Talking museums out of priceless art Groundwork: To create the "Pandora's Box" exhibit, Walters curator Ellen Reeder worked for years with her counterparts from some of the world's most prestigious museums.

January 03, 1996|By Melissa Grace | Melissa Grace,SUN STAFF

Wandering through "Pandora's Box: Women in Classical Greece," contemplating the exhibit's beauty and power, it becomes apparent that one of the show's most vital qualities is invisible -- the heroic effort involved in bringing these pieces together.

Curators have every reason to resist lending their art works to other museums. The pieces are irreplaceable and often fragile. The Greeks, who have seen their ancient art spirited away by private collectors and foreign museums, are especially wary because the art is so central to their national and cultural identity.

Those were among the obstacles faced by Ellen Reeder, the Walters Art Gallery curator who put together the "Pandora" exhibit. There are 127 works of ancient Greek art on loan to the Walters for this exhibit. Each is more than 2,400 years old.

But the Greek government was merely one source Dr. Reeder had to win over. She managed to convince curators at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Museo Archeologico Regionale Di Palermo and the British Museum in London, among 51 other museums and private collectors, to loan her their finest representations of women in ancient Greece.

It is easier for Western institutions to borrow art from Russia and the ex-Soviet Union now than it was in the Cold War era, but the bureaucracy and logistics are still daunting. Getting a fax through is rarely a one-shot deal but is better than trying to get through by telephone. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Warsaw Museum didn't have a fax machine. Nonetheless, Dr. Reeder got through -- and got the loans, the first to the West at least since Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939.

A German museum's decision to loan involves a totally different set of considerations. A principle one is how a piece of art got to Germany. Because many were looted by Hitler and his armies during World War II, each piece is checked for legal claims against it. There must be none before an art object is given "indemnity against seizure" by the United States.

Six German museums lent art to Dr. Reeder for "Pandora," but only after, she said, each piece checked out free of claims.

An entirely different problem is to get private collectors to loan. "They often don't want their art to be gone for very long because they like to look at them," said Anne Bromberg, the local curator for "Pandora" when it travels to the Dallas Museum of Art. There are 17 pieces from private collections at the Walters.

Museum-quality art from ancient Greece is often considered priceless, and that is the case for the pieces on display at the Walters. Comparison to pieces sold at auction is difficult, and most art specialists hesitate to venture a guess. "A black figure vase," said Theo Padavano of the Michael Ward Gallery in New York City, "could sell for half a million dollars. The next one on auction could sell for an eighth of that." That is because each piece is unique.

So, how did Dr. Reeder get "99 percent" of the art she asked for.

"First, there's years of research, so that by the time you walk into a museum you have a personal relationship with the curator, you know what you want and you know that piece as if it was yours," she said. She started her research in 1988 and began asking for loans in 1992.

"I didn't ask for dangerous pieces," ones that are too delicate to travel, she said. "You have to convince the curator why that piece is essential to your show. Also, you have to create the impression that your show is going to be a first-class exhibition.

"It's like building a house of cards. You build without knowing yet what you are getting."

Dr. Reeder described this process in her office at the Walters, cradling a six-inch thick, loosely bound and tattered bundle of papers.

In her "bible" are photocopies of pictures, photocopies of catalog descriptions, actual photographs and her own notes, all the research she did before going to each museum personally to ask for a loan.

This bible is the prototype of the "Pandora" catalog.

"I started with the Russians," said Dr. Reeder. "Because they are prestigious and that helps others decide to loan." Then she went to Poland. About getting the Warsaw museum to loan, she said, "Ah, my God, that built momentum. Then the Germans, their scholarship is so respected. Again, that puts a stamp of approval on the show and it builds excitement."

The director of the Museum of Greek and Roman Antiquities in Berlin wanted to know what the Russians were lending her. When she told him she was getting the Hermitage's head vase by Charinos he was surprised enough to say, "They're not going to let it go! Then I will too!"

The Berlin museum has the second of a pair of heads signed by the artist. They were excavated from a tomb in Italy in 1882. Until now, they have not been together since the excavation.

The Hermitage also lent Dr. Reeder a caryatid mirror on which a figure of Aphrodite serves as the handle. "She was the original Barbie doll," she said of the Greek goddess of love.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.