Wednesday, September 23, 2015


Madonna  & Child with Angels
c. 1440
Bode Museum, Berlin

"These sculptors of the Renaissance delighted to work in the plastic stucco, and delighted still more in the lovely tone which they could give to it; for many reasons they preferred it to marble. If Donatello could have known what would happen when his Madonna passed our customs, I think his shade would have returned from Hades to point a finger of scorn at our government. The stucco arrived at our port, and imagine Mr. Havemeyer's surprise when notified that his Donatello relief had been entered and taxed as earthenware!  Forty-five per cent duty was to be levied  upon it.

"But it is sculpture," said Mr. Havemeyer, "and art, besides; I will bring sculptors, experts, who will prove that what I say is true."

In vain! That particular, specially developed intelligence that one finds in the customhouse would not listen. The best sculptors, the highest authorities of this country asserted that the stucco was art, the finest art that mind could produce, and should come in on the fifteen per cent basis, at which rate art was taxed at that time. These Dogberrys held high court and the verdict was:

First, it was not sculpture because it was not marble but a sort of clay, hence earthenware, and secondly, it was not sculpture because "you could not walk around it" ; ergo, it was not sculpture, and if not sculpture it could not be art, and ergo again, it must be earthenware; therefore write it down earthenware and tax it at forty-five per cent duty in order to protect the crocks and pots of productive New Jersey. There is quite a volume written about the customs tax of our Donatello, which I am keeping as a curiosity. Perhaps some day the Madonna may go into a museum, and if it ever does, these Dogberry reports of the U.S. customs duties go with it, for the amusement and enlightenment of future generations. If not appreciated in America, this funny bit of art history is greatly relished in Europe, I assure you, where they deride and laugh at our gross ignorance in art matters."   

 from Sixteen to Sixty, the memoirs of Gilded Age art collector Louisine Havemeyer (1855-1929)

I have been unable to trace Mrs. Havemeyer's Donatello in a public collection. It may remain in possession of a descendant (with its accusatory ledger book attached). The image above represents a relief of similar description in a German museum.