The Lost Harry Bertoia Brooch

Today marks the first day of preview for the March 6th Modern Art & Design Auction, and we kicked it off with a special private tour led by our director Peter Loughrey.

During the tour Peter told a great story about Lot 220, the Harry Bertoia brooch which came from  James Byrnes, the first curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at LACMA from 1947- 1953.

While Byrnes was at LACMA, the director of the Art Wing, W. R. Valentiner, became Byrnes’ mentor and broadened his knowledge of art as a whole.  As Peter found out about this relationship between Byrnes and Valentiner, he began to put the pieces together of another relationship — Valentiner’s daughter was married to Harry Bertoia.  Valentiner was known to promote his son-in-law’s work and it would be very unlikely that Byrnes would not have also acquired a piece directly from Bertoia.

While cataloging and organizing the items in the Byrnes estate, Peter knew that there must be a Bertoia in the collection, but finding it was the real question. Bertoia never signed his work. He signed drawings and letters describing his works, but never the actual piece. In terms of jewelry, he use untraditional materials and focused on form rather than preciousness, so looking for something shiny and ornate was out of the question.  Even after going through inventory lists from 1976 and 1984, there was not a single trace.

As Peter was packing up items from a glass case, he saw pebbles and sand on the bottom shelf surrounded by small Pre-Columbian figurines. There, sticking out from the sand, was a tiny piece of metal.

As Peter dusted away the sand, there it was, the Bertoia brooch.

This was a pure discovery by Peter, and with his knowledge of the relationship between Byrnes and Bertoia, he was able to sift out a work by Bertoia that could have been lost.

Lot Information

Lot 220
Harry Bertoia
Studio, executed circa 1946
3.875″ x 2.625″
Provenance: From the Estate of Max Palevsky
Estimate $5,000 – 7,000

Interested in Bertoia’s Sounding Pieces? Check out this post for information on two that will be offered in the March 6, 2011 Modern Art & Design auction.

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