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BMA Voices: A Chinese treasure

1959.45

Bottle Decorated with Phoenix Motif. China. Mid‑14th century. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Julius Levy Memorial Fund, BMA 1959.45

Frances Klapthor, Associate Curator for Asian Art

One of the BMA’s founding trustees, Julius Levy, was a successful businessman whose family company made men’s hats in the days when well dressed men wore hats. In summer, those would have been straw hats. And that straw came from China and Japan. Mr. Levy was so committed to establishing a public museum in Baltimore that he and another trustee purchased the Museum’s first home in Mount Vernon. There it opened in 1922 and remained until moving to Wyman Park in 1930.

Sadly, Julius Levy didn’t live to see the Museum relocated to its present building. But to honor his engagement with the Far East, as well as his devotion to the BMA, his family established in his memory a fund to purchase Asian art and a gallery for its display. What had originally been designated on architectural drawings as a children’s classroom instead became a gallery for Oriental Art, with beautiful paneled pearwood walls and a coffered silvergilt ceiling. It was the renovation and reopening of this gallery that caused my first encounter with this blue-and-white bottle.

Thirty years ago, the Museum had recently emerged from major construction: adding galleries for temporary exhibitions, a sculpture garden, visitor entrance, auditorium, shop, and restaurant. Now the BMA turned to the final part of the project: the Julius Levy Memorial Gallery for Asian Art. For me three decades ago a door swung open. That door was a vault door I unlocked with a dedicated key, which I had signed out at the guard’s station. It seemed an ordinary key to an ordinary room, a room painted battleship gray – not just the walls but even the concrete floor, all were the same gray. In the room were objects in storage cabinets and still-unpacked boxes returned from off-site storage. Just an ordinary room, yet guarded 24 hours a day. So: a vault. Vaults aren’t really ordinary. They hold treasure.

The bottle was in the vault, third cabinet on a middle shelf at eye level. I was drawn to the drawing on its surface, and to its shape. This bottle bore the symbol of China’s empress like a badge: a phoenix with spiky wings outspread, head turned sideways, beak slightly open and one small eye visible, feathered jaw and scaly chest, and long tail trailing out. The bottle’s edge was shaped like an elongated S, its lip turned outward, long neck arced down, its shoulder sloped into a round body that rested on the circle of its foot. The serpentine shape was further defined by the decoration: upright leaves ringing the neck, lotus panels descending around the shoulder, two phoenixes against leafy vines, upright lotus panels surrounding the bottom of the body, and beneath each of these a narrow patterned band. An early example of underglaze cobalt decoration on porcelain, the bottle embodies a combination of materials that would come to be desired almost around the world for many centuries. All of these things are its formal qualities. But the phoenix! That is the mythical creature that symbolizes rebirth.

The carpeted China room that opened in June 1985 will return next autumn as an education and community space, while the Asian art collection will be reborn in larger and more visible galleries that will open April 26, 2015. It could be that this bottle will be the first work you encounter in the new galleries. It bewitched me thirty years ago. It thrills me still.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

What do you wonder about African art?

D'mba Docent Tour

A BMA docent teaches a class of fourth-graders about the Great Mother Headdress (D’mba).

The BMA’s African galleries are currently under renovation, with a planned reopening on April 26, 2015. The new galleries will be filled with visitor favorites such as our Great Mother Headdress (D’mba), shined until she sparkles and fully dressed in a new full-length costume, plus never-before-seen objects. This creates an exciting opportunity to rethink how we can help visitors understand the art in the galleries, and why it is relevant in their lives.

During the last few months, we’ve spent a lot of time brainstorming different possibilities for how we might be able to share all the interesting information we have about the art, artist, or culture on display.

Now we have lots of ideas—everything from video projects to maps to iPad apps. But one thing that we’ve kept saying is, “That sounds interesting to me, but will our visitors be interested?”

What better way to answer that question than to ask?

Docent tour in the African gallery

Docent tour in the African gallery

We want to know what you care about when you’re looking at African art. Everyone looks at these artworks through different eyes—with different experiences and knowledge shaping how they see them.  What are your questions when you see a mask, a statue of a woman, a reliquary figure, a contemporary vase, or other objects?

If you have 7 minutes to spare, please fill out our visitor research survey at the bottom of this page and let us know what you care about. You can also leave us comments on this blog post. We’d love to hear from you.

Bonus Prize: If you add your contact information at the end of the survey, you will be entered into a draw for the prize, Museum Educator for a Day. You will receive a personal gallery tour with a BMA education staff person and then have the opportunity to write a blog post about it for the BMA blog! You can choose a particular artwork, gallery, media, or anything else you can think of to write about.

Take our survey

Stealing History

FBI's Most Wanted Art TheftsWere the hands that lifted the Renoir painting off of the Museum’s walls shaking? Or were they steady, swiftly raising the small landscape off of a hook without hesitation?

Was it a woman? Did she uncouthly slip the painting under her skirt—maybe into a pocket within her bulky crinoline made for just such an occasion? Or did she gently tuck it into her coat’s fashionable large balloon sleeve?

And was the Renoir her first choice? Or just a consolation prize when the intended loot was too difficult to take?

We may never know the answers to these questions now that the FBI has officially closed its investigation, but what we do know, thanks to an FBI video, is how the agency determined the painting’s provenance and rightful owner.

Special Agent Gregg Horner interviewed is one of 14 FBI special agents who investigate art thefts throughout the world. Created in 2004 partly because of looting in Iraq’s Baghdad Museum, his team knows all too well:

  • The US is the preferred place among criminals to sell stolen art;
  • Billions of dollars of art go missing every year;
  • Art theft is one of the highest grossing criminal trades in the US, following only drugs and arms; and
  • Fundamentalist terror groups rely on looted antiquities as a major source of funding.

So that’s why you should care. But what can you do about it?

  •  If you’re looking to buy antiques or art work, only buy from reputable dealers and auction houses who have researched the chain of ownership and who will guarantee that the artwork has not been stolen.
  • Help spread the word about thefts, leads, and recovery efforts.
  • Stop by the temporary entrance after seeing The Renoir Returns (closing July 20) to read about the top ten works of art still missing from museums around the world.
  • And last but not least, help protect and display Baltimore’s great treasures by becoming a BMA member. Your membership matters.