The planned sale of the art collection amassed by William and Frances Haussner, owners of Baltimore's landmark Haussner's restaurant, marks the loss of a small but unique chunk of Baltimore history, say local museum officials.
"The influence the Haussner's collection had on several generations of Baltimoreans can't be overstated," said Rebecca Hoffberger, director of the American Visionary Art Museum.
Over the years, Hoffberger said, countless young Baltimoreans "got their earliest experiences of wonderful art" during family dinners and birthday parties at the 73-year-old Baltimore eatery, which is going out of business at the end of the month.
On Nov. 2, 145 paintings and sculptures from the collection will be sold at auction by Sotheby's in New York. The next day 50 examples of decorative arts will be sold. The total proceeds from both sales is estimated to be around $8 million. A much larger group of less important works will be sold in December by auctioneer Richard Opfer in Timonium.
In recent years the Haussner collection had become a major draw not only for art-loving local residents but also for out-of-town visitors and tourists, who often went out of their way to dine in Haussner's delightful ambience that brought art and life together.
"A lot of what's there is already in other collections here, though maybe not in as lavish numbers," said Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
"What represents a great loss to me is when you have something like this that makes Baltimore unique," Bolger said. "It is something you could never duplicate. It was a great destination and it seems sad to lose it. A city is a composite of a multitude of such destinations, and every time we lose one it hurts us all."
As a collection, the Haussner artworks have steadily risen in importance in recent decades as art historians, curators and critics have come to re-evaluate the aesthetic and cultural sources of 20th-century Modernism.
"Many of the artists they collected were the ones who created the context out of which the Modern movement emerged," said William R. Johnston, associate director and curator of 18th- and 19th-century art at the Walters Art Gallery.
"What the Haussner collection shows is the many facets of 19th-century art: French academic painting and sculpture, German and American landscape painting, decorative arts. It's sort of an international hodgepodge that gives you a survey of what people were buying in the late 19th and early 20th centuries."
The Haussners bought most of their paintings and other artworks during the decades between 1920 and 1940, when prices for such 19th-century academic artists as Adolphe Bouguereau and Jean Leon Gerome were relatively cheap compared to the Impressionists and early Modernists.
"Artists like Bouguereau and Gerome were the official painters of France when France was the art capital of the European world," Johnston said. "To some extent, they represented what the Modernists were rebelling against."
For example, the Haussners purchased an early work by the English artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema, "Entrance to the Roman Theater," whose depiction of a family arriving at the entrance to a theater in Pompeii exemplifies the sentimental Victorian style. Painted in 1866, the picture is still in its original frame.
Nineteenth century art was dominated by artists trained in the academic tradition of realistic drawing and perspective. Bouguereau and Gerome grew wealthy and celebrated as supreme masters in their time.
The Haussners also collected many German and American artists who are not well represented in most museums. Artists like Roy Bet, who painted pictures of 17th-century cavaliers, or Herbert George Schmalz, whose syrupy scenes from Arthurian legend were enormously popular in their time.
Then there were such genre specialists as Charles Delort, who made a good living with his so-called cardinal paintings, in which jolly ecclesiastical officials were depicted enjoying such pastimes as drinking wine or playing cards. Or take Chocarne Moreau, who painted scenes of boys being bitten by lobsters and other quotidian events.
"The Modernists would have considered these kinds of scenes anathema, but in 1910 artists like Delort and Moreau were considered the big shots of the art world," Johnston said.
When the Haussners were amassing the bulk of their collection, many great houses of the wealthy who had had these paintings were being broken up and sold, and many of the artists had been forgotten.
Painters like Lawrence Alma-Tadema or Jakob Bierstadt could be had for a few thousand -- or a few hundred -- dollars.
But, in recent years, prices on their works have been rising sharply due to a resurgence of interest that began in the 1970s. The auction of academic paintings from the collection of "Candid Camera" producer Allan Funt in 1973 at Sotheby's marked a new day for works that formerly had been considered bordering on kitsch.
The significance of the rise in value of the Haussner collection has as much to do with changing fashion in art as with the intrinsic worth of the paintings. Similar changes in taste have occurred in earlier eras.
"Artists like Jan Vermeer and Fran Hals were ignored in the 18th century, but with the birth of Realism and Impressionism in the 19th century, people suddenly put on new glasses and Hals, for example, suddenly looked like this great precursor," said Joaneath Spicer, curator of renaissance and baroque art at the Walters.
"Its partly the way all of us are influenced by the art around us," Spicer says. "One of the functions of art history as a discipline is to try to separate ourselves from contemporary taste and be objective."
A similar reasoning could be applied to explain the resurgence of interest in 19th-century realism today.
"The rise of advertising and commercial illustration makes a lot of 19th-century art look better because it looks familiar," Spicer said. "Norman Rockwell and TV ads based on a sympathetic view of intimate home life inevitably are going to have an impact on our view of 19th-century art, which dealt with the same kinds of subjects."