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Thursday, 5 November 2009

At the PMA

Arms and the Man

By Richard Carreño
Junto Staff Writer
Bradley C. Higgins, a onetime acquaintance from long ago, used to regale his friends with tales of his youth -- growing up fabulously rich as the scion of a Massachusetts industrialist family. And, quite literally, a knight in shining armor. Brad was a man of leisure, with no visible means of support. But, boy, did he have lots of European armor. Ancient European armor, worth millions.

While Brad's schoolmates were decked out football gear and Superman capes, young Brad grew up at his family mansion clanging about in breastplates, gauntlets, greaves, and helmets, and, in an ominous warning to any benighted neighborhood kid who dared cross him, with a steel gilded longsword often at the ready. Far too often, he told us, he'd be just bumping into walls. All that was missing was a steering wheel.

I thought of Brad, now long dead after an automobile accident in the late 1970s, when I attended, late last month, the unveiling of new Germanic armor at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Not just any armor. But a complete set of unified body armor and horse armor, a 16th-century masterwork made for the Duke Ulrich of Wurttemberg (1487-1550).

Such a suit of armor, combined with its 'bard,' the horse's own body armor, is rare, actually very rare, as in one of only about 50 worldwide, according to the museum's director, Timothy Rubb. 'We have now landed that big fish,' Rubb declared at the unveiling.

Since the legendary Fiske Kimball ruled the PMA as its first director, the museum has strived to fulfill its artistic mission as an encyclopedic repository, as a sort of little sister to big brother two hours away, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If the Met had medieval, Renaissance, and Tudor armor, by Jove, so would we, the PMA's thinking went.

That dream wasn't fully realized until the 1970s, when, thanks to an extraordinary donation by a New York businessman, the PMA created galleries that quickly became known as arguably the second-best collection of European arms and armor -- in terms of breath and choice quality of pieces -- in the United States. Second only, of course, to big brother two hours away to the north.

By all accounts, the addition of the Wurttemberg bard, crafted in 1507 by Wilhelm von Worms the Elder of Nuremberg, and its companion suit of armor, a 1505 work by Matthes Deutsch, only solidifies the PMA's position. Credit for losing the 'arguably' goes to Pierre Terjanian, the PMA's French-born curator of arms and armor, who tenaciously eyed the warrior combo for many years.

So far, the museum has been mum about the armor's provenance, though, based on what it is known about its 20th century history, it has been been in private hands, probably in Europe, since the 1930s. And under wraps, except for what Tim Rubb noted was a 'brief' exhibit in Switzerland in 1972. Price? The museum has been mute on this as well. But previous price points over the years suggest that the combo was retailing for well over $1-millon.

According to art insiders, the museum's coyness probably has a lot to do with the previous owner's unwillingness to expose himself to further sales -- and to any price precedent.

Those attending the introduction of the man and horse combo, now fitted on life-sized models in the museum's arms and armor galleries, were treated to a hugfest that Brad Higgins would have recognized. Pomp: Minstrels piping in attendees. Booze: Open bar. And about 150 guests, mostly friends and family of Athena and Nicholas Karabots, the couple whose donation greased the way for the acquisition.

Stagecraft also included about 50 4th graders from the Center City- based Russell Byers Charter School.

Not surprisingly, Nicholas Karabots offered a kiddie-centric turn to the donation, suggesting that he was 'especially excited' that children 'come face to face with these astonishing armors.'

Given Brad's upbringing dressed in armor, he, too, would have certainly understood Karabots' emphasis on juvenile appreciation.

Actually, so do I.

Like many who have pursued more than a desulatory interest in arms and armor, my meanderings in the field, thanks to my father, started young -- and at the Met. Not having the money to buy real armor, of course, we settled for the second best -- imitation sets from FAO Schwartz.

Since then, I've followed the arms and armor trail from New York to London (the Wallace Collection, the Tower of London) to Paris (Musee de L'Armee). And, back to the US, to the Cleveland Museum of Art, which houses a small-ish collection. (Interestingly, the PMA's Tim Rubb is a former Cleveland director).

And to Worcester, Massachusetts.

Did I mention that Brad Higgins owned -- and sort of operated --America's second largest armor collection?

By 1928 Brad's father, the steel magnate John Woodam Higgins, then 54, realized that things were getting out of hand. By that time, his house at 80 William Street was groaning with tons of steel suits of medieval and Renaissance armor, purchased around the world by himself and friends. And Brad, of course, skating around the place in Italian and German plate.

What resulted, since 1929, was a purpose-built museum. But not any museum. Only one that included a Great Hall modeled after that in the Hohenerfen Fortress in Austria. The upshot, as the international arms and armor set now well know, is the Higgins Armory in Worcester that now houses Brad's father's multi-million-dollar collection as the only free-standing armor museum in North America.

In size, the Higgins, with about 6,000 pieces is second only to the Met, which boasts about 7,000 pieces. The PMA? Only just more than 1,000. But remember: It's quality, not quantity.

By the time I last encountered Brad, he had turned his family museum -- during non-operating hours, at least -- into a sort of vaulted-ceiling cocktail lounge. One that he shared with guests, fund-raisers, and 100 suits of armor. On that night I last saw him, he was overseeing a fencing match. Holy Cross versus, well, another team.

That was the thing about Brad. He was a bit of an oddball.

That's why, too, there was one aspect of PMA event that Brad wouldn't have understood -- its lack of of eccentricity.

To understand the American version of arms and armor collecting is to understand the American eccentric -- from the Met's Bashford Dean, who stuffed his house with armor, to the American William Riggs of Washingston who, while living in France, toyed with Met but who finally donated, to Brad Higgins and his dad at the Higgins Armory.

And William Randolph Hearst, the early 20th century newspaper baron who used to own and house the PMA's Wurttemberg armor at his own 'castle,' San Simeon, in California.

Eccentric? Yes. But, as in the case with Hearst and other American millionaires seemingly wanting in perceived class, in search of a European social imprimatur, as well.

The PMA's eccentric was Carl Otto Kretzschmar von Klenbusch (1884-1976), a New Yorker, who, despite a name that seems out of the Ernie Kovachs playbook, was, in 1977, the angel who created the galleries that now house the collection he amassed since 1914.

And the recently-acquired Wuttemberg armor.

I recently asked someone at Higgins Armory what she thought Brad might have thought about that.

'Wow' was the response.