board claiming, inter alia, that insufficient information had been disclosed for them to know whether to vote yes or no on the proposed deal, which includes a valuation of company stock at “$57 in cash per share, a 61% premium to the closing price on June 14,” according to Bloomberg. The first two complaints, filed on July 17 and July 19, respectively, have just been joined by a third, in which the plaintiff seems to be seeking certification for a class-action suit. Meanwhile, Sotheby’s and M. Drahi are moving ahead with their plans, which they expect to be completed by the end of this year.
The Baltic Sea has long been a favorite hunting ground for marine archaeologists thanks to its deep, cold waters, which preserve perishable materials like ship timbers for remarkably long periods of time. Now, a new find may have revealed one of the best-preserved Renaissance shipwrecks located to date. The unknown vessel is believed to date from the late 15th or early 16th century, complete with rigging, masts, guns, anchor, and tender boat, and features a decorated transom at the back of the hull. You can check out a video from the lead archaeologist here. No word yet on whether the Swedes will be trying to raise the vessel, or if it contains any cargo, but I’d be very interested in seeing a) the Scandinavian sculptural elements carved on that transom, and b) if there are any late Medieval-early Renaissance ceramics still intact down in the hold.
If you’ve ever watched the BBC show, “Fake or Fortune?” – and you should – you’ll know that art dealer Philip Mould and his team have a knack for rediscovering lost, important works of art. Case in point was their find last fall of a beautiful portrait miniature by Margaret Gillies (1803-1887) of Charles Dickens (1812-1870), depicting the novelist as a young man, just about the time that he was writing “A Christmas Carol”. The picture was well-known in Victorian times, but somehow ended up in a boxed lot of junk being auctioned off at a house clearance sale in South Africa. Now fully cleaned and restored, the piece has been acquired by the Dickens Museum in London following a lengthy fundraising campaign. Given that most of us are probably more familiar with Dickens from photographs taken of him later in life, balding, paunchy, and with a rather luxuriant goatee, Gillies’ portrait gives us an idea of why, when he first became popular, Dickens was well-known around London for being quite the dandy and ladies’ man.