25 May 2011

Fun and games in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires
Source: Flickr via © Gustavo Brazalle
If you love art and food and drink and ‘joie de vivre,’ Buenos Aires is for you.
What a city!
What art!
It overflows with art!

So much so, that one wonders…
Who’s buying?
Who’s selling?
Does anyone care?
And you might even really wonder if some of it is real?

Take the collection put together by María Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat which is housed in a swanky, gleaming white rectangular structure at Puerto Madero, in the toniest section of Buenos Aires, nestled next to soaring skyscrapers.

"The Tower of Babel", Maarten van Heemskerck
Source: De Jonckheere Gallery
Therein hangs a painting by Piotr Brueghel, “El Censo en Belen.” Totally fooled just looking at it. How does a painting by Brueghel end up in this space largely devoted to Argentine artists? A bit out of place, no? Its framing tells the visitor that this piece is a showcase. However, further inquiry confirms that the painting is an elaborate copy and that the original remains in Brussels at the Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts. But there is no indication at Fortabat that the painting is not genuine. The other painting which is stunning and invites greater interest is by Maarten van Heemskerck, “The Tower of Babel.” Although Fortabat is mum on its lineage, a bit of poking around leads to a Paris gallery, de Jonckheere, where the painting is labeled as “vendu” or sold. We know since it’s now in Buenos Aires. Its provenance gets us as far as back as 1955, acquired then by an architect named Jacques Carlu. From whom? No one knows. As one says in French, ‘mystère et boule de gomme.’

On to San Telmo which probably has the highest concentration of antique shops in all of Argentina. Block after block, richly adorned stores sell all sorts of objets d’art, paintings, works on paper, odd accessories.
One of the main dealers is a Mr. L., a nice old man who hails from Moldova. His family settled in Argentina over 80 years ago. He learned the trade, hands-on, no prior interest in the arts, but he’s now one of the best in the business in Argentina. His choice pieces go straight to Miami, New York, and Los Angeles and local American auction houses are regular visitors to his corner store. So, how does he do it?

I asked him: “How about the Aubusson wall hanging?”
“10,000 dollars.”
“Where does it come from?”
“It belonged to my neighbor.”
“Where’d he get it?”
“At a local auction.”
Case closed.

Business is conducted on a handshake. You bring in the item. Mr. L. sells it. Done deal.

Mr. L. was the place to come to for artisanal glass from France and particularly those items signed by legendary craftsmen like Roger Gallet.

“I must have sold over 1000 pieces easily.” The number was in and of itself astounding. How could there be so many Gallet pieces in Argentina? “Foreigners bring them in from Europe.”

Again, no questions asked. No receipts, no inventories. Too bad if you want to produce a catalogue raisonné of works by Gallet. Argentina might not show up in the provenances. Frustrating but this is the reality of the trade: a black hole through which countless possessions can circulate anonymously, no strings attached before they reach the top-tier centers of the international art trade.

The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (MNBA)

An outstanding assemblage of works of art covering all periods of history, many of which entered the MNBA after 1945. The date is important because, in the decade following the end of WWII, the Museum received twice as many works as it had in the previous four decades of its existence. An unusual expansion, an explosive growth coming on the heels of world war. I’ll leave it at that.

The Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo (MNAD)

A Museum of donors with no internal cohesiveness built by a French architect for an extraordinarily wealthy businessman, Matías Errázuriz Ortúzar, so that he and his wife, Josefina de Alvear, could entertain properly.

Objects cover all periods and come from Tsarist Russia, England, France, Germany and Central Europe, Spain, and only a handful from Argentina.

Some notables: the death mask of the Duke of Reichstadt, or Napoleon II. Brought into the collection in 1944 by a local parliamentarian. The original is in Paris.

In a glass case on the ground floor of the museum, there are several black-bordered porcelain saucers labeled as having once belonged to Moïse de Camondo. The problem here is that this particular member of the illustrious Parisian banking family of Camondo died in 1935. All of his belongings including his estate and outstanding fine and decorative arts collection were donated to the French government. The question, therefore, remains: how did these items cross the Atlantic and end up in this fine Argentine museum? The only link between Camondo and the Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo is the architect who built it. René Sergent was Camondo’s architect. But does that explain the presence of saucers belonging to a man who was a collector, not a dealer? 5 years after Moïse de Camondo’s death, the Vichy government came to power in France and collaborated with the Nazi occupation forces. Many members of the Camondo family perished at Auschwitz.

Buenos Aires, city of intrigue, brimming with life, culture, haunted by a loaded history, where Holocaust survivors, refugees of all sorts and European mass murderers co-existed for decades.

To be continued.

Buenos Aires
Source: Flickr via © Gustavo Brazalle