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Friday, September 17, 2004

Hidden in Plain Sight

Over the last few days I’ve come across two articles (on separate topics and run in separate papers) that contain some interesting similarities.

Both focus on paintings that can currently be seen in Philadelphia, and both give estimated values of $30 million for the works they discuss.

But that’s where the similarities end.

If you’re interested in seeing this $60 million in art, you’ll have to go to very different places. A trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art will get you a glimpse of the first $30 million—Vermeer’s A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals. For a view of the other $30 million, you’ll need to visit a host of the city’s public schools—sometimes looking in public spaces, sometimes peeking behind the boiler.

The Philadelphia public schools recently engaged an art consultant to inventory and value their “collection.” After finding 1200 pieces across the school system, the expert delivered the verdict. The school district owns 100 museum-quality works, including a 1902 Thomas Eakins portrait of Central High School principal John Seely Hart which has been valued at $600,000. The unacknowledged heroes of this story are the school system’s janitors. More than one painting was picked from the trash over the years and hung in the boiler room to liven up the surroundings.

Across town, the anonymous buyer of the Vermeer has placed it on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The article speculates on who the owner is, but more interesting to me is the strategy the owner is using for securing his massive investment in a miniscule painting. Rather than secreting the work away in a vault, he’s found a museum that’s willing to park the work for him. Big collectors occasionally use this strategy when they are trying to close a deal and don’t want the responsibility of holding onto a large art investment until the deal is done. Leonard Lauder also used the galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to store several pieces as he built up the collection of works he eventually gave to the Whitney.

Both articles point out how easily artwork can be hidden when it’s placed in plain sight. In the case of the Philadelphia Schools, the context of display obscured the quality (and value) of the work for those who saw it. In the case of the Vermeer (the value of which is very well known), the work is probably more secure by virtue of the fact that it’s in full public view at an institution than it would be if it were held privately. I’ll leave it up to Modern Art Notes to weigh in on the ethics of this particular museological practice.

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