The Walters opening

Crates reveal what might be entire catalog of donor's holdings at his death

November 03, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

As Walters Art Museum conservator Elissa O'Loughlin pulled back the lid to one of two wooden crates left in the museum's attic for decades, Gary Vikan broke the tension.

"Oh, my God, not another Monet! We have much too many of those," the museum's director said.

The audience burst into laughter. Vikan was standing too far away to see the crates' contents -- volumes of well-preserved black, leather-bound photo albums and one box.

O'Loughlin opened the box and removed an 80-page red leather book. She gently pulled apart the covers and read aloud from the second page.

"Baltimore, July 8, 1932."

"The items listed in this book, together with the 22 volumes of albums containing photographs, form a record of the contents of the Walters Art Gallery and dwelling at No. 5 W. Mount Vernon Place," she read.

The "dwelling," actually a mansion, was a home of museum founder Henry Walters, who died in 1931.

"It appears to be an inventory." O'Loughlin, 54, told the audience and then continued to read silently.

"It is," she told the audience. "This page says, `Taken from the drawers of Mr. Walter's desk at 5 W. Mount Vernon Place: One broken iron, or bronze ring; one small green terra cotta monkey; one small glazed figurine; a Tiffany broach.'"

The audience broke into applause.

It will take conservators and curators at the Walters months to comb through the thousands of photographs in the crates and determine their significance. But O'Loughlin and Vikan believe that they've found a complete catalog of the museum's contents at the time of Walter's death.

A reclusive industrialist, Walters destroyed some of his records and others burned in the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. But with these records, O'Loughlin believes the museum will be able to re-create how the reclusive millionaire chose to display his art.

Scribbled in red pencil on each silver gelatin photograph is the piece's location -- "North Gallery, East Wall," for instance. And written on the back of some of the prints is the name of the art dealer from whom Walters purchased the piece.

Henry Walters always destroyed the price of his purchases, so that the acquisition wouldn't make headlines, according to Lee Schwark, a museum docent for 17 years.

Using the inventory and photographs in the crates, museum conservationists may be able to piece together more than the initial cost of the 22,000-item collection. The red leather book, for instance, contains a list of about 30 items, many of them small, which had been photographed earlier in the 20th century but deemed "missing" by 1932.

"We'll be able to reconstruct what every gallery looked like," O'Loughlin said.

O'Loughlin discovered the locked crates in the museum's attic in July. They had arrived at the museum in 1969 from Mercantile Bank, formerly Safe Deposit and Trust Co., where Walters once served as chairman. Since the discovery of the crates, the museum has been publicizing their unveiling and holding a contest to guess the contents.

Megan Hildebrandt, 23, an artist and former museum employee, speculated before the debut that the crates contained a comb for Henry Walters' mustache and white dye to get the tobacco stains out of it.

"I used to stare at his portrait on the fourth floor on my lunch break and think, `God, how did he maintain that thing?'" she said.

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