Sunday, May 4, 2003

Antiquing with Anita Ellis

Art museum's chief curator has been building a city-related collection for 25 years

By Margaret A. McGurk
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Anita Ellis is poised to strike. At the Brass Armadillo antiques mall in Butler County, the chief curator of the Cincinnati Art Museum has spotted a blond wood bedroom set - dresser, bed and vanity with mirror - tagged at $325.

Anita Ellis with paintings by John Hubbard, Henry Meakin and Leon Lippert and a clock from the Shop of the Crafters.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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It looks very much like the work of the prolific Russell Wright, an influential designer whose reputation has enjoyed a major boost with the resurgent popularity of midcentury design.

Normally, she would not make an offer until she had called in colleagues for an inch-by-inch inspection. But the price is too appealing and the furniture potentially a fine addition for the museum's Cincinnati Wing, opening May 17. Negotiations are in order.

Wright's Cincinnati connection was a stint at the Art Academy, before he went on to great success as a designer, putting his name on a vast array of home furnishings, much as architect Michael Graves does today.

Says Ellis, in front of a Rockwood fountain: "I am always looking for the piece I can retire on."
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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Wright is already represented in the Cincinnati Wing collection with such objects as pitchers from his popular dinnerware lines; Ellis acquired those by putting out a call to the museum's volunteer docents, or guides.

That's how it has gone ever since the idea of a special collection showcasing Cincinnati's artistic heritage first occurred to her, said Ellis. "I have been mentally working on it probably about 25 years," since shortly after she joined the museum staff in 1976.

"It has really been her heart and soul's desire to do this" wing, said art consultant Pam Kirchner of Cincinnati Art Gallery, a firm that has dealt often with Ellis. "She is extremely knowledgeable," said Kirchner. "She does her research. She is also very patient. She loves the chase, discovering new things, and discovering the best. She's very curious. And she is very hard-working. I just can't stress that enough. ... We are lucky to have her."

Cruising Armadillo's aisles

Since the Cincinnati Wing was approved, Ellis has found items in the museum's existing collections, and culled dozens of others from dealers, donors (including a major bequest of paintings from Procter & Gamble), collectors, auctions, private homes, and trips like the visit to the Brass Armadillo on a recent sunny Saturday.

While her twin sister, Linda, scouts china and jewelry in glass cases (the two carry compact walkie-talkies to stay in touch while they shop), Ellis cruises the aisles, offering a veteran's insights on collectibles:

A large Mickey Mouse figure catches her eye. "You can tell that's an old one; the shoes are brown."

She runs her fingers over the edges of a cut-glass serving dish. "No chips. If you can find one like this, it makes a really nice gift."

Bakelite handles on an old chest of drawers catch her eye. "Sometimes when a piece is beat up and broken down, people will buy it just for the pulls and hinges. The hardware can be worth more than the whole piece."

A round oak table, she notes, will be slightly oval if it's really old because the wood shrinks over time along the grain.

She lifts an enameled plate. "That's hand-enameled, not hand-painted like the tag says. See, people don't know what they have. This is a really nice piece. You can get some great bargains in enamel."

Bargains are invaluable to museums, where the money comes from donors and is dispensed with great care, and the new Cincinnati Wing will display some of Ellis' best deals:

• Dress modestly.
• Carry a small flashlight (useful for spotting maker's marks and subtle flaws on the backs and undersides of furniture); a compact jeweler's loupe or magnifying glass; measuring tape; notebook and pen.
• Negotiate politely, but always negotiate. "The worst they can say is 'no.' "
• Educate yourself about the items you want to collect. "Nobody knows everything. Usually, you have to specialize," she said. "If you know what you're looking for, you can get great bargains."
• Beware the sudden impulse. "You see things all the time that look great, but you have to ask, 'What am I going to do with this? Where am I going to put it? Do I really need it?' "
• At the Brass Armadillo, she came across two "steamboat" chairs, which look like smaller Windsor chairs. They were built about 150 years ago by John Mitchell, an important artisan from a period when Cincinnati was the cultural equal, Ellis said, of Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

The chairs bore remnants of their original painted decorations; one was left as is. The other was restored, and the process captured on video for display in the room where the chairs will be exhibited side by side.

Ellis would not say exactly what she paid, or who sold the chairs (the museum will not release prices paid because of insurance and security issues), but said similar fine specimens would cost, well, "much, much more."

• A round Rookwood plaque, 39 inches in diameter, one of a pair that was removed during remodeling of what is now Children's Hospital Medical Center, then left in storage for years before it showed up at a flea market.

It was spotted by retired pediatrician James Sutherland who with his wife, Betty, also a retired pediatrician, is an avid antiques hunter and friend of the museum. The Sutherlands snapped up the irreplaceable pieces.

They had nowhere to display the find, so they rented a storage locker until they donated one to the museum and one to Children's.

• A black ceramic vase from the Swedish company Rrstrand and a French stoneware pitcher by Ernest Chaplet came from separate sellers, each at a fraction of the five-figure prices that similar pieces command at the top of the market.

Birth date: April 16, 1948
Education: St. Francis de Sales High School, Columbus; Ohio Dominican College, bachelor's degree; University of Cincinnati, master's degree; additional study at Attingham Park Summer School in Shropshire England, Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts at the University of North Carolina, Cambridge University.
Occupation: Chief curator, Cincinnati Art Museum.
Current home: Mariemont
Family: Twin sister Linda Ellis; mother in Columbus.
Her favorite thing to do on vacation: "Absolutely nothing. That's what vacations are for."
What she reads for fun: "Books with ideas. I love to read books on economic theory or evolutionary theory or biochemistry. I'm particularly interested in DNA and the genome research they are doing now."
If she won the lottery ... : "I would smile profusely. I don't know what I would buy. I am probably the only curator in the world who is not a pack rat. I would rather do things than buy things. Possessions tie me down."
The two European ceramics illustrate the influence of Cincinnati pottery, particularly Rookwood.

"I want to show this didn't happen in a void," she said of the evolving ceramic style. "The city was very ceramic-minded. It was the cradle of American art pottery."

As she browsed, occasionally a piece would stop her in her tracks, like a small, delicately glazed Japanese vase that inspired her to copy the maker's mark for further research.

"I don't recognize the mark, but I can tell you that piece is a very, very fine piece of pottery," she said.

She should know: Ceramics are her specialty. Her book The Ceramic Career of M. Louis McLaughlin will be published this summer; she previously wrote Rookwood Pottery: The Glaze Lines and the award-winning exhibit catalog Rookwood Pottery: The Glorious Gamble.

Ellis also has searched out elaborate carved furniture from the Aesthetic movement, textiles, wrought and cast iron and silver made in Cincinnati.

The museum owns a set of egg cups from the Best silversmithing family, which began operating on the banks of the Ohio in 1803. "They're rare as hens' teeth," she said.

She found many other pieces, "all over the South," a reflection of Cincinnati's geographical advantage during the steamboat era.

As recently as the mid-1970s, Ellis said, the museum was collecting Cincinnati art at bargain prices, "because you couldn't give it away."

"When I first started working at the museum," she said, "people would make fun of Rookwood. It was chic to make fun of Cincinnati art.

"A lot of people here do not appreciate that greatness can happen in your back yard. They think nothing important has come out of this city. ... One of the things I want to do (with the new wing) is explode the myth."

It started with a coin flip

"My first love growing up was science, but I also loved art. I thought (art) was something you enjoyed but you didn't make a living at it," Ellis said.

In college, she was studying both until the day came when she had to declare one major; she flipped a coin. Art won, and she has never regretted it.

"In life, it has nothing to do with making the right decisions," she said. "It has to do with making a decision right. It is not in my nature to look back. High school reunions bore me. I believe in maximizing the moment."

Ironically, that does not involve much personal collecting.

"People are usually surprised to see that my house is fairly modern. I like the clean lines of modernism. People who visit me expect to find Chippendale."

Among the few items that tempt her to buy for herself are left-handed golf clubs; she has two that date from the turn of the century. She also keeps an eye out for left-handed musical instruments.

But for the most part, she channels her material enthusiasm to the museum's needs.

At the Brass Armadillo, she has checked the reference books and found tantalizing clues that the bedroom set was in fact manufactured according to a Wright design. It's not definitive, but it's enough.

"I want this set so much," she says, heading toward the service desk to put in a call to the dealer.

She speaks in a low tone and curbs her stride. Can't look too eager in this business, and it can be downright deadly to tip the fact that you are hunting on behalf of a museum. Close to the chest is the default position.

In less than an hour, a deal has been struck.

Within a few days, the set is in the museum, where it awaits a thorough appraisal.

"I am always looking for the piece I can retire on," she joked.

"You never know where you will find the next great thing. You keep your eyes open all the time."


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