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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Photo, That's a Work of Art Itself !!



Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Through the centuries many people have been haunted by the work of Raphael, but probably few have been haunted in quite the same way as Bernard Taper.

Even now, at 88, he says he finds a certain painting continuing to surface in his memory. It is an elegant portrait of a young man that Mr. Taper knew in 1947 only from a black-and-white photograph he had been given, much in the way a detective is handed a snapshot of a missing person.

At that time, in the ruinous aftermath of World War II in Europe, the Raphael portrait was one of the most prominent masterpieces to have disappeared, but it had considerable company. Thousands of paintings, sculptures and artifacts that had been looted by the Nazis — many of them bound for Hitler’s long-envisioned F├╝hrer Museum in Linz, Austria, his boyhood home, or confiscated for the collection of Hermann Goering, Hitler’s chief art-looting rival — remained missing at war’s end.

Mr. Taper, then an Army lieutenant charged with tracking down the Raphael, spent months interrogating jailed Nazis and trying to connect the dots, but he never found the painting, which had been taken from a family museum in Krakow, Poland.

“I still dream about it sometimes,” he said in a recent interview. “I wonder if it’s out there.”

The story might sound like grist for a Dan Brown novel or a Steven Spielberg treatment. But the efforts of Allied officers and soldiers like Mr. Taper to save and repatriate stolen treasures during and after the war is a chapter of World War II history still not particularly well known. Even during the war their work — when compared with saving lives and preserving ways of life — was sometimes discounted. Some members of the military referred to these soldiers as “Venus fixers,” a term with more than a hint of the effete.

But the accomplishments of these soldiers, better known as the Monuments Men, are finally starting to come into sharper focus. “Rescuing Da Vinci,” a lavishly illustrated book devoted to them, with dozens of pictures newly unearthed from archives, has just been published by Robert M. Edsel, a retired Texas oilman. Mr. Edsel, 49, became obsessed with the story several years ago and even established a research office in Dallas, his hometown, with the goal of telling it better.

This month, in large part because of his work, Congress passed a resolution honoring the Monuments Men (whose number also included some women and civilians), saying that the value of their work “cannot be overstated and set a moral precedent” for the preservation of culture.

Mr. Edsel, who came late to an appreciation of art history, said in a recent interview that he became aware of the vast art-rescue story when he was living in Florence in the late 1990s and read “The Rape of Europa,” an award-winning book by Lynn H. Nicholas that chronicles the Third Reich’s pillaging of museums, churches and private collections.

The book goes into considerable detail about the formation and work of what became the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the United States military, some of whose members had art backgrounds and would go on to become civilian art-world luminaries, like James J. Rorimer, a future director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Lincoln Kirstein, then a lowly private but later a founder of the New York City Ballet. Most of the recovery effort was American, but soldiers from more than a dozen countries also participated.

Mr. Edsel quickly became frustrated, he said, as he combed through other World War II history books and found surprisingly little about what he thought was a gripping story of high-culture derring-do. “To me,” he said, “it was like, wow, you wrote a western and left out John Wayne. I couldn’t believe it.”

Armed with the kind of bluster and directness that made him wealthy in the oil business, Mr. Edsel sought out Ms. Nicholas “pretty much cold, ” he recalls. He asked for her guidance in putting together a book devoted exclusively to the Monuments Men, a book he eventually published himself, he said, because he got “absolutely no interest” from commercial publishers.

He paid researchers who set to work in Washington, Moscow, Munich and other cities. Even as this work was under way, he said, he knew that professionals in the art world like Nancy Yeide, curator of records at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, whom he approached about finding pictures, wondered whether he was just a well-meaning dilettante.

“I could tell that she didn’t know whether to trust me, whether to think I was a kook, whether it was like some vanity project,” he said.

But Mr. Edsel kept at it, putting $2.5 million of his own money toward the project. Over time he also became a co-producer of a documentary based on Ms. Nicholas’s book, which is now making the rounds of film festivals. He is planning exhibitions of the photographs and archival material featured in the book and is now crisscrossing the country trying to find and interviewing the few living members of the Monuments Men squad, like Mr. Taper.

“The problem is, we’re in a race with time now,” Mr. Edsel said in a recent interview in New York.

The urgency of that race was underlined last month by the death of S. Lane Faison Jr., 98, an art-rescue officer who worked for the Office of Strategic Services, which helped the Monuments Men. Mr. Faison later became a renowned art professor at Williams College whose students went on to become directors and curators at many prominent American museums.

Mr. Edsel interviewed Mr. Faison before his death and tracked down several other former officers who helped recover thousands of paintings and artifacts. One, Harry Ettlinger, now 80, joined the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives in 1945 and was assigned to sort out the contents of a vast makeshift storehouse in Heilbronn, Germany. It was a salt mine where the Nazis had hidden thousands of crates of loot, including all the stained glass removed from the Strasbourg Cathedral in France, which Mr. Ettlinger helped return.

In Mr. Edsel’s book Mr. Ettlinger can be seen in a crisp black-and-white photograph that could serve as the inspiration for a climactic movie scene: he and an officer are standing deep in the mine, staring in awe at a Rembrandt self-portrait that has just been raised from its crate.

But in a telephone interview Mr. Ettlinger said that much of the work done by the Monuments Men was not particularly cinematic. It was the tedious but immense job of archiving, translating documents, collating records and extracting needles from thousands of haystacks to ensure that works returned to their rightful homes. And it was frustrating: for every paper trail that led to a restitution, there were many more that led nowhere, and priceless works that were never found.

Of course, in the midst of the paperwork, there was a little wartime drama every so often down in the mine shafts, Mr. Ettlinger recalled.

“I remember once in a hallway I saw a doorway that was bricked in and no one knew what was behind it,” he said. He ordered someone to find out. “And lo and behold it was nitroglycerin, which was about to come along and blow us all to kingdom come, never mind the art.”

Mr. Edsel said the more he delved into the stories of the men, the more amazed he became at how little Americans seem to know about it, especially in an era with a newfound devotion to the Greatest Generation.

So, he was asked, is a feature film somewhere down the road?

He smiled and, in his best Texas dare-me voice, said not to rule it out.

“This has got heroes,” he said. “It’s got buried treasure. It’s got untold stories. It’s got everything. You want excitement? We’ve got it in spades right here.”

Salem church sets storied silver work on auction block

By Charles A. Radin, Boston Globe Staff | December 19, 2006

SALEM -- Selling the family silver is generally an act of financial distress, but at one of the oldest churches in North America, the situation is just the opposite.

The First Church in Salem, which was founded in 1629 and counted victims as well as judges in the Salem witch trials among its early members, is auctioning off 14 silver tankards, flagons, and beakers in hope of raising $1 million to accelerate growth in membership and programming that began in the late 1990s.

Most of the money will go to making the gray granite church building, which opened in 1836, fully accessible to people who are disabled.

The sale is embraced by a congregation whose roots stretch back to when Roger Williams, the third minister at the church, was shown the door in 1635 for preaching that was considered too radical. He went on to found Rhode Island.

"Our understanding of what is sacred has changed over the centuries," the Rev. Jeffrey Barz-Snell, First Church's pastor, said in an interview yesterday. Rather than hoard prized silver possessions dating to centuries when diversity of any kind was little tolerated, "the people involved in our church now are more concerned with other people, and with the broader community," he said.

The church is selling a fraction of its 70-piece collection, but some of the most important items in American silvercraft are going on the auction block Jan. 18.

They include a cup given to the church by John Higginson, a Salem merchant who interviewed alleged witches and witnesses and recorded their confessions during the Salem witch trials of 1692; a beaker made in 1670 by Jeremiah Dummer, the first native-born American silversmith; and a tankard by John Coney between 1690 and 1710, featuring a European baroque style found in American silver only in the work of Boston smiths.

The sale "is wildly exciting from an antique silver perspective," said Jeanne Sloane, head of the silver department at Christie's, the auction house handling the sale, which was first reported in The Salem News.

"When silver has been the property of a church, we know its provenance, and it has been under terrific care, not left out, not polished too much, not suffering from excessive wear."

In addition, she said, "the early congregations were radically Puritan, so they threw off the trappings of the Anglican high church predecessors they were rebelling against. You do not get engraved crucifixions . . . The pieces are not different from the regular kind of American silver that collectors want."

Sloane said that the goal of the auction is $1 million in sales, but that "there is no ceiling."

"If a couple of people decide this is the opportunity of a lifetime, you can get a price over the high estimate," she said.

That estimate includes valuations of $300,000 for the Coney tankard, $250,000 for the Dummer beaker, and $120,000 for the Higginson cup.

A flagon weighing more than 40 ounces, which Sloane called the single most important piece of silver ever made in Salem, is also to be auctioned, with an estimated top value of $120,000.

First Church will retain a Paul Revere silver set it uses for communion on special occasions, as well as a silver bowl used in baptisms here for more than 200 years.

This is the second high-profile sale of early American silver by a Massachusetts church in recent years. In 2001, United First Parish Church in Quincy, which was founded in 1639 and is the burial place of Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, sold 11 pieces, the value of which at auction had been estimated at around $1 million. The pieces sold for about $3 million.

In that sale, some people, including a former pastor, complained that the church was selling off its heritage; others were unhappy with the sale but felt the church had no choice, given a dwindling membership and a desperate need to fund repairs.

First Church in Salem has no such problems, Barz-Snell said.

"There is no urgency pushing this," he said. "It is the recognition that the church is growing, Salem is growing, and the church is poised, as a progressive Christian church, to become more involved with the broader community."

He said that the Unitarian church's membership is now about 130, about double what it was when he became pastor in 1998. He said two deacons proposed selling some of the highly valued silver after it became apparent that $300,000, raised from the membership to make the church handicapped accessible, was far short of what was needed.

"The decision was made by a democratic vote after considerable debate," Barz-Snell said.

"What is most important for us is the ability to serve our [church] community and the broader community," he said.

"Part of that is maintaining a building that is well maintained and accessible to all."

Thieves have attempted to steal the church's silver collection in the past, he said, stressing that the silver is stored in a secure location away from the church premises.

Art Hostage comments:

Hopefully the new owners of these silver pieces will loan them to public institutions so the public has access to them.
All too often,wonderful works of art are locked away, not only in private collections, but in bank vaults.

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