Met Woos Howard Gilman But May Lose His Collection

Oct. 16, the Metropolitan Museum of Art unveiled the Howard Gilman Gallery, the first permanent gallery in the institution devoted to photography. The gallery, a series of three small spaces on the second floor, was paid for by Mr. Gilman, who is one of the leading collectors of photography in the country. In total, the Gilman Paper Company Collection, as his collection is called, includes more than 5,000 images and spans the first 100 years of photography, from the 1830’s to the 1930’s. Since it contains many unique, rare and exceptional objects from the early days of photography, it is considered to be indispensable to the study and understanding of the craft. Maria Morris Hambourg, the Met’s curator of photography, called it “the finest private collection in the world.” And it’s a collection the Met has had its eye on for a long time.

But Mr. Gilman, who is known for being exacting in his dealings, has never actually agreed to bequeath his collection to the Met, even though selections from it were first shown at the museum in a 1993 exhibition entitled The Waking Dream . In fact, portions of his collection are stored in the Met, and the collection’s curator, Pierre Apraxine, is a consultant for the institution. But now it seems that the collection might be slipping away from the Met and going to a new photography museum that is being planned at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

On behalf of Mr. Gilman, Mr. Apraxine confirmed that talks have taken place between himself, Mr. Gilman and I. Michael Heyman, the secretary of the Smithsonian. “They are still in the planning stages,” said Mr. Apraxine, “but the idea is interesting.” Dennis O’Connor, provost of the Smithsonian, confirmed that talks have been held. “Indeed, there have been mutual expressions of interest on the part of Gilman and [the] Smithsonian,” he said, “and we are engaged in conversations exploring that interest.”

Sources close to the museum maintain that Ms. Hambourg has been upset by this new wrinkle in her curatorial initiative to woo the Gilman Collection to the Met. “The Met has spent a great deal of money and gone to a great deal of trouble to build the Gilman Gallery, and now they may have to watch while the collection is sold to another institution in another city,” said the source.

For her part, Ms. Hambourg took the high road when asked to comment on this latest development. “As far as I am concerned, putting the pictures on the wall and sharing them with the public is a form of a gift,” she said. “We don’t ever own any art, anyway-you, I or anyone else. We are just stewards. As far as what is going to happen to those pictures down the road, I won’t be here to know about it and you won’t, either.”

Mr. Apraxine, who started his career as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, admitted that the Met took a chance by exhibiting the Gilman collection before it had received a promise of a gift. “They were very generous to show our collection, a collection which was not committed to them,” he said, referring to the 1993 exhibit. “To a certain degree, there is always a danger for a museum to show a collection because the collector might use the museum as a showplace to sell their collection.” Taking an all’s-fair-in-love-and-war position, he added that he does not think that he and Mr. Gilman owe the Met anything for their generosity. “The only thing that Howard Gilman has always said is that he wishes the collection to stay together,” Mr. Apraxine said.

Mr. Apraxine admitted that he has been contacted by other museums interested in securing the Gilman collection. He would not say who they were, but he did allow that in the 80’s the J. Paul Getty Museum in California expressed interest in the collection, which contains one of the earliest nude photographs, an albumen silver print that was produced by Gustave Le Gray in 1855, and a view of the Egyptian pyramid of El-Kurneh in Thebes by Francis Frith, taken in 1857. Mr. Apraxine said that the Getty hasn’t contacted him recently. “But you never know,” he added. “Maybe there is a letter on the way right now.”

Two Englishmen From Greenwich

During the coming month, Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses will sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of art. But for those who want to break into the high-priced art auction business, the door is not easy to pass through, as Richard Madley and Paul Roberts have discovered in the 10 months they have been in charge of the New York office of Phillips International Auctioneers & Valuers.

Phillips is an old British auction house, but it has not been able to make its United States outlet compete on the same playing field with its auction house brethren. As part of an effort to change Phillips’ image in the United States as an also-ran, Mr. Madley and Mr. Roberts are bringing a drawing by Jackson Pollock to auction on Nov. 11. It is just a 14-by-11-inch paper drawing from 1948, worth $80,000 to $120,000, and signed by the artist’s widow in 1972. The drawing contains a number of unmistakable Pollockian squiggles, done in ink, watercolor and graphite. But Mr. Madley and Mr. Roberts, who had to compete with Sotheby’s for the consignment, are as proud of it as Christie’s probably was to secure the $100 million-plus Victor and Sally Ganz collection, which will be sold on Nov. 10. The story of their triumph is one of the little guy winning at the end of the day, and why it pays to live in Greenwich, Conn.

The Pollock drawing came to Phillips from Matthew Harrison, a corporate consultant in Manhattan who is a partner in the consulting and management firm of Budetti, Harrison, Nerland and Associates. Mr. Harrison, who lives in Greenwich, read about Mr. Madley and Mr. Roberts in a newsletter that was written by a local real estate agent. It said, according to Mr. Madley, that “two Englishmen who are auctioneers have moved to Greenwich.” Both Mr. Madley and Mr. Roberts have homes in the old-line Connecticut suburb. But this was not as easy as members of the trans-Atlantic old boy league shaking hands on the 7:09 to Grand Central. Mr. Harrison was selling the Pollock on behalf of a bankrupt estate that had sought his consulting services. He had to convince the bankruptcy court that he was serving the best interests of the estate’s creditors by selling the picture at a lesser-known auction house.

“Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I think I will call Phillips,'” Mr. Madley admitted the other day in the auction house, which consists of a frayed-at-the-edges auditorium and a series of examining rooms in a modern building on East 79th Street. Mr. Madley feels that Phillips won the consignment not because he lives in Greenwich, but because he is willing to go all-out for a drawing that Sotheby’s and Christie’s would probably include along with a number of similar objects.

To prove that, he started to talk up the drawing, which he was standing next to. First he asked a writer what he thought of it. Then he said what he thought of it. “It is not a typical Pollock, is it?” he queried, offering some information about the famous Pollock drips. Then he gazed at it in awe.

Met Woos Howard Gilman But May Lose His Collection