Art as Chattel

Cynthia Saltzman &rsquo;71, <i><a href="">Old Masters, New World: America&rsquo;s Raid on Europe&rsquo;s Great Pictures, 1800-World War I</a></i> (Viking, $27.95)

At base, works of art are chattel: the stuff of economic exchange. Historically, the British legal code forbade nobility from selling “settled land” and tangible property. Then in the 1870s, cheap grain from the United States and Canada caused a decline in the price of English wheat and with it the value of English farmed estates. The British government countered by passing a law in 1882 allowing nobility to sell their treasured property, and within months the duke of Hamilton had auctioned part of his art collection in a sale that ran for days and generated some £500,000. Some of the paintings were bought for British museums and thus remained “at home.” But many, perhaps most, were sold to overseas buyers.

The transfer of so much art away from England alarmed many Britons. By one count, almost half of the works included in the famous 1857 Manchester exhibition, Art Treasures of Great Britain, had been sold away 50 years later. In reaction, a group of British critics, connoisseurs, and curators organized the National Art Collection Fund for the purpose of buying such works for the nation; never mind that many of these were in Britain only because they had been purchased earlier from Continental collections. But the pull of the market was too strong. (The centenary of the fund was celebrated with an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 2003 titled Saved!)

The economic decline of Britain was offset by the economic rise of the United States. By 1914, U.S. national income stood at $37 billion, more than triple that of either Britain or Germany, the next two largest economies. Individual capitalists—J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and Henry Frick chief among them—were quickly amassing extraordinary wealth. They were also art collectors of great ambition who exercised their taste for rare and beautiful things by buying up masterworks in Britain and all over the Continent.

They were building their collections for themselves, surely, but also for the rapidly growing and rambunctious U.S. public. This was a time of great growth in our nation’s art museums. Every city of any size had one, from Boston and New York to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco.

Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures, 1800-World War I serves as a thoughtful and informed introduction to the early history of art collecting in the United States. The author, Cynthia Saltzman ’71, is a journalist whose previous book, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, about a Van Gogh masterpiece, also concerned art and collecting. In the current case, I don’t know who came up with the idea to use “raid” to describe the pursuit of European old-master paintings by prominent American collectors, but it casts an unfortunate pall over the book’s story, for the individual accounts of collectors building first private and then public collections do not suggest a raid so much as an impassioned pursuit that enriched everyone from seller to dealer to buyer to public.

The book begins with banker and railroad executive Henry Marquand’s search for two Van Dyck portraits he wanted for the fledgling Metropolitan Museum of Art, of which he would soon become second president. In 1886, he traveled to Corsham Court, the fabled country seat of the Methuen family, just outside Bath, England. Their collection had been assembled in the 1720s and now the second baron needed to part with some paintings. He sought first to sell them to Britain’s National Gallery, but its trustees were slow to respond. Word spread quickly and within months, encouraged by the dealer Charles Deschamps and the artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Marquand saw the Van Dycks, made his offer, and acquired the paintings. And not just those two, but also three others by Rubens, Luca van Leyden, and, purportedly, Masaccio. A year later he acquired Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher from a Paris dealer, and then, within a year, some 30 more paintings, most of them seventeenth-century Dutch. In January 1889, he offered them to the Metropolitan and then promptly bought and gave the museum 13 more. For this he was described by a journalist as “the greatest collector in America because he collects not for himself alone, but for a whole people and for all the world.”

The book’s principal players, in addition to Marquand, are the collectors Frick, Morgan, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Henry and Louisine Havemeyer, and Joseph Widener; the dealers Deschamps, Paul Durand-Ruel, Otto Gutekunst, Joseph Duveen, and Roland Knoedler; art historians and museum curators Wilhelm von Bode, Roger Fry, and Bernard Berenson; and artists Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent. (It is interesting to read of the persistent role artists both well and little known have played as advisers to collectors. It is also interesting to read of the importance of photography—just a few decades after the invention of the medium—in these various transactions, as collectors often first saw the paintings they purchased through photographs.)

Old Masters, New World is not original research, but rather a well-told tale that synthesizes a great deal of recent research published elsewhere, and in this, it succeeds admirably. I have quarrels with some things, like the imbalance in treatment of the collectors. Why, for example, is Morgan given a single chapter of 15 pages when the Havemeyers rate one more than twice that length and Frick’s coverage totals four times that? Morgan’s 1914 Metropolitan exhibition comprised some 4,000 works of art shown in 13 galleries and he founded the Morgan Library itself, now also an art museum.

Nor is there any discussion of the governmental instruments that encouraged the import of artworks into this country and contributed to building our public collections. There is brief mention of the fact that in 1895 the American tariff on works of art was eliminated, only to be reinstated two years later, and a simple reference to the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act of 1909, which eliminated the 20 percent customs duty on art more than 20 years old. But that’s all. There is no mention at all of the income-tax and estate-tax provisions that allow donors of works of art to museums to reduce their tax exposure by the value of their gifts. By passing such legislation, the U.S. government became a generous partner in the building of our private and public collections during the twentieth century. If only as a kind of coda, Saltzman could have acknowledged this, for in a way, it is the end of the story: as a further means to prevent the export of art, European governments have been adopting the U.S. model, offering their own tax deductions for gifts to museums.

And of course, Saltzman mentions other very interesting persons of whom one would like to learn much more. John G. Johnson, for example, is mentioned only three times. A Philadelphia attorney, he worked for Henry Havemeyer, Henry Frick, and Peter Widener, and was himself an important collector whose purchases now form the core of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s distinguished old-master painting collection, making one curious about his role in the context of the book’s otherwise rich and intriguing story.

Still, Saltzman’s narrative is full of tales of the interrelationships of personalities seeking personal gain. The attempts by dealers to coax works of art from collectors and by collectors to bargain down prices from dealers, and then the willingness of art historians to offer authentications (sometime, it seems, for personal profit) are illuminating. And the pursuit of individual works of art is sometimes even thrilling.

Henry Frick’s purchase of the Ilchester Rembrandt, the deeply moving, late self-portrait, is but one example. Dealer Otto Gutekunst had been pursuing the painting for four months in 1906. Meanwhile, the English critic, painter, and Metropolitan curator Roger Fry had been approached by the English architect Herbert Horne, who had spoken with the sixth earl of Ilchester about possibly selling the painting to pay off steep inheritance taxes; Horne thought the Metropolitan might help by buying the work.

Then Horne learned that the earl had given the right of first refusal to the London collector Herbert Cook. Fry told Horne that J.P. Morgan, as president of the Metropolitan, would agree only to a price lower than was being asked. Because Cook was not moving on the painting either, the earl turned to Gutekunst, who pressed Frick and tried to get Fry to back away. Fry kept after the painting and Morgan, but by the time Morgan finally agreed, it was too late: Gutekunst, with Roland Knoedler and Colnaghi, the English dealers, had secured the self-portrait.

They offered it to Frick for $225,000; he demurred, but later offered $200,000. Knoedler wanted to accept the offer, but Gutekunst and Colnaghi held out for the original price. Gutekunst then raised the specter of the Rembrandt scholar Wilhelm von Bode buying the painting for Berlin. Finally, Frick suggested he wanted the picture, but also wanted six months to pay. He added that he wanted to pay in part with a painting he had purchased 11 years earlier that he reckoned was worth almost $25,000 (he had paid $14,000). This allowed him to pay $200,000 in cash—the amount he’d initially offered.

The sale had been a year in the making, and many of the book’s key players were involved: a cash-strapped earl, three leading art dealers, two competing museum curators, and both Morgan and Frick. A short time later, prompted by the purchase and his growing collection, Frick bought the Manhattan property on which he would construct the building we know as the Frick Collection. There the Rembrandt hangs not far from the singular masterpiece St. Francis in the Desert by Giovanni Bellini, the subject of another great story.

All in all, Old Masters, New World is a very good read. No doubt it will encourage its readers to learn more about the history of art collecting in this country, which, like all such histories, is intertwined with the history of extraordinary individuals and national and international political, economic, and social circumstances. I hope, too, that it will inspire them to learn more about the building of our great public art museums, for that is ultimately the great story here: how these very wealthy men and women turned their private fortunes into lasting, public legacies for the benefit, as the early journalist said of Marquand, “not for himself alone, but for a whole people and for all the world.”

James Cuno, Ph.D. ’85, is president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago. From 1991 to 2002, he was director of the Harvard University Art Museums. His most recent book is Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage (Princeton).

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