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The Art of Art Collecting

12:00 AM, May 10, 1999 • By LIBBY STERNBERG
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Could serious artists survive without the National Endowment for the Arts? Could Americans tell what constitutes worth-while art? There are enough American club rooms hung with pictures of poker-playing puppies and doe-eyed waifs to suggest that the answer is no.

But there's a collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art that tells a different story. It's a lively gathering of early twentieth-century work that includes a good number of Matisses and Picassos as well as a Gauguin. And it was assembled, long before the NEA, by an eccentric pair of Baltimore spinsters named Etta and Claribel Cone. The Cone sisters prove that an American of means can -- without the help of the professional connoisseurs and a government-financed art establishment -- identify and support the first-rate art of their own time.

The art historian Mary Gabriel first encountered the Cone collection as an art student, when she went to view the tiny room, "no bigger than a large closet," in which the paintings were exhibited. And in her recent volume, The Art of Acquiring: A Portrait of Etta and Claribel Cone, she sets out to explain what motivated these women to collect art that was as controversial in their day as Robert Mapplethorpe's photography has been in ours.

The Cone sisters were no libertines living the raucous life of bohemian expatriates in 1920s Paris. As Gabriel discovered, they were instead straitlaced spinsters. "Why," the author asks, "did two seemingly severe, upright women, who clung to the cloak of Victorianism in their dress and attitude, surround themselves with avant-garde and largely erotic art?"

Gabriel doesn't entirely succeed in finding and answer, and in the end, the reader is left with the sense that the Cone sisters are laughing at the attempt to explain their motivations -- perhaps with lace handkerchiefs daintily covering their mouths.

What stands in the way of understanding these ladies is a certain bias -- our own, as well as Gabriel's. We have trouble believing that it may have been exactly their old-fashioned ways that made them such imaginative collectors. Their moral and cultural rootedness may have been what gave them the imaginitive freedom that "free spirits" often fail to achieve. Never thinking it was their lot to overturn the art world placed them in an excellent position to support those who did.

The Cone sisters were born in the late 1800s, two of thirteen children -- the offspring of a Jewish merchant living in Tennessee. Even though their East Tennessee neighbors were Union supporters, their father had been sympathetic to the South during the Civil War, and eventually he relocated to the "border town" of Baltimore. The family prospered; the Cone store became the Cone Export and Commission Company, a selling and financing agent for forty-seven southern cotton mills -- a business that provided a comfortable income for Etta and Claribel throughout their lives.

From these wealthy but unexceptional circumstances, the sisters grew into quiet mavericks. Claribel attended a woman's medical college, where one of her fellow students was Gertrude Stein, who had come to Baltimore to live with relatives after her parents' death. Stein and her brother Leo were to become influential friends of the Cone sisters.

Claribel Cone arranged for Stein to address a Baltimore women's group in 1900. The topic was "The Value of a College Education for Women," and Stein implored women not to waste their early years learning the "mysteries of self-adornment." The Cone sisters took the lesson to heart: When family responsibilities (in the case of Etta) and college (in the case of Claribel) no longer detained them, they used their freedom to pursue lives of culture.

Etta took her first trip abroad in 1901, visiting Florence, where she started to learn about art from the Steins. Gabriel hints, in fact, that Etta had a crush on Leo Stein. It was Leo who told Etta, "Keep your eye on the object and let your ideas play about it." At this point in her life, however, Etta's views mostly mirrored those of the more sophisticated Steins. Her diffidence, however, soon "began to change . . . as she became more acquainted with art."