Sometimes even museums don't know what they have.
When Baltimore scholar and former director of the Walters Art Gallery Richard Randall was working on his just-published book about medieval ivories in American collections, he sent out questionnaires to museums all over the country asking if they had any.
"I got a reply from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art saying they only had one, and it was a fake," Mr. Randall recalls. "Not worth my time. But a fake can be interesting, too, so I called and told them I was going to be in the area at such and such a time, and I'd like to see it."
"So I went there and met the curator, and all the way to the storeroom, he was telling me how I was wasting my time. So we got there, and over in the corner, covered with dust, was this box. And it is the greatest Venetian Embriachi box [made at the famed Embriachi workshop in Venice] in the world. And do you know who gave it to them? William Randolph Hearst."
But why would a museum be so wrong as to call a piece a fake that's not only genuine but great? "It was a case of the first curator in 1947 not knowing what he was looking at, and every succeeding curator ignored it."
The Los Angeles museum is not alone. "What I was amazed at in going around the country and looking at ivories was that so many people had never looked at the ivories in their collections."
He cites another case of an extremely important piece, a late-13th-century Virgin and Child from Paris that belongs to the Hispanic Society of America in New York. "It's superb, but it was not even cataloged by the Hispanic Society because it's not Spanish. [Joseph] Duveen [the famous dealer] had a custodia [a container to display the Host on the altar, this one late 16th-century Spanish] which was meant to have a metal stand in the center of it that held the wafer. But it didn't, so he put this Virgin and Child in it. When it went to the Hispanic Society, they unscrewed it and put it in storage. It's a case of being in the wrong museum."
Most museums in this country do not even have curators of medieval art, Mr. Randall says. "There are only about half a dozen in the country. Chicago, Cleveland, New York, the Walters, a couple of others." Entire collections can remain neglected. "The Wadsworth Atheneum [in Hartford, Conn.] has a wonderful collection of medieval art, and they have put it all away."
More attention will be paid now that "The Golden Age of Ivory: Gothic Carvings in North American Collections" has been published. It records 245 ivories, all the known ones of the Gothic period (13th to 15th centuries) in 61 North American museums and selected major examples in private collections.
Walters owns 109
It does not, however, record the two largest collections in the country, those of the Metropolitan Museum in New York (which owns 182) and the Walters (which owns 109). That's because a separate volume is being prepared on the Met ivories by curator Charles Little, and because the Walters ivories were published in 1985 by Mr. Randall, the Walters' director and its curator of medieval art from the 1960s to the 1980s.
In preparing his new book, Mr. Randall worked with a team of scholars he first assembled in 1974 when he was preparing his Walters book.
"When I was . . . doing the Walters catalog of Gothic ivories, I realized I didn't know enough about these things, and so I sought out others in the field. And I found out that there were only five people in the world who were really interested in the subject, and they all thought they didn't know enough."
They are, aside from Mr. Randall, Danielle Gaborit-Chopin at the Louvre in Paris, Neil Stratford at the British Museum, Paul Williamson at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and Charles Little at the Metropolitan.
"So we put together a group, and we all got together in Baltimore and looked at all the Walters ivories. We'd put one out and look at it, and somebody would say 'Paris.' And we'd say, 'Why?' And it went like that. And after we'd seen the Walters ivories, we looked at the Met's,and then the British Museum's, and so on."
This took place in separate meetings over a period of years. "And by the time we had seen all five collections we had seen about a third of all the Gothic ivories in the world."
They went through the same process for the present book, but because they couldn't visit 61 museums the group worked largely from photographs. Mr. Randall, however, went to see every ivory. As the Detroit Institute of Arts, with 29 ivories, has the largest number among the collections studied for the present volume, it sponsored the project and Detroit curator Peter Barnet joined the group of scholars.
Old, incorrect scholarship
Mr. Randall and his colleagues have discovered in their research over the years that scholarship accepted in the field for half a century was substantially wrong.
In 1924, Raymond Koechlin published "Les Ivoires Gothiques Francais" ("French Gothic Ivories"), which for many years remained the standard source. "It was a wonderful book, but it said that all ivories were French, because France was the capital and the center of the style. Koechlin said, 'I can prove that France was the center of the industry.' That's what interested him and that's what he wrote about. Well, then, work stopped for 50 years. Everybody assumed that all ivories were French. All of us did. There was no literature later than 1924."
But, Mr. Randall writes in his book, Koechlin based his conclusions almost entirely on studying the style of Gothic ivories, to the exclusion of such important considerations as the source of the ivory's design, where it was found, its iconography and its provenance.
Mr. Randall and his colleagues found that many museums, following Koechlin's lead, had assigned to France ivories that study now indicates came from elsewhere. Mr. Randall himself, in his Walters book, assigned a 14th-century diptych to France that has since been seen to be German, possibly from Cologne. He reassigns it in the introduction to the present volume.
Though a large portion of Gothic ivories does indeed come from France, reassessments of the ivories in American collections have resulted in changing the place of origin of dozens.
"There's the whole Utrecht group," says Mr. Randall. "The style is in the 15th-century style of Utrecht. The St. George is Jan van Eyck's [after van Eyck's painting of the same subject]. And there's a whole group in the style, and where is it? In the Catharijneconvent in Utrecht. So my group attributes these to Utrecht."
There was not unanimity among the group in every case, as Mr. Randall freely states in the book's introduction. There was, for instance, the case of a group of diptychs with a depiction of the Trinity on them. Of three diptychs, six panels in all, Mr. Randall says, "Three are in England, two in America and one in Munich. All were said to be French. But this particular form of the Trinity is rife in English manuscripts and not in continental ones.
"When I proposed that they were English, the English scholars at first disagreed. But Danielle didn't think they were French. And now there's lots of evidence they're English."
As of now, Mr. Randall says, "Paul Williamson [of the Victoria and Albert] does think they're English and Neil Stratford [of the British Museum] doesn't agree." But it's Mr. Randall's book, so ultimately it was his responsibility to decide. In the book, they appear as "English, second quarter of 14th century."
Aside from reassigning place of origin, the group has been able to date many of the ivories more accurately. A magnificent polyptych in the Toledo Museum of Art had been called 14th-century. "But the 14th century is 100 years." Now it's not even assigned to the 14th century, but to 1280-1290.
Even before the book was published, Mr. Randall's research was having an effect in some museums he visited, and may well affect others in the future. Mr. Randall published nine ivories from the Lee collection at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, Calif. Peter Flagg, associate curator there, says the museum is planning a reinstallation of the European collection next year and among the ivories to be displayed will be the ones discussed in the book.
Linda Ross, curator of European decorative arts at the Wadsworth Atheneum, says that some of the museum's medieval objects were put on view in a new suite of galleries last year, but not the three Wadsworth ivories Mr. Randall published. But she added, "If Mr. Randall found that these are important ivories, the museum would make every effort to put them out."
David Johnson, acting director of the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, said Mr. Randall has already written the entry on their ivory for a catalog of the Taft collection to be published next year; and that he had also encouraged the museum to send the piece to an exhibit at the Louvre where it was rejoined with pieces from the same group for the first time since the French Revolution.
Mr. Randall's team of scholars has worked so well together that the Kress Foundation, which funded study for the present book through the Detroit Institute, thought their example might serve as a precedent for other such scholarly endeavors. But Mr. Randall doesn't recommend it without caveats. "I said fine, but make sure that they're all of the same generation, and nobody wants to take charge. If you have somebody who thinks he knows more than anybody else, it doesn't work."
Inevitably, the question arises as to which are the most important and beautiful works in "The Golden Age of Ivory." Mr. Randall is hesitant to make choices, but he does single out the Taft Museum's ivory, a Virgin and Child from the Church of St. Denis, made in Paris 1260-1280 and left to the museum by collector Charles Phelps Taft.
"It is one of the greatest pieces of French medieval sculpture in existence, and it's in perfect condition. It's the most important thing in the book, sold by Duveen to Charles Phelps Taft, and it was the only ivory he ever bought. Because when you have the best, where do you go from there?"