Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Ceramic Pieces, Pre-Columbian Art and Byzantine Jewelry


Mid-20th-century experimental ceramists holed up in cottages around La Borne, a hamlet in central France. They had immigrated there from Denmark, Germany and Bulgaria to take advantage of the region’s clay and its tradition of producing stoneware food jars and chimney pots.

The artisans laboriously hauled around their own raw materials, water and mud by the bucketfuls. They mixed earth-tone glazes with pyrite specks and fed kilns with logs from hornbeam and birch trees felled in nearby forests.

Elisabeth Joulia, one longtime resident potter, once summarized their routines as “a long step from clay to clay, from kiln to kiln, in which each day of life is inscribed.”

Hugues Magen, who owns Magen H Gallery in Greenwich Village, has spent a decade gathering about 100 works for “La Borne: 1940-1980,” an exhibition that opens there on Nov. 8 (with prices into the five figures per piece). He tracked down artisans who were reluctant to reminisce about their years of hardship in the French village.

“They didn’t even want to revisit it,” he said during a recent preview of the show. “They had somewhat blocked it out.”

He has studied different styles that emerged in La Borne, based on influences like abstract and Surrealist paintings, Bronze Age Cycladic statues and prehistoric French cave murals.

Ms. Joulia left visible thumbprints on the clay. Jean Lerat and Yves Mohy etched spiraling and crosshatched lines resembling African scarification patterns into their vessels. Anne Kjaersgaard used drippy, creamy glaze formulas that she had learned from the British innovator Bernard Leach, and Solange Garotte molded thin ruffled fronds. Mr. Magen is apt to call the objects “he” or “she,” depending on the sex of the creator.

“They all have their own identity,” he said, as he walked along a display shelf. “They all have their own conversation.”


A Swiss family has withdrawn long-term loans of pre-Columbian artifacts to a Barcelona museum, which closed on Sept. 14. The Barbier-Muellers, two generations of Swiss art collectors active in fields ranging from Renoir and Picasso paintings to African masks and ancient Vietnamese daggers, had planned to sell more than 300 pre-Columbian pieces to Spanish government groups for about $26 million, but the financing fell through.

The contents of the Barbier-Mueller Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, which had occupied a 15th-century palace near a Picasso museum since 1997 until it closed, have been consigned for a March auction at Sotheby’s in Paris. Highlights have been traveling to Sotheby’s branches, and 20 will be on view at the New York showroom from Nov. 3 to 13.

On the Barcelona museum’s closing day, the newspaper El País reported, “There were barely 20 last-minute visitors to the world’s largest private collection of pre-Hispanic art.”

Estimates at Sotheby’s reach into the seven figures apiece for terra-cotta, stone and wood vessels, masks and statues of deities and animals, made by cultures scattered from Alaska to Patagonia. A few had previously belonged to famous expatriates in Mexico, including the film director John Huston and the French-Canadian collector Guy Joussemet.

Collectors in the pre-Columbian field typically focus on one region. But Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller, the family patriarch, preferred to cover the whole Western Hemisphere.

“He bought against the currents of fashion,” said Jacques Blazy, Sotheby’s specialist for the sale.

Other portions of the family’s art collection remain on view elsewhere. At the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva, a show of 100 masks includes pieces from Asia, Africa and the Americas, along with contemporary face protectors for athletes and workers.

In Manhattan the family has lent works to the current Neue Galerie retrospective of the Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler. Gabriel and Ann Barbier-Mueller, a son and daughter-in-law of Jean Paul and his wife, Monique, have been lending their samurai armor and artifacts for traveling displays; the Museum of Civilization in Quebec City is showing the pieces through early 2013.

African gold objects that the family assembled, which now belong to a mining company, are displayed in an 18th-century Dutch slaveholder’s house in Cape Town.


The ancient Romans tried to ban most jewelry. “The worst crime against man’s life was committed by the person who first put gold on his fingers,” Pliny the Elder wrote around A.D. 78.

Despite imperial decrees, commoners still went to extremes with precious-metal commissions, and the trend gained ground after Rome fell. Byzantine leaders shamelessly posed for mosaic portraits “bedecked in jewels, pearls and sumptuous garments,” the historian Jeffrey Spier writes in the catalog for “Byzantium and the West: Jewelry in the First Millennium,” a show that opens on Thursday at Les Enluminures gallery in Manhattan.

The gallery is offering about 40 pieces (with estimates into the six figures each) that helped Byzantines flaunt their wealth. Rock crystals, emeralds and garnets, and the occasional glass imitation, are set on long prongs. Filigree gold pinnacles on ring settings look like church spires. Key patterns woven into their shafts were meant to imply that the wearer had “valuable property locked up at home,” Mr. Spier writes.

Encouraging slogans about military victory and marital harmony are engraved on the gold, along with the first names of a few original owners. Portraits of brides and grooms appear on marriage rings, detailed down to the jewelry dangling from the brides’ hair and necks.

The gallery’s owner, Sandra Hindman, acquired the objects mainly through private collectors, and provenance trails rarely survive. “There’s virtually no auction market,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I like to say it’s a market from pocket to pocket.”

There are stirrings of an auction market. On Dec. 5 an antiquities auction at Christie’s in New York will offer Byzantine jewelry, with estimates ranging from $2,500 for a ring engraved with a menorah to $300,000 for a pearl-and-sapphire pendant.

Ms. Hindman’s next jewelry research projects focus on wearable reliquaries, which contain saints’ artifacts, and posy rings, etched with love poems. The British jewelry dealer Wartski Ltd. has reprinted a 1931 reference book, “English Posies and Posy Rings,” that collected rhyming inscriptions like “God sent her me my wife to be” and “Be truly wise lest death surprise.”