Busted! Ben’s Busted Bust on a Bus

We take you now to Elkton, Maryland. The date: September 21, 2012. A passenger on a bus from Mobile, Alabama, is apprehended by agents of the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. She is carrying a stolen bust of Benjamin Franklin, a plaster masterpiece by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828).

Ironically, the town of Elkton (pop. 15,443) is located on the Colonial Highway of America.

Told not to touch the valuable bust the previous month while cleaning the residence of attorney George A. D’Angelo in Bryn Mawr (home of the nation’s most difficult to spell women’s college), the perpetratress returned a few days after being fired by the cleaning company. Once she and an accomplice pulled off the heist, they stashed the 25-pound bust—wrapped in a sheet to muffle cries for help—in a dumpster in West Philadelphia. Then, or on the trip to Alabama the following day, or in Alabama, or perhaps on the bus to Elkton, the chest of the bust was cracked.

Last May, Andrea Lawton was convicted and given a six-year prison term [cue Law & Order sound effect*].

I haven’t heard that the busted bust will go on public view after it’s repaired, but does this sordid story make you want to see it or other busts of Ben?

There are two versions by Houdon, who observed our hero in Paris but does not seem to have gotten him to pose. The first, from the late 1770s, shows him in Quaker dress (more or less) and the second, from the 1780s, in classical togs (a term that does in fact come from toga).

The terracotta original of the Quaker version is in the Louvre. The two marble busts of Quaker Ben by Houdon are in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Metropolitan. Other museums have original busts cast in tinted plaster to look like terracotta.

Though not a Quaker, Ben chose to wear simple attire and go wigless (with a fur cap) to represent the unpretentiousness and virtue of his brand-new republic. In a letter to a female friend, he wrote: “Think how this must appear among the Powder’d Heads of Paris.”

Along with its significance as an icon of the all-important support Dr. Franklin (honorary degrees from Harvard and Yale) procured from France, the bust is an example of Houdon’s brilliance as a portraitist. In Encountering Genius: Houdon’s Portraits of Benjamin Franklin, Jack Hinton writes of Houdon: “we recognize his daring in representing an often silent man as possibly about to speak.”

Encountering Genius was a publication connected with the Franklin Tercentenary in 2006, when the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibited “the four finest documented versions” of the bust. The D’Angelo bust, which the octogenarian lawyer said has been in his family for a long time, was not one of them. Yet the news items about the stolen bust call it one of only four in the world (and worth $3 million). It may be one of the four plaster busts that Houdon gave to Franklin.

Why is it so difficult to learn more about the Bryn Mawr Ben? Why was the Philadelphia Museum of Art unwilling to be quoted? Wasn’t the Elkton Bus Bust a made-to-order publicity opportunity?

In Matthew Hart’s book Diamond (which I bought in the gift shop at the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History), he writes:

The auction of famous jewels adds to the perception of value, for if the rich will pay large sums for them, they must be worth it. But nothing brightens the charisma of diamonds so much as people stealing them.

According to Hart, since 1958, when Harry Winston gave it to the Smithsonian, “the Hope diamond has drawn more visitors than any other display or object.”

So let’s cling to HOPE as this week’s mnemonic acronym (then go for Greek food):

  • Historical significance 
  • One-of-a-kindness 
  • Provenance
  • Excellence

I’ll flesh these out in a future post, but think about them as they relate to Ben’s busts and, for comparison’s sake, the three-piece silk suit he wore as the first United States Ambassador to France. The Smithsonian purchased the suit last year from the Massachusetts Historical Society. (It had been on loan or maybe layaway.) Fragile, rarely displayed, and brown—but “originally a plum or claret color” according to The History Blog—it is undergoing conservation.

How does the Smithsonian HOPE to attract visitors to the suit? How will it be interpreted and contextualized?

The poor Smithsonian, under pressure to modernize, democratize, and sometimes politicize while carrying out its duty to collect, preserve, and display Sacred Cods (see last week’s post, “America: It’s Like Britain, Only With Buttons”). The Big S came under attack in “Why I Hate Museums,” an August 22 opinion piece by James Durston, a senior producer for CNN Travel:

“Souvenir Nation” showcases souvenirs from history and among its most noteworthy items are a brick from President Washington’s childhood home, a piece of Plymouth Rock chiseled off by a 19th-century tourist, locks of hair from former U.S presidents and a napkin belonging to Napoleon.

So this icon of world museums is now proudly displaying an old brick, an old piece of rock, some hair and a napkin.

You picked the wrong exhibition to pick on, Jimbo! The full title is “Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes, and Curios from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.” The show, displaying “fifty of the museum’s most eccentric objects,” is the Smithsonian’s look at the strange behavior of collectors and something of a tongue-in-cheek look at itself and its image as the nation’s attic.

And all publicity is good publicity, right? That’s next week’s topic.

* Wikipedia: “The Clang” is an amalgamation of nearly a dozen sounds, including an actual gavel, a jail door slamming, and five hundred Japanese monks walking across a hardwood floor. 

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