"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
June 08, 2015
How I Saved the Art World a Bundle
by Lawrence Jeppson

In the 67 years since I purchased my first original painting, my most important contribution to the art world is one that has been of enormous financial benefit to artists, collectors, dealers, and museums but will soon be forgotten. In fact, in all but one vague circle, it already has.

That first purchase: back in 1948 an impoverished artist set out a display of his paintings on the Allées Paul Riquet, the huge public esplanade in the backwater town of Béziers in Southern France. I was taken by a landscape, came back and looked at it several times, bought it for $5.

I have no recollection of what it looked like. I left it on the wall of the slum-like apartment where the missionaries lived at 126 rue du Château, Paris, while I continued my mission in Liège, Belgium and Geneva, Switzerland. (Later Mitt Romney would live there.) I retrieved it at the end of my mission, took it home, and gave it to one of my best Carson City friends as a wedding present.

Since my time Béziers has created a five-day fair centered around bullfights. These attract a million visitors. Historically, the old Roman city boasts a much bloodier past. It became a center for the Cathars (Albigensians), written about in James L. Barker’s Protestors of Christendom.

The Roman Catholic Church decided the Cathar heresy had to be wiped out and mounted the Albigensian Crusade. In 1209, Béziers was besieged, under the orders that every Cathar was to be killed.

When the leader of the Catholic forces was asked, “How do we tell a Cathar from a Catholic?” the bloody reply was, “Kill them all. The Lord knoweth his own.”

Twenty thousand men, women, and children were put to the sword. (The figure I was once quoted was 100,000, but that might have included executions in other Cathar cities, like Albi.)

By comparison, the landscape I bought in Béziers eight and a half centuries later was a piece of non-historical calm.

That Béziers purchase did not shoot me off on the path of art collecting — or of wishful art collecting. I suppose in these days of computers, we’d call the wishful thing virtual collection — building up an imaginary museum in our minds, where assembled are the images of art we’d love to own but probably never could.

My urge to own struck me on a Saturday afternoon, 25 June 1949. The Mormon missionaries working in Paris, along with Marcelle Beecher, who worked for U.S. Army Graves Registration and was a marvelous friend/guide to the elders, gathered to visit the Museum of Modern Art.

At the time I could not have told a Monet from a Manet.

I remember clearly I got my first look at the paintings of Georges Rouault — and hated them. (Given time, I would develop a genuine admiration for his art.)

My taste wasn’t entirely unformed. I had seen reproductions of Millet paintings on grade school walls — and was totally unmoved.

I had gone to the art exhibitions at the San Francisco World’s Fair, 1939. In the Army in 1944 I had sought out Blue Boy and other famous paintings at Huntington Library Collection in San Marino, California. While at the University of Utah I developed an enthusiastic appreciation for the limp watches of Salvadore Dali (remember my recent column: I met Dali in 1959).

Before I graduated from the University of Utah in 1948, an important Winifred Kimball Hudnut Collection was given to the school and placed on show in the Park Building.

I did not see any Dalis at the Museum of Modern Art.

What I did see was a group of modern, handwoven, Aubusson tapestries. I was aware of the art because I had read in Time about a Jean Lurçat tapestry created for a French church. Even so, I was not prepared for the real thing!

The tapestry that struck me the most forcefully was Theseus Slaying the Minotaur by Marc Saint-Saëns. What overwhelmed me was the eye-boggling dramatic power of the depiction. I would not learn until years later that this tapestry was designed and woven during the Occupation. And was done under Nazi noses.

Theseus was the Underground and the French people. The Minotaur was the Nazis. The tapestry was a shout that the French would prevail. The Germans were oblivious to the symbolism.

As I have written previously, I returned to Paris in 1958, had the good fortune of meeting the artists behind that unforgettable Museum of Mode Art collection, and began a life-long and life-changing association with them and their Paris gallery.

The next year an exhibition of their tapestries opened at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City. After that showing closed, I moved the collection to the new headquarters building of the National Association of Home Builders in Washington, D.C.

Tapestry exhibition at the National Association of Home Builders, Washington, D.C. Left to right: Robert Valeur, French Embassy; Richard Hudson, NAHB; Senator Wallace Bennett; V. Evans Buchanan, NAHB; and Lawrence Jeppson, looking at a tapestry by Louis-Marie Jullien.

Les Constructeurs, tapestry by Fernand Léger, which can be seen in the background of the preceding picture. I once owned this tapestry, and it hung on a wall in our Bethesda, MD home. Pressed financially — we were raising six children — I sold it to French & Company, New York for $12,000. Today it would be worth on the high upper end of six figures.

Anne-Marie Pope, the head of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, wanted to take over the collection and circulate it to museums. Of course I agreed.

At the NAHB exhibition. Left to right: John Dickerman, NAHB; Richard Hudson, National Housing Center; Anne-Marie Pope, head of SITES; Hervé Alphand, French Ambassador to the United States; and Madame Alphand.

Soon after SITES took possession of the collection someone who had seen it previously wanted to purchase one of the exhibited tapestries, a Cock by Jean Lurçat. Fortunately, up to six weavings are allowed for most cartoons. Another weaving was available in Paris. It was sent to me.

At the time all art was subject to an ad valorum import duty. My recollection says the amount was 27%. That means that for every $1000 of invoice cost the government would charge an additional $270.

I paid my tax and took possession of the tapestry.

Consternation took over. The tapestry was not exactly the same. Lurçat had changed one of its colors. The buyer was not happy and would accept nothing but the tapestry in the exhibited collection.

I had a difficult task in convincing Anne-Marie to allow a switch. The original collection had been brought to the United States under a temporary tariff-exemption provision which required its return to France after the last showing. Fortunately for me, Anne-Marie ultimately pulled the rabbit out of the hat, and the switch and sale was allowed.

My deal with the French was simple enough. I would promote the cartonniers and their art. In exchange, I was given exclusive North American sales rights. The only way I could be compensated for a lot of work was to sell some tapestries. The prohibiting ad valorum tariff would stifle sales.

Not knowing what to do, I took my problem to someone I knew, Edgar Brossard, long-time head of the United States Tariff Commission. (After retirement Brossard was called to be President of the French Mission.)

Brossard explained that Senator Jacob Javits, a relatively new liberal Republican from New York, had introduced a bill removing import duties from original art. Tapestries were not part of that removal.

He suggested that I ask the Senate Finance Committee, which was holding hearings on the bill, for permission to testify before it and make my case for removing import duties on handwoven tapestries.

Public relations professionals in Washington, D.C., make their biggest bucks lobbying Congress on behalf of the interests they represent. My father-in-law was Senator Wallace Bennett, who served 24 years in the Senate, 22 of them after I married Frances.

When I opened my own public relations counseling service in Washington, I resolved that I would in no way get involved in any lobbying. Perhaps I was naive, but I did not want to do anything that opponents might try to use against Bennett, and I seldom asked his office for favors.

This was one of those times.

I made my pitch to the members of the Senate Finance Committee in a public hearing.(My father-in-law was not present, and I had not yet asked him for help.)

It fell on deaf ears.

In Congress, the actual drafting of a proposed law is first worked out and worked over by professional committee staffers. Senators who serve on a committee appoint the staff members of the committee. A senator will appoint someone who most nearly represents his point of view — and who, of course, passes all the other qualifications the senator might set down.

Sometimes such appointments are purely political. Not so with Wallace Bennett. He always carefully selected outstanding men and women to represent him on committees and in other positions. For his own office staff he was always hiring capable people, training them for a few years, and then pushing them out to take on better jobs in government and the private sector. The American professional landscape became littered with his ex-employees.

Because of his business background, intelligence, and integrity, Bennett was an influential member of the Senate Finance Committee. His appointee to the committee staff was Serge Benson, a seasoned, senior staff member of the committee.

The senator turned me over to Serge.

A successful staff member has to be a skilled negotiator. Every staff member brings to his job his own view and the view of his appointer. Often staff views conflict. Committee results can be a long series of compromises and accommodations.

More often than not, a bill may come out of committee that is not the unanimous offering of the staffers, who represent Senators from both sides of the aisle. Final drafting, with all sorts of amendments and riders, ultimately may be worked out on the floor by the actual members of the Senate and House.

Every member of Congress may have personal ideas of what should be in a bill or left out, and floor amendments may fall like hail from heaven.

Sometimes a piece of proposed legislation might be of importance to other committees, and often to the administrative division of our government. Committee staffers have to work through an almost never-ending string of viewpoints and forces.

Once a bill gets out of the Senate, it still has to be vetted and passed by the house: the process all over again.

If Senate and House ideas diverge, compromises must be worked out by staff members, compromises that are agreeable to a majority of both sides.

A frequent gambit of Senators and Representatives is to add their own pet legislation to a bill that has nothing to do with their bill but that, as a hitchhiker, has a better chance of passage. For example, a bill giving money for a sewage treatment plant in the legislator’s home town might be attached and hidden in a military appropriations measure.

Such attached bills are called riders. An important piece of legislation may have dozens of irrelevant riders attached to it. Sometimes when affairs get down to the hard nitty-gritty, legislators may agree to a ban on riders to a vital piece of legislation.

Serge knew what I needed. In his deliberations he had to consult with the Tariff Commission, the United States Treasury Department, and probably several other forces, perhaps even including the White House, to avoid creating a bill that the President would veto.

The Javits Bill removed all tariffs on the importation of original art.

Serge negotiated a compromise regarding the duty-free importation of tapestries: they had to be handwoven, worth more than $20/square foot, and be fit only as wall hangings.

This ruled out machine-made fabrics and rugs. In another realm, the measure also ruled out tariff-free importation of mass-produced castings and unlimited prints on paper.

By the time these measures satisfied staff, Congress was within days of adjourning. Regardless of staff sanction, the bill still had to be considered and passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The legislators were anxious to quit and go home. The proposed Javits bill had become so top-heavy with extraneous riders that it was doomed to sink. For example, Senator Clinton Anderson from New Mexico had added a provision repealing tariffs on decorative mouldings manufactured in Mexico, a measure certain to displease Treasury and the White House.

Time was running out. If the bill were not passed in this legislative session, it was gone forever.

Serge and I conferred regularly. I had no influence. He exerted tremendous quiet influence and a gift for persuasion. Of course, I have no idea of what tradeoffs he might have made to get the Javits bill cleaned up, out of committee, and sent to the Senate floor in the last hours.

The completed bill was stripped of its riders. It passed the Senate. Then Serge had to negotiate with his counterparts in the house.

In the nick of time, the clean bill passed the House. It exempt all original art from tariff duties. With restrictions I could live with, it included tapestries. Congress was about to adjourn.

The Javits bill was sent to the White House. Then we all held our breaths. President Eisenhower signed it.

Except for my work with Serge Benson, the Javits bill was a goner.

Since its passage American collectors, dealers, and museums and foreign artists have saved millions of dollars on imported works of art.

There is a French book on the history of modern French tapestries that acknowledges my efforts, and I put a line on my résumé, “responsible for the rescue and passage of the Javits Bill exempting original art from import duties.”

Other than that, all is forgotten. The many who benefit have no idea. But that is just fine. The important thing is that the art world benefits.

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About Lawrence Jeppson

Lawrence Jeppson is an art consultant, organizer and curator of art exhibitions, writer, editor and publisher, lecturer, art historian, and appraiser. He is America's leading authority on modern, handwoven French tapestries. He is expert on the works of William Henry Clapp, Nat Leeb, Tsing-fang Chen, and several French artists.

He is founding president of the non-profit Mathieu Matégot Foundation for Contemporary Tapestry, whose purview encompasses all 20th-century tapestry, an interest that traces back to 1948. For many years he represented the Association des Peintres-Cartonniers de Tapisserie and Arelis in America.

Through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the American Federation of Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, and his own Art Circuit Services he has been a contributor to or organizer of more than 200 art exhibitions in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Taiwan. He owns AcroEditions, which publishes and/or distributes multiple-original art. He was co-founder and artistic director of Collectors' Investment Fund.

He is the director of the Spring Arts Foundation; Utah Cultural Arts Foundation, and the Fine Arts Legacy Foundation

Lawrence is an early-in-the-month home teacher, whose beat is by elevator. In addition, he has spent the past six years hosting and promoting reunions of the missionaries who served in the French Mission (France, Belgium, and Switzerland) during the decade after WWII.

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