Just outside Paris on the Fourth of July, 1866, in a lavish tent full of moneyed Americans, the talk turned to art. The fete’s attendees were diplomats and industrialists, high society’s culturati and nouveau riche. It was the sort of audience, in other words, that John Jay–founder of the Republican Party, descendent of the first chief justice–needed on his side if he hoped to pull off the great American art heist that would become the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Between patriotic toasts and “three hearty cheers for the Union,” the London Times recalled, Jay rose to make a speech on “the American invasion of the Old World.”
The Met’s trustees vacillated between public and private impulses, viewing the museum as both civilizing public venture and, as the New York Tribune called it, an ‘exclusive social toy.’
He was, perhaps, only half-joking. Across the Atlantic, Jay’s Union League Club was beginning to align the various players–municipal champions, Wall Street financiers, the high royalty of social gentry–sure to be vital in erecting a museum all but encyclopedic in its scope and compiling a collection, as its executive committee envisioned, “more or less complete” in its bid to catalog the human creative impulse.
There was a giddy sense, in both the old world and the new, that the prevailing order had been unseated, that the old rules no longer applied. The museums of Europe had grown out of private collections and entrenched family estates. Palaces, museums-it was often just a shift in lexicon. But charged with all the imperial, self-inventing, blank-canvas drive of a still new nation, the full weight of its industrial economy behind them, the would-be Met’s schemers wanted to reinvent the very concept of the museum.
It was ambition with a sizable tinge of inferiority complex, a case of the new world not just invading but exalting, appropriating and showing up the old. The museum’s legitimacy would come not from its protracted lineage but from the vastness of its imperial sweep. Yet even so, there was still the problem of the art itself. Jay and his comrades convinced New York’s newly rich tycoons that the treasure troves of Europe were fast slipping away. Archeologists were unearthing untold treasures by the trunkful and selling them to the highest bidder.
Among them was Luigi Palma di Cesnola. As Michael Gross recounts in Rogues’ Gallery, his tell-all chronicle of influence and money at the Met, the Italian-born, ex-soldier Cesnola called himself both a count and a general, despite all factual claims to the contrary. After the Civil War, he secured himself the U.S. consulship in Cyprus and began digging up tombs.
When the Ottoman Empire got wind of the prodigious quantity of artifacts Cesnola was shipping off the island, it demanded a part of his collection, totaling some 12,000 pieces. There was talk of Cyprus starting its own art museum, a fact that Cesnola employed to convince the Union Leaguers to buy his collection fast and whole. He also, at one point, attempted to secure a State Department warship to whisk away his loot. When this failed, he paid people off, kept shipping trunks of artifacts, and was eventually named the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s first director.
BEFORE ITS EPIC hunk of marble landed on Central Park, the Met leased its first home in a townhouse down the street. Designed by the famous McKim, Mead and White, it was once called by Henry James “the charming little academy in the Fifth Avenue.”
Formerly a dance academy of the fiery-tempered Allen Dodworth, 681 Fifth Avenue was sky-lit and ample enough for the Met’s gradually amassing fortunes. A contemporary guidebook sung its praises: “At last we have something to represent to us what the Louvre is to Paris and the National Gallery to London.” It was a display particularly essential, the guidebook added, for “the vast body of the public who cannot afford to visit Europe.”
Unfortunately, the museum closed on Sundays and was consequently inaccessible to “the laborious public” its promoters liked to invoke. When New Yorkers demanded the Met open on Sundays, the museum’s trustees refused. Cesnola went a step further, threatening to turn off the museum’s heat and turn the public into frozen statuaries. (“The public be damned,” Cesnola also once said-a line that was, true to character, stolen.)
But the Sunday debate was just the first surfacing of a tension that would characterize much of the museum’s history. The Met’s trustees vacillated between public and private impulses, viewing the museum-built on municipal land, in a state-owned building, funded in part by tax grants and incentives for private donation–as both a civilizing public venture and, as the New York Tribune called it, an “exclusive social toy.”
By 1871, the New York State Legislature had set aside the Met’s slice of Central Park, rent- and real-estate-tax-free. When the museum moved uptown, 681 Fifth Avenue turned into a private residence for the ex-governor Levi Morton and his wife, where they hosted parties for the city’s distinguished luminaries.
The edifice eventually became a fixture of the avenue’s luxury retail stretch, housing Fortunoff for decades. But, in 2008, the city in financial turmoil, even Fifth Avenue–New York’s best attempt at timeless perpetuity–began to show signs of change. On a street of immutable names–Tiffany, Prada–Tommy Hilfiger and a motley group of middle-brow retailers began showing up. The prep-to-rapster (and mostly back to prep again) Tommy Hilfiger signed a 22,000-square-foot lease with a rent some put at $1,500 a square foot annually.
Sooner or later, the new world always does invade the old.