Walters acquires precious rarities Ethiopian art: Walters Art Gallery recently purchased 17 objects that show little-known links between Africa and early Christianity.

August 11, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF WRITER

A 16-foot parchment fan made 500 years ago by Ethiopian monks. A painted wooden triptych showing Mary with a cloak of pale blue and eyes of deepest black. An ancient Gospel that contains in its illustrations rare clues to the architecture of Jerusalem at about 500 A.D.

These artworks, among a group of 17 Ethiopian objects recently purchased from two private collectors by the Walters Art Gallery, are a window into little-known links between early Christianity and Africa, and are the most significant acquisition made by the museum in decades.

Icons like these from Ethiopia were originally made as sacred objects, images to be venerated no less than a priest or a church. But in them also lay a forum for creative experimentation in color, portraiture and symbols -- indeed, the artistic expression of civilization.

By adding these wood, bronze and parchment objects to its permanent holdings, the Walters has assembled what may be the finest collection of Ethiopian art outside Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital.

It also may be the only museum to own important collections in the four basic Christian icon-making traditions: Byzantine, early Italian, Russian and Ethiopian.

And for Baltimoreans, the acquisition means that the museum's collection -- amassed in the 19th century by William Walters and his son, Henry, with its emphasis on Eastern and Western culture -- now includes significant African artworks.

In celebration, the Walters has invited a group of community leaders to a private unveiling Tuesday of its new artworks.

Beginning Wednesday, the Ethiopian artworks will go on public view and museum-goers will see -- alongside the icons from Italy or Byzantium -- equally magnificent Ethiopian works in which Mary, the Apostles, the Archangels and Christ are depicted as men and women of color.

"This acquisition builds and complements the collections we already have," says Gary Vikan, museum director. "It gets us out in front of other medieval collectors, and at the same time it responds to our constituency. It's wonderfully serendipitous."

Over the years, exhibitions of religious icons at the Walters have attracted large audiences. So have displays of African art -- particularly a 1993 show called, "African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia."

"We found an excellent vehicle in 'African Zion,' " says Ackneil M. Muldrow II, chairman of the Walters' African-American steering committee, whose goal is to increase involvement of the black community at the museum. In four months, the exhibition drew more than 60,000 people, won critical praise and inspired curators to put on other African shows such as the 1994 display of masks called "Secrecy: African Art that Conceals and Reveals."

Still, the question remained: "How do we have a permanent exhibition that involves the African-American community and still falls within the realm of the Walters museum?" said Muldrow, president of the Development Credit Fund Inc.

Vikan, a Byzantine art scholar who was named museum director in 1994, grew intrigued with Ethiopian art when he curated the African Zion show.

The popularity of that exhibition made him wonder: What if the Walters were to purchase Ethiopian icons? Galvanized by the steering committee, he began watching the world art market for Ethiopian iconic art.

But there was little out there.

In the spring of 1995, a call came from New York. An art dealer named William Wright thought he had something that might interest the Walters. And he was willing to give the museum's director first right of refusal.

Vikan sped to New York. There, spread out in a loft on the fifth floor of a Soho warehouse, was an Ethiopian art collection that belonged to New Yorkers Joseph and Margaret Knopfelmacher.

"It was off the charts in terms of historic value," Vikan says. "And three of the pieces were of almost unduplicatable quality outside of Ethiopia."

Without hesitation, Vikan put circular red "acquisition" stickers on about a dozen works. "It's like old cars or good chocolate: You either know it or you don't," he says. "I knew great Ethiopian art when I saw it."

L Now all that remained for the museum director to do was pay.

In the next few months, two other collectors, Nancy and Robert Nooter of Washington, also agreed to sell several pieces to the Walters. All told, says Vikan, the 17 Ethiopian artworks cost $300,000 -- an amount that may seem small in the art world but is a huge amount for a museum that rarely adds to its holdings.

As 1995 drew to a close, Wright, the dealer, began getting nervous: He had reserved the objects chosen by Vikan for the Walters, but during the wait for the actual purchase the price of the 15th-century fan, for which the Walters paid about $150,000, rose by $10,000.

By December, though, "because we had a really good year on the stock market," Vikan says, the Walters had enough money. And the art was theirs.

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