Presale inventory reveals artistic treasures at Phipps mansion

Last year’s inventory of University-owned art at the Phipps mansion yielded an unexpected but pleasant surprise. Sharp-eyed grad students discovered a 6-inch bronze sculpture—whose whereabouts were unknown for years—lounging in a bucket of brass doorknobs in the mansion’s basement.

The sculpture was one of a set of four pieces by Aristide Maillol, an important French sculptor of the 1930s and ’40s, that an arts patron had donated to DU. Two pieces of the set were in hand and one was located in Minnesota. But the fourth remained a mystery until plans to sell the Phipps property in late 2010 forced art experts to nose around.

The Maillol was in good condition, says DU art curator Dan Jacobs, who led the six-month-long detective effort. His mission was to identify, appraise and secure DU-owned art and furnishings that had been displayed or stored at the mansion over the five decades DU owned the property.

“My objective was to figure out what the University should retain, either for its teaching value, artistic significance or historic connection to DU,” he says.

Jacobs’ legion of grad students and art detectives compiled a list of 658 items, including 19th-century French and American paintings, Asian artifacts, Chinese ceramics, bronzes, ivories, furnishings, antique furniture and original carpets.

“The art was either art that was there when Mrs. Phipps conveyed the estate to DU back in the 1960s or it was art accumulated by the University and stored or displayed there,” Jacobs says. “But nobody had ever kept track of it.”

The team examined everything they could find at the property, plowed through eight feet of files connecting objects with their histories, and cataloged the art into a database. Similar missions were begun three times in the past, Jacobs says, but were always abandoned due to lack of resources. This time the team finished its work, unearthing 120-year-old paintings and valuable frames grimy from time and cigarette smoke and retrieving a cache of stored material that came to DU when the University acquired the Women’s College in the early 1980s. They even found some of Sen. Lawrence Phipps’ monogrammed clothing and a “beautiful top hat” he wore on special occasions.

Some of the art is being cleaned up and is slated to be displayed on campus in the fall. “Two were just murky paintings in fancy gold frames, but by the fall they’ll be quite stunning,” Jacobs says.

Other items will be exhibited at the direction of a permanent art collections committee established as part of a new DU policy on handling art donated to DU. “We’re making huge progress in figuring out how to care for artworks,” Jacobs says. “It’s part of becoming more professional.”

Among the jewels reclaimed from the Phipps property is an 1880–81 landscape by Albert Bierstadt titled Weeping Oaks. The painting was a gift to the University from the artist, who was a friend of founder John Evans. The painting depicts a rural area of California 80 miles north of San Francisco.

Potentially even more significant is a painting credited to Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, one of the great landscape painters of the 19th century. The work was a gift from Alfred Perlman, a railroad magnate and DU trustee whose wife, Adele Sylvia Emrich (BA ’33, MA ’35), was an alumna.

Corot sometimes signed pieces he hadn’t actually painted, Jacobs explains, so student sleuths under his direction will launch an effort to authenticate the painting, capping the project with a fall visit to campus by Claire LeBeau, one of the foremost experts on Corot.

“If she says it’s a fake, we’re going to share that information, so we’ll advance the scholarship in a very public way,” says Jacobs, who admits he’s “leaning strongly” to the painting’s being authentic.

That swirl of doubt only adds to the academic opportunity that reclaiming art from the Phipps mansion presents to DU, he says.

“We’re here to teach the whole process: figuring out what it is, dealing with the condition, learning to display it and interpret it. It’s OK that we don’t know everything.”

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