Thursday, August 21, 2014

An Epic Shoe Shine Stand

Those of you who follow me on other social media outlets already know this, but earlier this summer I had a really stunning bit of luck with an important acquisition to the folk art collection here at the Fenimore Art Museum. In early May, while I was out of town on a family get-together, I received a call from my good friend Joe Sciorra, who told me that he just found out that a long-lost piece of Italian-American art had been found in New Jersey and was coming up for auction. The very next morning. Short notice!

It was "Joe Milone's" Shoe Shine Stand, a famous piece of found-object folk art created by an Italian immigrant in New York, discovered by sculptor Louise Nevelson in the early 1940s, and displayed at the Museum of Modern Art for the Christmas season in 1942. Joe Sciorra's research had revealed that "Joe Milone" was a fake name given to Giovanni Indelicato for the MoMA display. Anyway, I knew the piece because it appears or is mentioned in every history of MoMA, including the well-known book The Good Old Modern by Russell Lynes.

Apparently, the piece was owned by Indelicato's descendants, and was nearly set aside on the curb for trash removal, before being consigned to auction. There wasn't much I could do at such short notice, so we decided to contact the winning bidder to see if we could purchase the item from them after the sale. This is where we got extremely lucky.

The winning bidder was a local antiques dealer named Pat O'Shea. She bought the piece for $3,000. I offered her $10,000. Since I was a museum, she sold it to me instead of to a collector who had offered her $30,000! This woman deserves a medal. The New York Times got wind of the story and wrote it up in grand fashion here.

Indelicato's magnificent shoe shine stand,called "an epic of Mediterranean culture" by Nevelson, is now in our folk art gallery. It is a perfect complement to both the 19th-century and 20th-century pieces we own, and bridges the early and later periods while speaking eloquently of the mid-century fascination with self-taught art that brought a lot of this material to the public's attention. A fitting tribute to a whole chain of brilliant, committed people who shepherded the process of placing this treasure in a permanent home for public enjoyment. Kudos to Giovanni, Joe, and Pat.


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