Undercurrents: V.I. Taxpayers Rich with Artifacts

A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

From ancient tapestries to a paperweight depicting a Texas longhorn, the territory has enough artwork, period furniture, silver dishes and historical artifacts squirreled away in government buildings to sponsor its own Antiques Road Show series.

As testimony in a legislative hearing revealed a few weeks ago, there’s no central listing of the treasures. There have been isolated attempts over the years to catalogue at least some of the more valuable items.

In 1991, Christie’s Appraisals Inc. valued seven different original paintings at a total of $413,000. These were:

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– Camille Pissarro’s “Soleil couchant a Eragny,” oil on canvas dated 1892, for $250,000;
– “Nymphs in a Grotto” by Thomas Hart Benton, oil on board, for $60,000;
– A Pissarro landscape for $50,000;
– Zao Wu-Ki’s “Hommage a Henri Rousseau” still life for $30,000;
– Mario Sironi’s “Supplication,” gouache on paper, for $20,000;
– Edouard Vuillard’s “La Sable,” which is signed “Villon” for $2,500;
– and “The Conquest” by Luciano Miori for $500.

Citing security concerns, government officials have declined to release more recent appraisals.

In an email, Lisa Webster of the Protocol Office said the latest appraisal came from Christie’s on October 15, 2014, “for the Impressionist and Modern Art (Camille Pissarro, Maison en lisiere d’un bois) valued at $50,000. An earlier appraisal for the Fine Art collection (various artists: Thomas Benton, Armand Guillaumin, Peppino Mangravite, Leonard Midori, Camille Pissarro, Edward Vuillard and Zao Wou-ki) was submitted to us on April 12, 2013 is valued at $529,500.” She would not itemize the various works.

The only listing of individual items available to the Source came from an old paper file folder stuffed with loose sheets of papers containing rudimentary descriptions of various paintings, artifacts and pieces of furniture, including mimeographed photos of some of the objects. At the top of the stack was a copy of a report submitted to the transition team for the then incoming Gov. Charles Turnbull dated Nov. 24, 1998, and submitted by Myron D. Jackson, now a senator and then a planner with the State Historic Preservation Office.

The report was confined to Government House in Charlotte Amalie and to Catharineberg on Denmark Hill. It did not include anything from Government House Christiansted or any other government buildings.

Despite the limitations, the file revealed a wealth of history.

The Peppino Mangravatti murals were actually a WPA project, sponsored during the Great Depression of the 1930s when the federal government tried to lend financial support to artists through the Works Projects Administration. One depicts the Columbus landing at Salt River, one the transfer of the islands in 1917 from Denmark to the U.S. and one shows the processing of muscavado on a St. John sugar plantation. Mangravatti actually painted the murals in the States; he traveled to the Virgin Islands sometime in the 1940s to sign them.

Government House has showcased local artists as well as famous international painters. At the time of the report, there was an Albert Daniel painting on the staircase. It shows a young man and could be a self-portrait, but the poor quality of the Xeroxed copy of a photograph and the dearth of information in the file makes that unclear. There was a harbor scene by Ira Smith on the third floor and there had been a portrait of Edward Wilmot Blyden by Aline M. Kean in the lobby, though it was marked as “missing” at the time of the inventory.

Probably the oldest item in the stash was a Coptic textile, attributed to the third or fourth century. It was a gift from Norbert Schimmel on December 20, 1954. No value was listed for it.

Two other tapestries did carry price estimates. One, a hand-woven, wool on wool tapestry from about 1700 and probably created in Flanders, shows a stylized fountain in colors of green and blue with some gold. It was valued in the 1990s at $40,000. A more recent work, dating to about 1900 and coming probably from France, depicts a couple dressed in late 15th century costumes. It was valued at $20,000.

There are several Caribbean historical markers among the “collection.” Among them is an 1819 Bible that was owned by the islands’ Danish Gov. Peter Van Scholten and donated to the U.S. Virgin Islands by his descendent, Jobst van Scholten, in March 1983. There’s also a Royal Danish porcelain writing set that von Scholten used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in the Danish West Indies in 1848. It had been kept in the family and was presented to the territory in November 1967 by Mrs. J. von Scholten. No value is listed for either item.

When 150 members of the Danish West Indian Society came from Copenhagen to the Virgin Islands in 1971, they brought with them a gift for the Virgin Islands Museum in St. Thomas – a mezzotint of Queen Charlotte Amalie, created in the 1690s by a Dutch artist named J. Cole. A mezzotint is a type of engraving on copper or steel.

Another gift is an 1850s lithograph depicting a scene from the Virgin Islands. The scene began as a daguerreotype by H. Hansen, then was drawn on stone by A. Nay, and finally was published as a lithograph by E.M. Baerentzen Co. in 1850. It was donated to the Virgin Islands by R. Troncone and R. Ferrelli of Greengage Co. in 1991 at which time it was valued at $4,500.

Among the household goods, there are four different 18-inch silver trays; two 16.5-inch silver trays, two 14-inch; two 12-inch and two more whose size is not listed. There are a 10-inch silver bowl, an 8-inch silver bowl; a 7.5-inch silver bowl; a 12.5-inch silver basket; and 11 silver fingerbowls, eight of them with saucers. There are also five sets of silver salt and pepper shakers; three silver serving pieces; two silver teapots; two silver chocolate servers; four silver candy dishes; three silver cream and sugar sets; two silver chafing dishes; a silver gravy boat, a silver pitcher and a silver coffee pot. No partridge in a pear tree.

Also listed are dozens of furniture items, both at Catharineberg and at Government House, primarily on the third floor, which used to be the official residence for the sitting governor. It is not obvious from the sketchy descriptions whether many of these items are antiques or if they are reproductions. Nor is it obvious where they are now since the current governor and his two immediate predecessors did not occupy Government House.

As for the Texas longhorn paperweight, it was a gift in 1974 from the host of the 40th Southern Governors’ Conference, Gov. Dolph Briscoe of – where else? – Texas.

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