My Life Before Art

This is, so far, my No. 1 Favorite Flower Thing of 2016:


This big-ass bouquet of my favorite flowers (Roses and Hydrangeas!!) was deposited on my doorstep on my b-day eve ALL FOR ME!!!

The card said only “From your fans everywhere” and Top Cat swears it wasn’t him which I believe because this came from a fancy florist  and Top Cat wraps my birthday presents in the weekly grocery store circular (so very colorful) so, to my Dear Readers and Fellow Flower Lovers, I thank you for this, and all your birthday wishes in the Comments last week — you are all my favorite part of turning 30 x 2. THANK YOU.

But you know what they say, even birthday girls have to clean cat boxes, so I was putting clean newspaper liners in the downstairs cat boxes last weekend when I came across this:


It’s the December 25 edition of the New York Times. I don’t usually read The Arts section (like any sane American I have no interest in dance, theater, jazz, or the art world in general) so I missed this but Lo! I never thought I’d ever see The Crown of the Andes again!


It is news to me that this crown is now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan ( you can read all about it here). The last I heard of this South American knick-knack was in 1995, when I was a  VP at Christies in charge of Faberge and every other ridiculously expensive jeweled object that wasn’t actually jewelry. Due to professional ethics, I can’t tell you the details about the consignor and the sales terms, but I can tell you that The Crown of the Andes came to Christie’s in a very old, very tattered cardboard box after having been in storage — and not fancy storage — for decades. The lore around it was, to put it mildly, dubious.

So, since I was in charge of cataloguing the thing, I had to research both its provenance and its intrinsic value, that is, I had to ferret out its true backstory and I had to determine the material value of the gold work and the emeralds. I brought in a consultant gemologist to count and measure the 450-ish emeralds on this crown and the first thing he discovered was that the big center emerald was not the 50-carat monster that its consignor claimed; if memory serves, it was 19 carats, which is still huge for an emerald, but if you think you can tell someone that their 50-carat emerald in less than half that size and not have that person scream and yell and accuse you of being either incompetent or a swindler, you are sadly mistaken, my friends.

I see that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has catalogued that center emerald as 24-carats…well, maybe, maybe not. We auction house people tend to have  low opinions of the expertise of museum people. We had to deliver certifiable information to our customers or else we’d be sued; museum people only had to footnote their hypothesizes. However, in this case, as the emerald is mounted, taking its measurements requires some careful hypothesizing so I can concede that there is wiggle room when it comes to fixing a definitive carat weight. But 24 carats is at the top of what I would call an educated guess.

Anyhow. Christie’s made a huge PR campaign to get this crown sold, making a spiffy catalogue and inviting all kinds of international dignitaries, rich people, and media to come and get up close and personal with this object. This is the press conference we held at Christie’s old home on Park Avenue (they moved to Rockefeller Center in the later 1990s):


Yes! There were TV crews there! The spokesman for Christie’s, who was my boss at the time, was a debonair Englishman who headed the Silver Dept. :


His name is Christopher Hardtop and you can still see him from time to time on old re-runs of Antiques Roadshow. What an excellent person he was.

And this is me, standing next to him, looking more ghostly than the fair haired Englishman:


It was my idea to put the crown on a circle mirror atop a plinth draped in black velvet.


I remember my outfit clearly: I am 39 years old, the Faberge expert at a world renown auction house, wearing a thrift store skirt that was a little too big, a thrift store over-sized turtle neck sweater, and an old crochet bureau runner as a scarf because I’d seen a girl wear something like it in France in the 1970s and could never find the exact right old gossamer crochet thing so I substituted this bureau scarf because I thought it would still look OK.  I miss my auburn hair.


Look at I, I’m Lady Di.

Note the fierce looking chap in the background, below (the one in the drawing):


That’s the last Incan emperor, Atahualpa. He’s there because this crown came to us with the provenance that it had been the property of this fabled warrior, which I proved was nonsense once I researched the gold work, which was clearly a marriage of 16th and 17th century Spanish colonial goldsmithing, which we clearly stated in the catalogue. Remember: we’re legally liable for our assessments. But we kept the Atahualpa legend in the PR, because, you know, Inca.

The consignment material attached to this crown also claimed that it was displayed at the 1939 World’s Fair (the most famous of the World’s Fairs) but I researched archives and found that although the then-owners of the crown begged the Fair organizers to put it on display (I suspect to drum up interest in it, as they were trying to sell the damn thing), the crown never made the cut. And yeah, the consignor was pretty pissed about that, too, which is usually the case when you tell people an inconvenient truth, isn’t it?

This whole faux-World’s Fair provenance is why I read this sentence in the New York Times article (see the link) with interest: It was taken out of storage only for momentous occasions like [sic] the introduction of new Chevrolets in 1937 and the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

I think this is outstanding writing. This sentence is written in such a way that the reader is left with the gleaming impression  that the crown was at the spiffy  1939 World’s Fair, but close inspection reveals that the writer is only liable for the claim  that it was simply “brought out of storage”, which I can assure you, it was. Nicely done, Kathryn Shattuck.

BTW, I regretted that hair cut of 1995. I grew it out and by my 40th birthday I had a shoulder-length blonde do, which was a whole other regrettable set of circumstances.

This is a more representative picture of me as an auction house executive, in 1992, taken while I was doing an appraisal of an estate in New Orleans (the guy was a hoarder of expensive clocks, and this is how he lived):


Yeah, my hair was that long, and yeah, I’m wearing my ex-boyfriend’s unlined khaki sports jacket, leggings, knee high boots, and a thrift shop cashmere sweater. It was November and that mansion had no heat.

I can’t tell you the value that Christie’s contracted to sell the Crown of the Andes for, but if you google Christie’s sale Crown of the Andes, you can watch the old tape on YouTube of the crown being hammered down for 2.2 million dollars and if you listen closely, you can hear the auctioneer mumble “Pass” at the end. The crown did not meet its reserve and we did not sell it. I wonder if the Met had to pony up the full asking price.

Oh well. Here is where I transition from this lengthy digression on my hair c. 1992-5 to something more relevant to today’s VivianWorld, which is indeed quite flowery. If you recall from last week’s post, I promised to paint this Squint view:


This is the little brook called the Ru, which runs into Monet’s water garden and fills the famous lily pond there. Monet painted 250 pictures of the reflections of his flowers and the Normandy sky in the Ru, which is why I chose to isolate this particular view. I began by painting the clouds and the far shore, and putting masking fluid over the tree trunk:


And then I painted the rest of the picture:



I put more masking fluid over the painted surface here:




And then I picked up the masking:






OK, now I’m ready to pick up the masking on the tree trunk:




With a small paint brush loaded only with clear water, I can go back over a painted area and “pick up” some dry paint — this is how I make “ripples” on what is supposed to be a watery surface:


See the ripples in the upper edge?


Even though I think that this is not the best Squint I’ve ever painted, I can say that painting in this small scale is very relaxing for me. This is my comfort zone — my instincts as a painter are perfectly suited for this tiny format.

But what I learned in illustrating my Damn Garden Book (Gardens of Awe and Folly) is that gardens often can not be Squinted at…they need to be stared at, perused, and contemplated. This means that I have to paint a wide-eyed landscape when I paint something like this:


Oh, lordy, it is a struggle to put so much information in such a large space.


But you know I’ll try and try and try again until I get it right, and I’ll show you all my trials and errors in detail. Also, according to the best predictions it looks like I’ll be breaking out the 2016 Champagne-O-Meter tomorrow, and I haven’t made my annual blue birthday cake yet, so I’m inviting you to my Blizzard Party when we all get together next week. See you here!


10 Comments, RSS

  1. For some strange reason comments were closed..for me..IWANTEDTOWISHYOUHAPPYBIRTHDAY and couldn’t .
    So happy belated!!..from a soon to be 62 yr old..I love seeing older photos as yours..but have maybe 2 somewhere.I think you look cool on the steps:)
    Love the mat on your work..sets it off perfectly.
    Happy storm day..stay warm .
    I had that hair cut in baby daughter would pull on my long has never been short since.

  2. Patricia

    Love the behind scenes story of the “Inca” crown. So, don’t believe everything you read, even from the Metropolitan Museum.
    Enjoy your blue birthday cake and champagne. Is the champagne bottle actually tall enough for the record snowfall heading your way?

  3. Casey

    So cool! I wonder why no one has ever made a TV show set in an auction house, it seems like there are plenty of stories. P.S. No way were you 39 in those pictures.

  4. To be honest, I like the squint a lot better than the photo! Soft, brighter, lovelier colors? Who knows. Just do. And yes, some garden images need a wider berth than a squint, I suppose. Still, lovely!

    I had forgotten about the time at Christie’s. No wonder that article was calling your name! It’s a great story and I appreciated the detail, knowing little of that world.

    Well, I’ll be looking forward to the champagne-o-meter reading and hoping you are well stocked on fun food, batteries, toilet paper and lots of water so you can paint without even thinking about using the last sip! Hang tight and see you next week!

  5. Love the Inca (or not) crown story. Did you ever try the crown on? Oh I would be so tempted! I love blizzards, the energy of nature on full display. No blizzards yet in the midwest, darn. Enjoy yours!

    Also appreciate the details of painting. I noticed how you painted the tree. Trees are giving me fits. I’m going right now and trying to paint mine with lines and then fill-in. I always learn something interesting AND useful from your posts.

  6. My very own Big-60 is now three and a half years in my rear-view mirror, and let me tell you, life has only become sweeter and more mellow since. So, prepare for countless more light and happy days, my friend! God has special mercies for His older kids, younger people just cannot know. And, I must say, even though life on this old planet can require walking down a shadowy alley-way on occasion, there is always spring, always a sudden ray of sunshine, and always another glorious sunset waiting for us around the next corner.
    I love your crown story. It reminds me of my own “much to do about nothing” events. Events so huge at the time, they vibrated with their importance, yet in the end – looking back at them – their essence was packed with mostly hoopla and phantasm, with very little substantial, long-lasting meaning. We all have our crown stories I suspect. Some of us have had more than our ample share. But they teach us about jumping through hoops, manic activities that bring momentary thrills, and so many other little lessons that make us what we are: All-together Incredible, Faulty, And Quirky Creations Of Wonderfulness! (each in our own way)
    I enjoy your weekly commentaries on life, Vivian. They bring light, joy, and inspiration to so many of us. To this white-haired, bull-headed, opinionated so-and-so of a piano teacher, huddled in the middle of the snowy hay fields of southern Michigan, you are a blessing and a joy. Thanks! Thanks! Thanks!

  7. Bunny

    Wow, that is a wonderful step back into your history, and amazing how random your sighting of that once “precious” object was, just as its going down into the litter box. LOLOLOL. And to think, that was once in your hot little hands, and of course, a real hoot of a story, and the fact that you have all that insight!

    Hope you enjoyed your birthday, I will be turning 60 in about 19 years!!! Hope I have some wonderful stories to tell, and can brag that I’ve published at least a story in a weekly magazine, (if they even have print in the future), could never measure up to having two beautiful illustrated books, with a third on the way! But with your tutorials, who knows? My painting has gotten slightly more “coherent” with your blogs explaining some of your secrets.

    Brave, once again….(You look very self assured in the old photos!)

  8. Laura

    I would binge-watch a show about a top-notch auction house as long as it’s protagonist wore thrift store togs to work among priceless “objects” and the 1% clientele. Oh the characters, the plot lines…

  9. ann

    I like all the clocks on the stair case. I wonder if he enjoyed those clocks and passed by them everyday.

    The colors in your squint are very pleasing. I continue to wonder how you get all those beautiful green colors.

    Thank you for sharing.

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