Detective Work

Detective work is fun!

Last week, a major museum asked for my help in locating a work of art I adore and about which I’ve written. They’re considering its inclusion in a forthcoming exhibition. For many years, the art work belonged to a gallerist/dealer who helped me long ago as I researched my dissertation. I fell in love with this piece and made them pull it out for me to admire each time I visited. At one point they decided to divest themself of it, and I tried every strategy I was capable of to place it in a major public collection because it’s important, beautiful, and deserves to be publicly accessible.

All efforts in vain. Despite its painting-size scale and appearance, it’s a drawing, and the curators who champion those are not the same as the ones responsible for acquiring paintings. Each curator in a museum has a clearly circumscribed zone of influence. Back then, I found paintings curators who loved it, but not drawings curators. One day, my gallerist friend informed me that it’d been sold. I went into mourning. For some reason I had understood that a small regional museum in a neighboring country had acquired it. I’d always wondered which but never got around to investigating. The thought made me wistful.

Then, last week, a museum e-mailed me. Could I put them in touch with the current owner? With renewed curiosity about the drawing’s whereabouts, I wrote to my gallerist friend. We haven’t met for almost a decade, and they’ve frequently ignored my texts and emails. But not this one!

The gallerist disclosed the name of the person to whom it was sold – I’m not sure if they’re a collector per se, or just someone who fell in love with the work or felt it complemented their domestic decor – and their cell phone number, unsure if it was still valid.

Not overly hopeful (a lot can change in ten years!), I composed and sent a text outlining the exhibition’s parameters and the central role their artwork would play. A few hours later, my usually silent phone pinged. I looked. A long text from the owner! They remembered, affectionately, the gallerist (they circulate in the same, very small social circles), had many questions, and were, in principal, happy to lend!

I was over the moon. I could hardly believe that in less than 36 hours I’d tracked down a work of art that had vanished from my radar screen long ago and that I’d feared had disappeared from my life forever! This news thrilled me as much as when a long lost friend reestablishes contact. I immediately responded to the owner’s concerns and informed the museum that I could facilitate contact with the owner.

Why might an artwork’s owner want to lend to a museum exhibition? The reasons range from the altruistic (wanting to share significant objects they own with others) to the venal (boosting a work’s value in advance of its sale). Often, when you read a museum label and notice the work is on loan from a private collection, it is either a promised gift that the owner is permanently or temporarily parking there, or else the owner hopes to generate excitement about a work that will soon go to the auction block. But since the owner didn’t take the initiative, the most likely reason is their willingness to share something they can envision doing without for a while. And, perhaps, the prestige of exhibiting at a major museum a largely unknown work that has always been in private hands, one that encapsulates an era and its values in a way few works do, constitutes a kind of flattery, or at least satisfying affirmation of the owner’s good judgement. We’ll find out more—if the work actually appears in the exhibition—depending on whether or not the owner chooses to lend anonymously or not.

While I’d love to share an image of this magnificent artwork (and the names of the public figures of whom I write), discretion demands that I do not, although, rest assured, should it be publicly displayed, I’ll be shouting from the rooftops, lingering in the gallery where it hangs, and wondering if it’s missed me as much as I’ve missed it. Stay tuned!

By michellefacos

I am a multi-lingual art historian, consultant (art, travel, writing), editor, entrepreneur, lecturer, and writer who has lived along the shores of the Baltic, the Mediterranean, and Lake Erie, in New York and in Paris, and in the forests of Quebec and Sweden. While I’ve lived a semi-nomadic existence for the past few decades, I’m inching toward a life anchored in Europe.

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