Old Haussner's in Highlandtown hid a trove of Cortes treasures in plain sight

June 28, 2008|By Jacques Kelly

Your eyes never quite knew where to gaze at art-filled old Haussner's Restaurant in Highlandtown. But if you looked toward the ceiling, near the lights and the ventilation system, a long row of paintings in heavy gilt frames seemed to be the extra guests at the party.

There, above the larger, more eye-catching paintings arrayed at comfortable eye level, were the works of Edouard-Leon Cortes, a French painter who lived from 1882 to 1969.

It was a Cortes painting, named the Flower Market, that made national news this week when it turned up, left as a donation at the Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake at Easton.

The painting went on to bring nearly $40,000 at auction - far more than the $200 that could have bought it during the Dwight Eisenhower years.

Dozens of Cortes paintings once resided in Baltimore at Haussner's. When I first looked at these pictures in the 1950s, Cortes was still living. In fact, William and Frances Haussner, the restaurant's founders, were buying his works in New York, bringing them to Baltimore and selling them for something in the $200-range in a gift shop they operated for a number of years.

When the Haussner gift shop closed, they took its remaining Cortes inventory and hung the many paintings in what space remained - a kind of upper balcony of the walls.

The Haussner Cortes paintings had so much competition. There were many larger, bolder, more memorable canvases - dogs, children and pretty women. There were dozens of marble busts of Roman emperors. There were fancy Bohemian glass decanters. There were the nudes in the men's bar.

Cortes' work, by comparison, seemed way too numerous and small, too dribbly (every scene seemed to be on a misty day) and just not as forceful as the neighboring works.

And yet, for all that, the Cortes paintings at Haussner's were part of a grand tradition. The scenes of the Paris Opera House, the Church of the Madeleine and vistas along the grand boulevards seemed to evoke a 1950s view of Paris, especially of a hopeful and recovering Europe after World War II. They had the effect of a travel poster. They made you want to book passage.

Now, as to the big question: Was the Easton-found Cortes a Highlandtown-purchased Cortes? I cannot say. I spoke with Frances Haussner George, whose parents owned the restaurant and bought the art, to get her thoughts. She believes that if she could examine the frame and its nameplate she might be able to determine whether the painting was one her parents handled.

She also recalled a day some years ago when she and her mother realized that a one-time $200 Cortes was then a $5,000 Cortes.

I recall in 1999, when the Haussner collection was sold in New York after the restaurant closed, how the bidders battled over the Corteses that were once for sale on Baltimore's Eastern Avenue.

For so many years the art critics didn't like the amazingly prolific Cortes. Some reviewers called his scenes of the boulevards of Paris "tourist art," the kind of painting that a visitor would buy and take home in a suitcase. There was nothing economy class about the sale of the Cortes paintings. They went for about $20,000 to $25,000 per painting in 1999. Now they are up to $40,000.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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