By Harriet P. Gross
While most people shop today on eBay and in more traditional venues, a very privileged few make astoundingly expensive buys at Bonhams, one of the world’s oldest and largest art and antique auctioneering firms.
In business since 1793, Bonhams recently sold an old ballet costume for 12,000 British pounds — something approaching $13,000 U.S.
Why would anyone want it? And at such a high price? Well, this item happens to be both artistic and historic. It was worn on May 13, 1912, when the Ballets Russes premiered “Le Dieu Bleu” at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris.
This year marks a century since Sergei Diaghilev first brought his Russian dance company to Paris. He attracted the time’s greatest artists to work with him on scenery and costumes, people like Picasso and Matisse. And Bakst.
Who? A Jew from the Russian Pale of Settlement, a young man who left his czar-run homeland for less army and more art in Western Europe. While Jean Cocteau was writing the story for “The Blue God,” and Michael Fokine was creating its choreography, Leon Samoilovich Bakst was dreaming up settings for the stage, and costumes for those who would dance on it.
All things Oriental were the rage in France then, and Diaghilev’s ballet fed the crowd: It was the story of an East Indian god who brings together two star-crossed lovers. The great Nijinsky himself danced the part of the god, and only God above would know what his costume would have brought at auction. It, however, no longer exists. Neither do any others from that ballet except the one recently sold at Bonhams, the colorful dress worn by a dancer in the corps de ballet. Collectors craved the Bakst design which strongly influenced Parisian fashion a hundred years ago.
This auction, held at one of Bonhams’ seven salesrooms in England, featured costumes and textiles only. It raised a total of almost 125,000 pounds, with the Bakst offering as star of the show.
Bonhams’ next big sale featured antique European glass. And although final figures from it aren’t yet available, the major item here also has a Jewish connection. It’s the “Field Cup,” a Venetian bowl dating back to the late 15th century and once owned by several Rothschilds: the Barons Alphonse and Edouard of Paris, and most recently the Baroness Batsheva of Tel Aviv. It takes its name from the original collector, Englishman George Field, born before the turn of the 19th century; he is supposed to have sold it to the first Rothschild owner during a major art exhibition in 1857. The recent auction price is said to be an astounding 220,000 British pounds.
Circling this large, footed, blue bowl is a gold band bearing the Latin inscription Tempore Felici Multi Nominantur Amici, which — loosely translated — means “People have lots of friends when times are good.” Jews, including the Rothschilds, have always known that.
So did Professor Curt Glaser, who back in 1933 held his own auction in Berlin. He sold his home furnishings, his extensive library and much of his private art collection as he prepared to leave Germany — another sale with potent Jewish echoes today.
Glaser had lost both his position as director of the Berlin State Art Library, and the state-owned apartment he lived in, because he was a Jew. He was smart to get out of the country. But he was not so smart in writing to his dear friend, the noted artist Edvard Munch, that “I am happy to unburden myself of my possessions.”
This single comment has caused the British Spoliation Advisory Panel (SAP) to recommend that eight valuable drawings sold at that auction, now nesting in London’s Courtauld Institute, should not be returned to the seller’s heirs.
The heirs say Glaser’s sale was due to Nazi persecution; Glaser wouldn’t have had to “unburden” himself of his belongings and leave Germany if he hadn’t been a persecuted Jew. German officials today agree, opining that the auction was in fact a distress sale to finance Glaser’s flight. But SAP maintains that Glaser had “mixed motives” for his departure, making any claims to his sold artworks “morally insufficient” to warrant returning them to his heirs today.
Glaser sold 1500 items at that auction. No footed blue Venetian glass bowl was among them, certainly not any with an inscription noting how many friends a man has during good times — and how few during the bad ones. Which, in this case, seem to have returned after more than 75 years.
By Harriet P. Gross