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Thomas Hoving

Thomas Hoving

You can read a lot about Tom in his on-line memoirs, Artful Tom: A Memoir (just click the link to read) and about his years as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art where he held the reins from 1967 to 1977 in his amusing and readable book Making the Mummies Dance. So here we'll touch just a few highlights of Tom's long and adventurous (and controversial) career.

Tom came from a wealthy family East Coast family. It was not, alas, a childhood of Little Lord Fauntleroy congeniality. Instead, Tom's dad, Walter was a wealthy New York businessman and was a remote and at times terrifying figure. Mr. Hoving in turn thought his son had some kind of learning problem ("a troubled, stupid kid" as Tom put it) and sent him to the Johnson O'Connor Institute for Aptitude Research to find what was wrong. The experts found there was nothing wrong with Tom at all. Instead he had high intelligence and strong cognitive discrimination ability. That is, he would recognize patterns and details that other people missed. This ability later stood him in good stead in his (eventually chosen) profession. All in all, Tom had the wherewithal to do what he wanted if - and it was a big if - he applied himself.

The family wealth insured Tom could get into a fancy Ivy League school, but alas, you do have to study at least some. On the verge of being expelled from Princeton, Tom asked a friend what was the easiest course to take. His friend suggested art history and so Tom signed up and made it his career.

After graduating and a stint in the marines (a good way to avoid the draft), Tom married and then went on to get his Ph. D. in art history, also from Princeton. His first job in 1959, was an assistant curator at the Cloisters, the medieval museum that is part of the Metropolitan, but is about four miles north of the main building. Rather than continue on the museum curator tract, Tom joined in John Lindsay's mayoral campaign. After John got elected, in 1966, he gave Tom the job of New York Parks Commissioner.

Tom loved the Parks job, but after the Met's director, Jim Rorimer unexpectedly died the year Tom became Parks Commissioner, Brooke Astor, the millionaire socialite and long time friend of the Hoving family (and who was also on the Met's board of directors), put Tommy's name up for the director. For the interview Tom spent some time uncovering potential problems regarding the Met's administration. When asked during the interview if there were some things about the Met he would deal with, Tom pulled out his list of things he said he "jotted down" and in short order told the board of some potentially serious problems of which they knew nothing (including a potential strike of the lower echelon employees). Suitably impressed, they gave Tom the job with a ten year contract.

Tom told of his years at the Met in his memoir Making the Mummies Dance. Opinion of his legacy are somewhat mixed. Some commentators say Tom saved the Met; others that he ruined. it. Overall, though, the visitors to the Met love what they see and when you get down to it, that's what really matters.

But if Tom's style sometimes exasperated and irritated his colleagues, reporters loved him. Tom couldn't make an off the record comment if he tried. True, his frank and spontaneous tongue was oft times peppered with the seven words you could not - and in some degree still can't - print in the papers. So much as they would have liked, reporters found they often could not make verbatim Hoving quotes. One reporter who interviewed Tom frequently was impressed with how many variations the f-word had.

Naturally there will always be people in the wings to play the "Gotcha!" game with someone with Tom's chutzpah. And Tom, being human, made some mistakes. Once he arranged an exhibit of (quite excellent) photographs of the neighborhoods of New York. But the catalog (which Tom didn't write) had a comment which engendered some bad feelings within the black and Jewish communities resulting in a demand from Tom's friend, Mayor John Lindsay, that the catalog be withdrawn. During the exhibit there were even pickets protesting the exhibit. Eventually Tom found that the offending remarks had been taken considerably out of context, and he should have indeed been more diligent in what was actually put in. This event did not help Tom's standing with the Met's board, and he (voluntarily) left the Museum a few months before his official tenure was to expire.

Although he was from a well to do family, Tom was not in a position where he could sit back and coast on inherited wealth. So when he left the Met he was concerned about his finances. Fortunately by then he had permission to use Met files and archives to write his book Tutankhamun: The Untold Story about the excavation of Tut's tomb. The release of the book coincided with the 1978 exhibit of artifacts from the tomb, and the book was a bestseller which - as Tom put it himself - saved his financial ass. Tom was then hired as an art correspondent for various media organizations and was the editor of Connoisseur Magazine. He published a number of books which did well (a CooperToons favorite is False Impressions about the fascinating field of art forgery). He also established an independent art consulting firm where he said he spent 10 % of his time working with perhaps three clients and 90 % of his time drumming up new business.

Tom's ability to recognize subtle differences in patterns served him well since as a curator the ability helped him weed out fakes and forgeries from authentic art. This was a particularly timely ability for an art consultant particularly during the 1970's and 1980's when art forgery became big business. Tom estimated that 40 % of all art work hanging in various collections - particularly of modern and impressionistic genres - are fakes.

Actually Tom learned of his fakebusting knack when he was an undergraduate. He was invited by a professor to a graduate seminar where the students looked at and evaluated various works of art. When the last sculpture was brought out - an abstract metal figure mounted on a mahogany base - the graduate students all made the typical artsy comments. When the teacher asked Tom what he thought, Tom pointed out it wasn't a work of art, at all. It was some kind of tool, he said. He was correct. As a semi-joke the professor had brought in a vaginal spatula.

Tom early on had gotten a leg up on recognizing forgeries in the summer of 1952 when he worked with an art restorer and race track addict named Frank X. Kelly. Tom's dad hired his son for the summer to gather the decorations for a new store for women's clothing that was opening in Cleveland. The decorations - dressers, tables, and paintings - were mostly genuine seventeenth and eighteenth century antiques and were to be repaired, cataloged, and shipped out from the New York warehouse. Frank had been hired by Tom's dad to restore the paintings.

Tom often stopped by Frank's workshop to see how the restoration work was coming along (whenever Frank was out he was most likely to be down at the local kiosk placing a bet on the horses). While waiting for Frank one day, Tom looked around at the various paintings. He started sorting through some cabinets and found to some paintings with the names "Renoir" and "Monet". Impressed he kept looking through the canvases and found some more Renoirs and Monets. The problem though was the pictures weren't complete. Obviously, Frank X. Kelly had a thriving business in art forgery.

At that point Frank stepped in and cleared his throat. When he suggested perhaps he and Tom should keep this side of his business their little secret, Tom said, sure, provided Frank would teach him the tricks of the trade. Frank obliged and even enjoyed being able to talk freely about what was clearly highly developed craftsmanship. By the time the summer was over Tom had received what was a graduate level course in art forgery by a master practitioner. On the business side, Frank preferred not to sell a forgery to a museum where a curator might eventually note something was wrong. After Tom went back to school he never saw Frank again, but over thirty years later he would still sometimes see Frank's forgeries hanging in various collections.

Tom maintained that contrary to popular belief it was not scientific tests that uncover most art frauds. Instead it is connoisseurship, that is, being so familiar with the undisputed works of a master artist that the tiny, minute characteristics of the authentic works are etched into your brain to the point where the mistakes and inconsistencies of the unauthentic works immediately jump out. Scientific tests, he said, were mostly used for confirming what the connoisseur sees and recognizes. Moreover conclusions from scientific testing of works of art is by no means as clear cut and definitive as most people think. Few of the tests are actually validated in a true sense and so the conclusion whether a test reveals authenticity or not is often a matter of opinion.

At the same time, connoisseurship is by no means foolproof either, and Tom admitted he himself had bought some forgeries when he himself fell foul of the three worst characteristics in art purchasing: need, greed, and speed. Fakebusting by connoisseurship is also a technique that cannot be validated, and there are sometimes widely differing opinions by the connoisseurs on a given work of art. Of course, self interest (such as whether it's your museum who owns the work) can influence opinion. Often the layman scratches his head when he hears a painting or sculpture isn't authentic since "the form is lacking", "the style is inconsistent", or - as the early fakebuster Bernard Berenson sometimes said - his stomach felt queasy. A good fakebuster, though, can turn these nearly intuitive classifications to specific points that everyone else can understand.

Getty Kouros

By far the most famous of Tom's fakebusting episodes is when he pegged the Getty kouros as a phoney. This is a (supposedly) 6th century B. C. Greek statue that the Getty bought in 1985 for 7 - 9 million dollars (sources vary regarding the price). When Tom first saw the statue he immediately asked the director of the museum if they had paid for it yet. If they hadn't, he said, don't. If they were paying in installments, stop payment. If they had paid, try to get his money back. He was sure the statue was a fake. The surface he said was too pretty for a 2500 year old statue. Why were chips broken away from hair but not the face (except the ubiquitous broken nose). The color was cafe au lait, which is not seen on naturally aged statues. There was also a mixture of styles which is a common mistake when a forger tries to create a new statue rather than simply copy an old one.

Scientific tests, though, tended to support the statue's authenticity. For instance, there was a loss of surface magnesium from the dolomite which, consulting scientists said, was unlikely to have been done artificially. Although it was later shown that it was possible to do so artificially, it would require the forgers to be not only superb sculptors (and it is an excellent carving no matter what), but also to have invented a complicated method of surface leaching. This seemed an unlikely scenario. However, the discovery of a smaller but similar statue, indisputably modern as power tools were used, has raised additional doubts. It was possibly a "practice" statue for the final carving but on closer examination, some think the similarities are simply coincidental.

Another argument against the authenticity was that the papers for the provenance of the kouros - that is, the documentation of the finding and purchase of the work - were highly suspicious. One of the letters was dated 1955, but contained a bank account that was opened only in 1963. There was also postal code on a 1952 letter than didn't exist until 1972. This in itself doesn't mean the statue is a fake since a false provenance is something that might be cooked up for an authentic statue that was obtained illegally and smuggled out of the country or origin. In any case, the controversy still rages, and the Getty now cites the statue as either 6th century B. C. or a modern forgery.

Tom died in 2009 and his books - whether Making the Mummies Dance to Art for Dummies always make good reading. But after finishing his memoirs, you come away feeling that in the end Tom was never really confident in himself. Instead he faked being supremely on top of everything and disguised what was really extreme low self esteem by constantly showing off and being addicted to publicity which ended up as his intolerable "Me! Me! Me!" attitude and actions.

But don't let Tom's friends get irritated by what appears to be amateur psychoanalyzing. After all, this is just what Tom said himself!

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References

Making the Mummies Dance: The Inside Story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Hoving, Simon and Schuster, (1993). Tom's autobiography of covering his years at the Met.

Artful Tom: A Memoir, Thomas Hoving Aesthetica. Available on line at http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/hoving/hoving3-31-09.asp, with a plain text version as well.

False Impressions: The Hunt for Big Time Art Fakes, Thomas Hoving, Simon and Schuster, (1996). A CooperToons favorite.

"Absolutely Real? Absolutely Fake?", Micheale Kimmelman, New York Times. August 5, 1991, p 21. An online version can be accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/1991/08/04/arts/art-absolutely-real-absolutely-fake.html?sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all. A very good article on the pros and cons of the authenticity of the Getty kouros. This story indicates that the Getty Museum always had doubts, even before the object was on display and seen by Tom.