In search of hidden treasurers

January 11, 2013|Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
  • Rembrandt Peale (American, 1778-1860), is the artist who painted Portrait of Henry Robinson, ca. 1816.
Submitted photo

Special to The Herald-Mail

American author and humorist Mark Twain describes the human urge to treasure hunt in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer": "There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy's life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure."

Collectors and treasure seekers hope against hope that they will be the lucky one who discovers a truly valuable object that will allow them to retire — as did the gentleman from Tulsa, Okla., whose rhinoceros horn carvings were recently valued at more than $1 million during PBS' "Antiques Road Show."

People are fueled by record-setting appraisals or million-dollar yard sale finds like the painting by Renoir, discovered in our region, or stunned by breaking news of astronomical prices of art sales at auctions.

The staff of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts (WCMFA) often field questions having to do with the value of collections. People contact the museum to request information about treasures that have been inherited or found on visits to auctions, estate sales, art dealers, galleries and antique markets. Questions usually have to do with paintings, sculpture, works on paper (watercolors, etchings, lithographs) and decorative arts (ceramics, quilts and embroideries, clocks, silver, glass and furnishings) and most are American 19th and early 20th century in origin.

Their questions sort into three categories — the monetary worth of the object, should I keep it or try to sell it and how may I obtain a value for insurance or sale.

The first caller is seeking information about the monetary worth of art.

The second caller reports that "I have enjoyed the object, but would like to share it with others and am considering making a gift to a public museum where it can become part of the public trust."  This call has to do with the social value of art.

The third caller is smitten with an art object and says, "I am truly drawn to the object and cherish it for my own enjoyment and its intrinsic worth, and I wish to learn more about it and care for it properly." This call has to do with the intrinsic or essential value of art.

Michael Findlay, art dealer and longtime director of Acquavella Galleries in New York CIty, has worked-for, directed or owned a commercial art gallery for more than 40 years. He has recently published the book, "The Value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty."

Findlay's book is a study of the art world and a delightful summary of the three instincts of art collecting, which he explains using the analogy of the Three Graces of classical mythology:  Thalia (commercial value of art); Euphrosyne (social value of art) and Aglaea (essential value of art)

Findlay's life's work was in the art market, and he is a great authority on the question of the commercial value of art. Findlay was responsible for the famous sale in 1990 at Christies-New York of Vincent van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet," which went for $82.5 million. Yet that sale faded before the April 2011 sale of a version of Paul Cezanne's "Card Players," which sold for $259 million in a private sale to the Royal Family of Qatar.

In his chapter on Thalia, Findlay examines what determines the commercial value of art, why specific works of art, such as Van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet," are so valuable, and the purpose and method of art appraisals.

As an art dealer, Findlay developed long-term relationships with clients and served as art advisor to many of them. He introduced collectors to artists, other collectors and museum curators, and to the larger community of art.

In his chapter on Euphrosyne, he examines collectors of all kinds and social classes (including Robert and Ethel Scull, who were Yellow Cab magnates, and Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, who worked as a postal worker and a librarian); the art gallery scene, the social role of the art auction, and the role of contemporary artists. After 30 years of collecting, the Vogels gave their collections to the National Gallery of Art, and to museums in 50 states in a great act of social philanthropy.

In his chapter on Aglaea, Findlay introduces art theory, the role of the art object in defining the collector's identity, as a meditative object, as a thing to enjoy seeing, and as decoration. He explains the need to "look well and long at a work of art in order to absorb its essential value."

Art museums participate in each of the Three Graces' systems of valuing works of art. Our mission "to collect" place us in the marketplace where Thalia reigns, our mission "to serve" the public lead us to many activities associated with Euphrosyne as we bring people to have meaningful encounters with works of art, and our mission "to interpret" lead us to Aglaea where we attempt to present lasting works of art that will resonate now and for years to come.

In a stunning tale of a city's relationship with a particular painting, Findlay tells the story of how the late Anne D'Harancourt, who was director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, heroically led the effort to raise sufficient funds in order to save a painting that had become an emblem of Philadelphia's artistic identity.

When Walmart heiress Alice Walton attempted to purchase Thomas Eakins' famous painting known as "The Gross Clinic" from the Jefferson Medical College for her new museum in Bentonville, Ark., Philadelphians matched her $68 million offer because they had looked "well and long" at the painting and it had become a part of them. They could not bear to have it leave the city.

Art museums hold in trust, share, care for and interpret art objects. Through collections, museums embody who we have been and who we are now, and they help us consider who we will be in the future.

The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts serves the community as a place of inspiration, reflection, education, and stimulating activity. Part of the WCMFA visitor's everyday experience is the opportunity to encounter highly significant works of art by well-known artists in America and throughout the world.

 A portrait of Henry Robinson by Rembrandt Peale is one of the museum's "100 stories." It is a painting that has captured viewers across the decades and centuries.

Nearly 200 years old now, the engaging portrait reveals the character of a generous man; I encounter many visitors in communication with Robinson in the Smith Gallery of the museum.  It is a remarkable example of a work with an essential message that engages visitors and brings them back to the museum again and again.

The museum's collection is at the center of the museum's identity, defining it in the community and beyond. The board of trustees, director, and staff understand the importance of the collection to the community and the need for proper care and stewardship of the collection to maintain it for current and future generations.

In a very complex way, the museum engages with all three graces to determine what a work of art is worth: in its essence, in its social value, and through its monetary value.

Acknowledgment: I am grateful to museum trustee Spence Perry for sharing the Michael Findlay book with me.

Rebecca Massie Lane is director of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. For more about the museum, go to

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