Something old, something new Museum shops a fine source for baubles and bangles

February 27, 1991|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Evening Sun Staff

Sporting earrings designed for aristocratic women of the sixth century or T-shirts which pledge allegiance to contemporary art, many fashionable dressers are borrowing classic elements of design from the museum world.

During the past 15 years, the museum has become a place to purchase - as well as admire - art. And reproductions of fine art jewelry have become some of the most popular merchandise in many museum stores.

"The reproduction of jewelry is an American phenomenon, we have led the world in reproductions," says Penny Proddow, author and jewelry historian. "It's a form of treasure-seeking for Americans."

L You might also consider it an investment in blue chip taste.

"The patterns and the designs that come from ancient and older pieces of art have withstood the test of time. People are finding that they are still really beautiful after thousands of years," says Julie Levesque, vice president of Museum Reproductions, a company which produces copies and adaptations of museum jewelry. Every piece of roughly 300 in MR's current stock - all taken from collections in the United States - comes with a detailed history about it.

The Walters Art Gallery has worked with the Boston-based company to develop reproductions of almost a dozen pieces in its collection, including gold disk earrings decorated with either lapis or garnet, Byzantine loop earrings, Egyptian scarab earrings, Greek boat-shaped earrings and a brooch adapted from a design on an ancient Greek necklace. The originals date from 500 B.C. to 1000 A.D.

Museum Reproductions markets the pieces, which range in price from $18 to $41, throughout the country to other art museum stores. In addition, the Walters jewelry has been featured in the mail order catalog of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

"People like the craftsmanship of ancient jewelry. They admire the technology, the multitude of colors and fresh forms," Proddow says. "Reproductions are new 'old,' but they aren't mainstreamed into the great broad highway of contemporary fashion.

"In memorable jewelry, there always has to be a sense of #F surprise, and one can't help but feel a sense of surprise with the reproductions. Reproductions will always center in those periods where there have been extraordinary craftsmen: in Egypt, the Graeco-Roman world, Byzantium. . .

"The jewelry of each of these periods has a character which is appealing and can probably always mesh with the current fashions."

Consumers also find it appealing to shop for jewelry in museum stores because they know their dollars benefit the museums, Levesque says. Virtually all of the items in museum stores are tax-exempt because they relate specifically to the institutions' various collections and serve to increase the public's knowledge of art. (The Walters Art Gallery's store, for instance, would not sell contemporary craft earrings while the Baltimore Museum of Art would not carry reproductions of ancient Greek necklaces.)

Profits from the stores support museums' educational departments, exhibitions programming and collections.

Once afterthought operations run by volunteers, museum stores often draw patrons who might not regularly visit exhibitions. A recent survey of the nation's largest art museums by Financial Reports showed that the stores of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution gross more than $50 million each year. Other museums with big income-producing stores include The Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, The Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the San Diego Museum of Art.

Many museum stores have also acquired managers with strong retailing credentials.

Since Bill O'Brien, formerly a buyer for Hutzlers, began to manage the Walters Art Gallery's store in 1985, the net profits grew from $3,200 to $135,000.

Last year's profit for the Baltimore Museum of Art's gift store -- the largest in Baltimore -- was $175,000, according to manager Steve Rostkowski.

And the Maryland Historical Society's gift shop, unusual for its offering of consignment items ranging from estate jewelry to antique china, grossed about $175,000, according to Barbara Gamse.

All of these museum stores feature fine jewelry, although the Walters is the only one to have commissioned reproductions. Julie Levesque calls the last five years "a boom time" for museum jewelry.

"People are really paying more attention to history, they have more of a sense of it," she says.

"Our mission at the museum store is to be an extension of the visitors' experience when they come to the gallery," says O'Brien.

Some museums have more ambitious educational agendas. The charter of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, declares that the Met should actively seek to improve Americans' taste by manufacturing copies of sculpture and other works of art for people to bring into their homes.

/# Or perhaps, wear out to dinner.

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