Treasure Quest

Columbia’s bounty of hidden art is beginning to see the light of day.

by Thomas Vinciguerra ’85CC, ’86JRN, ’90GSAS Published Fall 2015
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It’s a short subterranean walk from Roberto C. Ferrari’s office in the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library to the Aladdin’s cave of the Art Properties vault. Here, behind a series of locked doors secured with passcodes, lies a trove of paintings, sculptures, photographs, busts, ceramics, objets d’art, and things not easily categorized. Roman oil lamps. An assortment of elegant old-fashioned clocks. A Chinese ritual mortuary bed.

The more than ten thousand pieces that make up the holdings of Art Properties began accruing in the 1750s, when King George II, who founded King’s College, donated some silver. Since then, all manner of treasure has rolled in. Only rarely does the University seek donations; 90 percent of the art is unsolicited.

Ferrari has been curator of art properties since 2013, the same year he received his PhD in art history from the CUNY Graduate Center. Although pieces can be found in offices and public spaces around campus, Ferrari wants to get more of this hidden art into the open. “We are doing more and more to spread the word and generate interest,” he says.

Display space is limited at Columbia. The Wallach Art Gallery in Schermerhorn Hall (which is scheduled to move to the Manhattanville campus in 2016) offers rotating exhibits, but the University has no large venue comparable to the Yale University Art Gallery or the three Harvard Art Museums. So Ferrari has been sending pieces on the road. Recently, the Lenbachhaus in Munich offered a retrospective of paintings by Florine Stettheimer, many of which came from Columbia’s collection. Last winter, some ancient stone Buddhas were on view at the Nassau County Museum of Art, in Roslyn Harbor, New York.

Students and researchers periodically enter the Art Properties grotto to scrutinize particular pieces. Sometimes Ferrari will present an item at a lecture to illuminate its history. “I’ve seen the excitement on students’ faces when we bring these works of art to classrooms,” he says. In the process, he is receiving an education of his own. “One of the joys of this position has been learning how these works fit into the history of this university.”

The pieces featured here constitute a minuscule glimpse of Art Properties holdings. They are currently in storage, awaiting greater exposure.


Head of a Bodhisattva, c. 550–577

Head of a Bodhisattva, Northern Qi Dynasty (550–577), Limestone with traces of pigment, Sackler Collections (S0271) / All art and images courtesy of Art Properties, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library

The most significant portion of cultural artifacts in the Art Properties collection is East Asian. Many of these were donated by the psychiatrist and philanthropist Arthur M. Sackler (1913–1987), who had no formal University ties but who did have a passion for antiquities and sharing them. “I’m a lazy, impatient man,” he once told the New York Times with a laugh, “and I don’t have enough lifetimes to be able to make the points that I want my collections to make.” Therefore he built collections with distinct points of view, and turned them over to many institutions, including Princeton, Harvard, and the Smithsonian. At Columbia, he hoped to establish a campus art museum. Given the abundance of galleries already in New York City, however, the idea went nowhere. But since 1964, a small fraction of his gifts have been on display in 207 Low Library, known as the Faculty Room.

Shown here is one of several notable bodhisattva heads from the Sackler Collections, The head is likely from the Xiangtangshan cave temples in China and dates from the Northern Qi dynasty. It measures three-and-a-half feet tall, still bears traces of pigment, and is topped by a crown elaborately circumscribed by motifs of pearls, jewels, and geometric patterns.

Florine Stettheimer: A Model (Nude Self-Portrait), c. 1915

Florine Stettheimer, A Model (Nude Self-Portrait), ca. 1915, Oil on canvas. Gift of the Estate of Ettie Stettheimer (1967.23.29)

With more than sixty paintings, drawings, and decorative objects, Columbia’s collection of work by the American artist and poet Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944) is the largest in the world. A one-time student at the Art Students League of New York, Stettheimer had only one solo public exhibition in her lifetime; her work was generally shared in private salons. But after her death, she was the subject of retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Columbia received its holdings through the bequest of Stettheimer’s sister Ettie 1896BC. “There are museums across this country that have only one or two Stettheimers,” Ferrari says. “The vast majority of Stettheimer’s work from our collection is family portraits, landscapes, and still lifes.” This picture in particular is historically significant because in her mid-forties she painted her self-portrait as an “idealized” nude woman.

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