An artwork may look beautiful, but its story can also excite: that it once belonged to a French nobleman or an Olympian or an automobile magnate, or underwent a wide-ranging international journey.
For the past eight months I’ve been researching a selection of objects in the Getty’s decorative arts collection, focusing on provenance, or history of ownership. Provenance research involves tracking the life of an object from its creation until today, and forms one part of curators’ ongoing efforts to share the most up-to-date information about our collection online.
Determining an object’s path feels like putting together puzzle pieces, and can prove difficult and time-consuming. It has benefits, though: knowing who owned an object and when tells us more about the artwork’s cultural and historical context. As new scholarship is published and more archives are digitized and made accessible online, new research can yield fresh information even about objects we know well.
Here I’ll share with you a few of my recent discoveries about people and events behind four objects in the Getty’s decorative arts collections. All these discoveries relate to objects housed in a single room at the Museum—you can see them in the Getty Center’s South Pavilion, Gallery S111.
The Wall Lights and the Dutch Olympian
While working on the provenance of the gilded wall lights signed by Philippe Caffieri, I investigated someone named Henri Smulders. Our files indicated that these wall lights were sold at the 1934 sale of Smulders’s collection. Who was he?
Smulders, it turns out, was an accomplished Dutch sailor. He represented the Netherlands in the 1900 Paris Olympics and took second place in one sailing competition. He did not earn a medal, though, as medals were not awarded until the 1912 Olympics.
I found the official report from 1900 with the results of Smulders’s races, and located an article discussing his art collection and 1934 sale. These documents tell us more about one former owner’s impressive life and add an unexpected puzzle piece to the story of these wall lights.
The Barometer and the German Businesswoman
In 1986 the Getty Museum bought this barometer, which was made in France in the 1770s. Many owners possessed this object over its long life. I wanted to know about the mysterious “Frau Quandt” to whom the firm Alexander and Berendt sold the barometer in Bad Homburg, Germany, in 1970. Since someone at the Getty had tried to find her last, search engines and online databases have improved, and I was able to identify her. She passed away in 2015, and newspapers published obituaries and articles about her then.
“Frau Quandt” was Johanna Maria Quandt, wife of Herbert Quandt, who took over the automaker BMW in the late 1950s and grew it into an extremely successful car brand. Johanna owned a 16.7% stake in BMW, making her one of the wealthiest women in Germany.
I concluded that Johanna owned the barometer, rather than her daughter or another female Quandt relative, because other relatives did not live in Bad Homburg and because her daughter was too young to buy art in 1970. Johanna’s parents were also art historians, and she funded cultural groups. These facts, in addition to her wealth, point to her having had an art collection.
The Candelabra and the Argentinian Collector
When the Museum bought this pair of bronze candelabra from the firm French and Company in New York City in 1972, the firm said it had purchased them from one Jacques Helft. Helft had bought them from a South American collector, but French and Company could provide no more information.
A 1988 letter in the candelabra’s file from François-Gérard Seligmann, of the firm Seligmann and Co., informed us that he had owned the candelabra in the late 1940s and had sold them to “Carreras Saavedra.” My research uncovered Luis María Carreras Saavedra, an Argentinian art collector. Was he the South American collector from whom Helft bought the candelabra?
In the Seligmann and Co. records at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, which holds the papers of artists, collectors, and dealers, I found correspondence between Saavedra and Georges Seligmann, François-Gérard’s cousin. Though the letters do not mention the candelabra, a few reference Jacques Helft, who seems to have been a mutual friend or colleague. Helft was French but lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the 1950s. For these reasons, I concluded that Saavedra likely sold the candelabra to Helft.
The provenance of these bronze pieces demonstrates the internationality of the mid-20th-century art market. Who would have thought these 1770s candelabra would journey from Paris to Buenos Aires to New York City to Los Angeles in the space of 25 years!
The Cabinet and the King’s Valet
This artwork sparked a research project that extended much further than a single piece. Made in the early 1770s, it is an elaborate secrétaire, a cabinet that opens to reveal a writing surface.
The secrétaire appeared in two Paris auctions in the 1780s, and we have sale catalogues describing this distinctive piece. The first sale, of the possessions of “Monsieur de Billy,” occurred in 1784. An annotation in the catalogue says that “Desmarest” purchased the sécretaire. The second sale, in 1787, included the Comte de Vaudrieul’s collection. “Lerouge” bought this piece, according to the catalogue’s annotation.
Vaudrieul’s full name was Joseph Hyacinthe François de Paule de Rigaud. The 1784 seller, “Monsieur de Billy,” proved elusive, but I eventually found him by reading descriptions of the sale. Armand Pierre François Chastre de Cangé, Sieur de Billy, held the position of premier valet de garde-robe du roi, the nobleman in charge of the king’s dressing room.
But who were Desmarest and Lerouge? My research on Paillet and Lebrun, the dealers who ran these two sales, led me to information about the mystery men. In recent years, scholars have published new material on the 18th-century Parisian art market. Those publications include lots of information on Paillet and Lebrun, but they also discuss other art dealers – and that’s how I found Desmarest and Lerouge. Nicolas Lerouge (1752–1827) sold art and lived near Lebrun. Scholars know less about Desmarest, but he also sold art and had an office noted as “rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau.”
Numerous Getty artworks appear in 18th-century Parisian sales, so knowing more about the art market and dealers from this time will help identify and augment these other artworks’ provenance as well. This investigation will benefit many objects, so I’ll continue to research. Sometimes a small question turns into a large project, showing the evolving and ongoing process of research.
Every piece of art contains stories about its origin within it. It’s the curator’s job to discover the artwork’s journey and share it with the public. It feels satisfying to start with a tiny piece of information and end up with an additional layer of an artwork’s story.