Richard Randall, a scholar still tickled by ivories

November 07, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Sometimes even museums don't know what they have.

When Baltimore scholar and former director of the Walters Art Gallery Richard Randall was working on his just-published book about medieval ivories in American collections, he sent out questionnaires to museums all over the country asking if they had any.

"I got a reply from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art saying they only had one, and it was a fake," Mr. Randall recalls. "Not worth my time. But a fake can be interesting, too, so I called and told them I was going to be in the area at such and such a time, and I'd like to see it."

"So I went there and met the curator, and all the way to the storeroom, he was telling me how I was wasting my time. So we got there, and over in the corner, covered with dust, was this box. And it is the greatest Venetian Embriachi box [made at the famed Embriachi workshop in Venice] in the world. And do you know who gave it to them? William Randolph Hearst."

But why would a museum be so wrong as to call a piece a fake that's not only genuine but great? "It was a case of the first curator in 1947 not knowing what he was looking at, and every succeeding curator ignored it."

The Los Angeles museum is not alone. "What I was amazed at in going around the country and looking at ivories was that so many people had never looked at the ivories in their collections."

He cites another case of an extremely important piece, a late-13th-century Virgin and Child from Paris that belongs to the Hispanic Society of America in New York. "It's superb, but it was not even cataloged by the Hispanic Society because it's not Spanish. [Joseph] Duveen [the famous dealer] had a custodia [a container to display the Host on the altar, this one late 16th-century Spanish] which was meant to have a metal stand in the center of it that held the wafer. But it didn't, so he put this Virgin and Child in it. When it went to the Hispanic Society, they unscrewed it and put it in storage. It's a case of being in the wrong museum."

Most museums in this country do not even have curators of medieval art, Mr. Randall says. "There are only about half a dozen in the country. Chicago, Cleveland, New York, the Walters, a couple of others." Entire collections can remain neglected. "The Wadsworth Atheneum [in Hartford, Conn.] has a wonderful collection of medieval art, and they have put it all away."

More attention will be paid now that "The Golden Age of Ivory: Gothic Carvings in North American Collections" has been published. It records 245 ivories, all the known ones of the Gothic period (13th to 15th centuries) in 61 North American museums and selected major examples in private collections.

Walters owns 109

It does not, however, record the two largest collections in the country, those of the Metropolitan Museum in New York (which owns 182) and the Walters (which owns 109). That's because a separate volume is being prepared on the Met ivories by curator Charles Little, and because the Walters ivories were published in 1985 by Mr. Randall, the Walters' director and its curator of medieval art from the 1960s to the 1980s.

In preparing his new book, Mr. Randall worked with a team of scholars he first assembled in 1974 when he was preparing his Walters book.

"When I was . . . doing the Walters catalog of Gothic ivories, I realized I didn't know enough about these things, and so I sought out others in the field. And I found out that there were only five people in the world who were really interested in the subject, and they all thought they didn't know enough."

They are, aside from Mr. Randall, Danielle Gaborit-Chopin at the Louvre in Paris, Neil Stratford at the British Museum, Paul Williamson at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and Charles Little at the Metropolitan.

"So we put together a group, and we all got together in Baltimore and looked at all the Walters ivories. We'd put one out and look at it, and somebody would say 'Paris.' And we'd say, 'Why?' And it went like that. And after we'd seen the Walters ivories, we looked at the Met's,and then the British Museum's, and so on."

This took place in separate meetings over a period of years. "And by the time we had seen all five collections we had seen about a third of all the Gothic ivories in the world."

They went through the same process for the present book, but because they couldn't visit 61 museums the group worked largely from photographs. Mr. Randall, however, went to see every ivory. As the Detroit Institute of Arts, with 29 ivories, has the largest number among the collections studied for the present volume, it sponsored the project and Detroit curator Peter Barnet joined the group of scholars.

Old, incorrect scholarship

Mr. Randall and his colleagues have discovered in their research over the years that scholarship accepted in the field for half a century was substantially wrong.

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