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Collection Updates

A mysterious, handsome man and a collection conundrum

--by Amy Schlegel, director of galleries and collections, Tufts University; previously published in Art New England magazine, April/May 2013 issue.

Unknown artist, Portrait of Hosea Ballou as a Young Man, date unknown (19th century), oil on linen. On loan from Carla Ricci, EL 1991.1.

Artist unknown + sitter unknown + date unknown = a collections conundrum. Many university collections have objects just like this one that languish in the "Unidentified Dead White Male" inventory of portraits, a dime a dozen in this post-identity politics, supposedly "post-feminist" era. Unidentified objects like this one are often referred to as "objects found in the collection," which, after good faith efforts and due diligence measures are undertaken, may be legitimate candidates for deaccessioning and sale. In this particular case, we were a bit hesitant to try to liquidate the work, and not only because it would probably not bring much, if any, monetary reward, considering we had no solid information about it. But we were also hesitant because this portrait of an unidentified young man had hung in the same location in the main administration building at Tufts, Ballou Hall (the first building built when Tufts was founded in 1852) in the entry suite of the President's and Provost's Offices for as long as anyone could remember.

Now the fact that this painting has been on view in such a prominent location would suggest that it has some historical import, some relevance to University history, or some art historical significance, even if no one currently working at the University knew what that is. And no third-party expert was able to identify the artist or the sitter for us. So we decided to put the painting before the University Gifts of Art Committee, which I chair, to accession it to the permanent collection, which indeed occurred in 2010.

Despite the yeoman's work of collections cataloging and documentation was incrementally harnessed by a small staff of two part-time registrars and an occasional collection intern, we still had no idea as to the origins of this painting and no documentation in the object files regarding how it came to Tufts. But we nevertheless wanted to accession the painting because it had become our favorite "orphaned work." Why? The consensus was that the sitter, that well-coiffed young man whose likeness was portrayed -- to use an anachronism -- was "eye candy." This portrait had became known in the collections department as the "Handsome Man," and the mystery of its identification and provenance presented a kind of provocative flirtation with which we wanted to continue.

Last summer, during some belated "routine" collections archival work undertaken by an enterprising intern, Aimee-Michelle Pratt, who was about to enter the Tufts Museum Studies program in the fall of 2012, a conservation receipt from the Fogg Museum at Harvard was found with a description of a painting matching the "Handsome Man." Apparently, the painting was "given" to Tufts in 1991 by an Associate Provost for Research, after she purchased it at auction 1990 and then had the painting conserved at the Fogg prior to its arrival at Tufts. That now-retired administrator still lives in the area and we were able to find her in the white pages. It turns out that she had never donated the painting to Tufts, but had intended it as a long-term loan to stay on view "in perpetuity" in that same spot, though no loan agreement was ever executed stating her desires. So in November 2012, the painting that was accessioned in 2010 was then put for a vote to deaccession, since it technically should not have been accessioned in the first place and the newly identified lender still did not wish to donate the painting.

Another part of the mystery surrounding the Handsome Man was also solved at this time: the sitter's identification. He is the young Hosea Ballou, who in 1852 was one of the founders of Tufts who became a minister in the Universalist church. In the adjacent Coolidge Room in Ballou Hall, a portrait from 1851 of the older Hosea Ballou hangs, but the resemblance between the two men is difficult to discern. So our lender knew exactly what she was doing when she purchased the painting of the handsome, young Hosea Ballou at auction, but these important clues were lost in the shuffle as University property inventories were just beginning to be computerized and the Aidekman Arts Center was dedicated in the spring of 1991. With the focus on new art being made by MFA candidates in the joint degree program between Tufts and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at the Arts Center, artistic property whether on loan or donated to the University was not necessarily treated as part and parcel of University history worthy of collection management best practices (like loan forms), which were still very much in their infancy then at many universities without a freestanding museum on campus, such as the Fogg.

Our hope is that the lender will bequeath the portrait of the Young Hosea Ballou to Tufts, where it will finally become part of the permanent art collection and have shared custody with the Digital Collections and Archives, the steward of University history. We also know it cannot remain on view "in perpetuity" and is in need of conservation, as all works of art are periodically. While the painting will indeed be removed from the spot it has inhabited for over 20 years soon, it will be replaced, perhaps more appropriately, with the older portrait of Hosea Ballou as Universalist minister, painted concurrently with the establishment of the University and more symbolically fitting as an instantiation of its founding as an institution open to all faiths and creeds.