Monday, October 26, 2009
Doris Duke's Treasures at the Asian 1: Too Rich
A new exhibit has opened for three months at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum called "Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma," which is a little misleading since there are no emeralds anywhere on display.
It would be more honest to call the show "Doris Duke's Southeast Asian Swag," since the vast majority of mostly 19th century objects are from her estate. Even better, they have become part of the museum's permanent collection, and after seven years of work by a small army of restorers and conservators, this is their public debut.
The American tobacco, energy and aluminum heiress Doris Duke lived a life that spanned most of the twentieth century, from her birth in 1912 in a Fifth Avenue Mansion in New York City to her death in 1993 at Valentino's old mansion in Beverly Hills.
There was enough scandal in her life for a dozen different people, including a messy death involving her illiterate, gay Irish butler named Bernard Lafferty, who was put in charge of her multi-billion dollar estate before he drank himself to death three years later in 1996.
Starting in 1935, during her round the world honeymoon cruise with Jimmy Cromwell, she became a collector and hoarder of Asian art, which quietly became one of the most valuable collections in the world.
How the best pieces ended up in San Francisco's Asian Art Museum is a story filled with all kinds of odd twists and turns. One of the most fateful moments was when the late museum board chair Jack Bogart went to New York in 1998 to meet with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. He traveled there to see about getting a grant for the museum's move from Golden Gate Park into the newly revamped building in San Francisco's Civic Center.
Bogart was told that there was an entire coach house at the Duke Ranch estate in New Jersey filled with Asian art and the foundation was thinking of selling it at Christie's auction house. Bogart called the museum's chief curator, Forrest McGill (below), and asked if McGill had ever heard of the collection. "No, I've never heard anything about it, I'm sure it's nothing of much interest," he replied.
As he self-deprecatingly told a group at the press preview, "It was one of the biggest goofs of my entire career. When I did visit the Duke Farms myself in 1998, opening up the doors of this coach house which was the size of a train station was a bit like Ali Baba entering the cave filled with treasures. I could hardly believe what I was seeing."
McGill convinced the foundation that much of the art belonged in public museums, and a deal was struck to split the best parts of the collection with the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, offsetting their already existing Southeast Asian holdings. It started with a coin toss for first dibs, which San Francisco won.
In 1996, three years after Doris' death and before the estate was taken away by the courts from the butler Lafferty, a biography was published entitled "Too Rich: The Family Secrets of Doris Duke." It's a mostly sympathetic account by her godson Pony Duke (as you can see, I am not making that name up) and Jason Thomas, while also containing enough salacious tales to stuff a dozen old Harold Robbins novels.