Legend has it that during construction in the 1970s or 1980s, twenty-two exquisite Renaissance watches were found beneath the art museum’s office floorboards. Whether fact or fiction, this tale tantalizingly indicates the many mysteries surrounding the 300-plus objects John Ringling purchased in 1927 from Alva Vanderbilt Belmont’s Gothic Room at Newport.
Upon bringing the collection to Florida, Ringling did not maintain it as a single entity or build for it a Gothic Room. Instead, he installed most of the paintings, sculpture and furniture in his art museum, and scattered the metalwork, majolica, timepieces, wax miniatures and carved gems throughout Ca’ d’Zan. The collection’s collective heritage was lost.
When former curator Virginia Brilliant began to work to reconstruct this collection and its history, photographs of the Gothic Room taken in 1926 seemed to be the only way to establish which items in our own collection came from the Room. Then, one day in the library of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, sifting through the newly available archives of Joseph Duveen, the dealer who sold the pieces to Ringling, she made a startling discovery—inventories of the Gothic Room appeared. One listed every item in the room, and beside each entry was a pencil notation, “R,” indicating what was sold to Ringling, “X” noting what was not. Suddenly, the possibility of tracing each item purchased by Ringling emerged.
With the help of our registrars, who were able to match inventory descriptions with objects whose histories were unknown, we learned that over the years pieces purchased by Ringling were lost, broken or missing. Yet these disappointments were mitigated by discoveries of objects whose presence in the collection we had never before fully understood—a 15th-century belt embellished with metalwork medallions, a handsome pair of 14th-century candlesticks from an Italian church, and a cup made from a coconut encased in silver. Even as the catalogue accompanying the 2009 exhibition Gothic Art in the Gilded Age: Medieval and Renaissance Treasures in the Gavet-Vanderbilt-Ringling Collection went to press, further items revealed themselves.
What further wonders are hiding in our vaults? As we continue to discover the Ringling collection through scholarly projects, we can’t wait to find out! In the meantime, see many of these objects on display in Galleries 3 and 4, including the enamel spoon shown here.