Exceptions to Selling Everything

The painting

Selling everything we own would be easier if we did not own art and had a house filled with modern and generic furniture. Overall this process has been much easier for me than Bruce who, until recently, would have been the least likely person to agree to a scheme where in you voluntarily give up a life time of prized possessions with your home just so that you can sell them for a loss, to deliberately lower your standard of living enough to afford taking jobs that pay considerably less. 

I came up with this brilliant idea, however I recently lost my nerve to follow through and be a good example of stoicism and detachment, while parting with our 'stuff', over a 19th century painting that Bruce and I tried to smuggle from Italy into France in 2006.  While we failed in that mission I did manage to have it 'smuggled' out of this house and into my fathers to avoid having to say no to an offer to buy it.  I had inherited it from my grandmother and the artist is not well known.

In October 2006 Bruce and I flew to Italy to meet with my grandmothers brother (Zio S.) to make arrangements to get her estate back to the US. My grandmother Viviana had been married 8 or 9 times and was a beautiful woman who spoke 6 languages fluently and lived a very interesting life.  Part of it was a bit of a mystery though to even her own 2 children, and I was looking forward to bringing home remnants of my grandmothers life in the form of photos, documents and letters, anything that might reveal more about her. I was also hoping for photographs of my mother when she was a child.

My uncle and his wife, Zia L., had sent us photos of the things they were storing that we would be either packing in suitcases or arranging to ship when we arrived in Italy so we could plan in advance and have a sense of what we would need to accomplish. One of the things we were the most concerned with was a painting we knew would be the most difficult to get back to the United States because of the reputation of the Italian Ministry of Culture for being a virtual Bermuda triangle for objects of art, or a place of eternal limbo.

My grandmother Viviana

We decided to try and make these arrangements from France and rented an apartment in Nice, close to the border of the Italian Riviera where my grandmother had last been living in San Remo. I knew Nice well having spent summers in the Riviera visiting my grandmother as a teenager and then later while at university. After I received my bachelor’s degree I took a year off to live in France and Italy but because my family is Italian, The French language and culture seemed more exotic to me (i.e. more interesting) therefore I tended to spend as much time as I could in France taking Italy a bit for granted. Since we needed to get the painting out of Italy before we could ship it to the United States, Nice was the most practical but I was also much more comfortable making the arrangements from Nice, to ship not just the painting but other items belonging to my grandmother.

Originally we thought it would be as simple as going to my uncles (in Ventimiglia) getting the painting and driving it back into France where we would have it crated and make arrangements for shipping. We wanted to avoid it disappearing into Italian bureaucracy. That may seem a paranoid and far-fetched scenario to most Americans, but we knew it was a likely outcome. We had consulted an attorney and his suggestion, as was that of my own family's in Italy, was to get it out of Italy, before trying to bring it into the United States, regardless of the fact that it was not an Italian painting. 

The old roman road that served as a driveway to my uncles villa in ventigmiglia. It was a very tight squeeze even by European car standards

I hate to be redundant but want to make sure it is crystal clear this was not an Italian painting so I am not accused of doing something unethical. It was painted by an eastern European artist and signed in Cyrillic, depicting a 19th century Parisian scene. Bruce and I were willing to waste the time and money flying to France, renting an apartment and personally escorting it from Italy into France not because of its market value but rather because it already held a great deal of meaning for me personally (It was part of my grandmother Viviana) and it had an intriguing provenance, most of which would not be terribly meaningful to anyone outside of my family.

We spent a few days at my Uncle’s Villa in Ventimiglia and were in shock to learn that in the span of a few weeks my uncle had ‘misplaced’ my grandmothers belongings and the gardener had accidentally thrown away the boxes of her letters and documents ‘because they looked like garbage’ according to my uncles wife, Zia L.  I was stunned by that news because we had discussed 2 boxes of documents in detail numerous times and it was conveyed that those boxes were priceless to us.  They had been storing these items in a very large villa and they could have stored a few dozen estates on the first floor so I initially believed they were mistaken. We had just received photos from my uncle with a letter asking us to please come soon, so this was surreal.

My grandmother had fabulous taste and it was Bruce who first recognized and realized her belongings were not in fact misplaced but were in fact installed and on display throughout many rooms in the villa including the hallway outside the bedroom we were staying in.  We said nothing as it was clear these were not items they were giving up but after learning the painting had been in one of their other homes in Monte Carlo till quite recently, it did not seem a stretch to conclude where the rest of my grandmothers estate might be. My uncle was sick at the time and it did not seem worth an argument.  After calling home and speaking with my mother she asked me to forget about it all and if we could somehow manage to find my grandmothers documents and photos and bring them home with the painting it would be a success.  It was hard not to be angry over the fact that at no point as we discussed our upcoming visit, various shipping companies and the painting did my aunt or uncle ever consider saying  “oh by they way, everything but the painting is gone”.  After pressing the issue of her personal papers and asking if we could try looking for them, I was forced to accept it as unlikely they would have saved her papers considering they had no value to anyone but us. I was crushed. 

In light of all these charades, the paintings starting to become exponentially more valuable to me.  We thought we would simply drive it over the border but after seeing it was in fact much too large to not only fit into the temporary crate that we had brought but to get into a European car or truck. Zia L had miscommunicated it's size to me and did not appreciate or understand that we did not have the kind of money to waste that she did. She was not at all helpful unless to suggest prohibitively expensive solutions repeatedly forgetting we did not have a limitless budget to bring it home.  

We had no choice but to improvise. It turned out they had a very hard time getting it from Monte Carlo to their home and they had a limitless budget.  The trip was not good for the painting and it had not been crated, we knew because I was hoping it might still be available. We considered removing it from the frame to roll up, and that idea was very appealing at first because it meant that we could possibly even carry it back on the plane with us. Unfortunately as soon as we started to examine it closely Bruce determined that it would be a death sentence to the painting as it needed to be stabilized and relined, The paint was heavily crazing to the point where large chips were coming loose.  Attempting to bend the canvas at all would've been catastrophic.

No less than 3 days after we arrived my uncle and his wife surprised us with the news they were leaving for a week to go to a wedding in Monte Carlo.  Apparently it slipped their minds when they were asking us to please come and retrieve the estate much like the purpose of our trip seemed to, the moment we arrived.  I spent the first few days in shock over how little any of this meant to my aunt and uncle and how unconcerned they were over the fact that we had taken weeks off from work and we're giving up most of our vacation time for the year (and our budget) to be blown off by them despite repeatedly confirming with them our purpose and the dates we were coming.   Thankfully we had rented the apartment in France so we relocated with almost 2 weeks left to come up with a plan for the painting.   

Bruce and Alain

Our first free day we decided to go to the outdoor antique market: because our life did not already have enough antiques apparently ;-) There we met an Algerian couple (Alain and Nadine) who were antique dealers from Antibes. They had been looking for an American who spoke French who could help them not only translate some documents but help them research a New England artist (John Armstrong) for whom there was no information in the art indexes. While a long shot, they hoped to find a bilingual New England-er familiar with the art market and that period who might also recognize some of the small New England towns depicted in the paintings while also making sense of the clippings and documents that came with the collection.  This kind of thing happens to me frequently and I love that it does. In this case it was a well needed distraction from my frustration.

Bruce and I agreed to go to their gallery to help them after hitting it off over dinner the night before. We love meeting new people so for us it was and is par for the course to accept invitations.  The next day at the gallery  I was able to help them more than any of us could have imagined and our encounter the day previously was truly an awesome coincidence. Not only was I familiar with the state that the artist was living in, but the small town depicted in the paintings was the same small-town I happen to live in:  Peterborough New Hampshire.  I was floored when they pulled out an early 20th century newspaper clipping with photos of the McDowell colony and they were speechless when I explained that I not only recognize this town, but lived there.  Whatever you call it, it was a fun and unexpected reminder of how interconnected we are.  It is usually when I am far away from home and least expect it, that I am most reminded of that.

We spent most of the next 2 weeks with Alain and Nadine, even working some antique shows with them. We had a great time together and they did everything they could to assist us brainstorming how to move the painting, considering it's instability, and were very helpful later with the nightmare of documentation and forms we later would need to get lined up.

To even move the painting from the house into a car was a risk without a proper crate even if we could get a vehicle large enough. We needed to find someone who could stabilize it and crate it from my uncles house.  And it was inevitable we would have to follow the standard protocol for importing a painting from Italy to confirm we were not trying to sneak an Italian masterpiece out of the country. Even once we decided to take the 'traditional' route we still needed a good deal of time to fill out the equivalent of a novel in paperwork and documentation, all of which I recently located.   After paying both the US and Italian fees, shipping through Air France, customs brokers, attorney fees and factoring in the cost of our trip, we had spent almost as much as the painting was worth, possibly more.

Nothing to do but be tourists in nice

Bruce and I returned to the United States empty-handed and defeated after entrusting the painting with an international shipping company that we gave power of attorney in all things related to the painting from that point forward.  We knew it was headed to Rome and we would likely never see it again but we did have 2 fabulous weeks with Alain and Nadine and love the French Riviera so we decided to put the painting and my grandmothers letters out of our thoughts and re-frame the experience as a vacation in southern France.  It was only a few weeks after arriving home we were able to officially mourn the loss of the painting after receiving notice that the painting had disappeared.  It’s redundant, I know,  to say we were not surprised.

We moved on and approximately 6 months later Zio S. passed away.  I loved him and despite the fiasco surrounding our last visit I was only struggling with bitterness over the personal documents thrown away but blamed Zia L, as I knew it was not my uncle who threw them away. During this time we stayed in touch with Alain and Nadine and I reached out to the MacDowell Colony to get more information about Armstrong.  Bruce and I started considering how we could all work together and Alain and Nadine wanted us to help them plan an exhibition of the collection they had acquired.   Once more than 8 months had passed they agreed we should officially write the painting off but I did make one more inquiry.  I can't say how much more time passed but believe it was another 6 months later when I received a message at work from an attorney with US customs in Boston informing me I could pay her to make arrangements for the last leg of my  'cargo' that had just arrived from Italy.  By that time I had no idea what the cargo could be. The last time I made inquiries I promised myself to forget about it and let it go.  For that reason it was a stunning and fabulous surprise to learn it was a painting, the painting. 

The hardship, frustration and hassle that came with bringing it home only made the painting more precious to me. The fact it was all we managed to bring home of my grandmother and that I had already been enamored with it since I was a little girl all conspired to make selling it impossible.  Once it was finally in my home I felt like I had a little bit of not only Italy with me, but my grandmother and all the places she had lived where the painting traveled with her.  I never once walked by it without feeling a sense of awe that it was in my house or without experiencing a wonderful sensation of being in numerous places in time and geography at once.  It had a very long journey to my home; a journey that didn't start in 2006 but rather in the 19th century when it was first painted in Paris.