Museums Get the Best Gifts

Marcus Moore, School of Visual & Material Culture, Massey Univ.
“Practically everything that [Marcel] Duchamp made has been treasured by someone – the losses are those things he happened not to give away” – Richard Hamilton 1965.
In 1983 Mrs. Betty and Judge Julius Isaacs of New York City bequeath a substantial collection to the National Art Gallery of New Zealand, Wellington – the twin precursor with the Dominion Museum to what is now Te Papa Tongarewa, the National Museum of New Zealand. This donation consisted of over 200 artworks, publications, and articles. As characterised by Betty Isaacs (born in Tasmania, Australia and a resident of New Zealand between 1896 and 1913) the collection is predominantly an eclectic range of over 80 of her sculptures and 45 amateur paintings by her husband Julius Isaacs. The bequest also contains a small grouping of artworks by the American artist Larry Rivers; and works by two important New Zealand expatriates Frances Hodgkins (NZ/London) and Billy Apple (NZ/London/New York).
There are equally three pieces by Marcel Duchamp which are the most important items in the gifting of this bequest. Two of the works were themselves signed ‘gifts’ by Duchamp to the Issacs. The entire bequest was accepted on the basis that his articles were included as well as the biographical association Betty Isaacs had with New Zealand. This was a clear sign of the recognition of Duchamp’s significance and the desire to acquire such works for the National collection. Given the comparative small scale of Duchamp’s oeuvre and since unique works by him were rarely available or in art market circles, this would prove to be an astute and canny move (Naumann 2003). Such rarity has caused consternation for those wishing to collect works by the artist who has eclipsed the contributions of many other 20th Century figures in the history of contemporary art.
Of the various artefacts by Duchamp in the bequest, the following have been recorded as distinctly separate pieces: BETTY waistcoat (1961, New York) (Fig.1); The Box in a Valise (Edition D 1961, Paris); and The Chess Players (copperplate etching, artist’s proof, 1965, New York). In addition, four 1st edition publications on Marcel Duchamp signed with personal dedications accompany the works.
Fig.1: Esquisse of Duchamp’s BETTY waistcoat by M. Moore, 2007

The initial offer of the estate’s collection was sent by L. David Clark (representative executor) to the Secretary of the Art Galleries and Museums Association of New Zealand (AGMANZ) on 13 November 1980. Luit Bieringa, who was the vice-president of AGMANZ and director of the National Art Gallery, does not recollect the broad possible scope of benefactors for the bequest. Bieringa’s opportunity to view objects, works and books in the estate became the opportunity “to not miss out on something unique” making sure that “the sequence from Betty Isaacs and the Judge Julius Isaacs bequest to the National Gallery was a natural one” (pers. comm. 2005).
It was Bieringa who secured the collection for New Zealand. With AGMANZ support, Bieringa entered into a protracted process of disposition and scheduled a meeting with Paul F. Feilzer, the Senior Trust Officer of Chemical Bank Corporation, for February 8 and 9 1981 in New York, when he viewed selected works in the bequest. The collection of artworks and other related items in the Isaacs estate had been appraised by William Doyle Galleries, Inc., New York, who appraised (in U.S. dollars) the Betty Waistcoat at $20,000; the Chess Players at $2,000 and the Box in a Valise at $3,000. The Isaacs’ bequest was confirmed via telegram to Luit Bieringa on June 6, 1981 from the Chemical Bank Corporation and the Board of Trustees of the National Art Gallery voted unanimously to approve acquisition on June 11, 1981. Although this approval was passed in June 1981, and Bieringa personally signed the receipt and release of the bequest in New York on November 9, 1981, it took until February 1983 before the works were formally accessioned into the National collection.
Delays are not an uncommon occurrence a propos a peripheral location. The news of obtaining the bequest originally in June 1981 was in fact new news again by the time of its actual arrival in Wellington and its formal acquisition in 1983. The delay was due to the distance the freighted works had to travel across the Pacific Ocean (and also due in part to the large size of the entire bequest). The total freight was comparatively expensive (estimated at $5,700 US dollars), yet approval of the bequest was conditional on National Art Gallery’s meeting associated costs for its climate-controlled freight to New Zealand. The full inventory of the Isaacs’ collection was shipped by Day & Meyer, Murray & Young Corp. — Packers, Shippers and Movers of High Grade Household Effects and Art Objects, and departed New York on the Malmros Monsoon on November 23, 1981, arriving in New Zealand on December 18, 1981 through Auckland. The shipment reached its final destination in February 1982. It took another full year for formal acquisition processes to be completed, but, finally these Duchampian gifts had arrived in New Zealand.
Bieringa, delighted by the acquisition of Duchamp’s works, wrote to David Clark, the representative executor of the estate in 1981:
“As a young country New Zealand cannot, apart from its superb indigenous cultural assets, boast of rich assets reflecting the art historical developments of the Western world. As such several of the works contained in the Isaacs Estate, in particular the Duchamp items, will have a significant impact with the art museum collections in New Zealand, whereas their retention in Europe and America will only marginally affect the stature of any significant collection. Given the limited financial resources of our museums the impact of the Isaacs collection will be substantial”.
While the bequest was somewhat serendipitous, Bieringa exhibited a presence of mind in securing a small yet significant collection of Duchampian art and articles for the National Art Gallery, especially at a time contemporaneous to a wider desire in collecting works by Duchamp. The bequest belongs to a limited transfer of his works to international museum collections after the artist’s death. Museums and curators arrived at the significance of Duchamp’s work much later than that of other 1960’s New York based artists, and so a period of institutional interest in Duchamp’s work grew belatedly (Neumann 1999). Within a period in which very few Duchamp works might have actually been purchased or exchanged, the National Art Gallery of New Zealand succeeded in obtaining a small but unique collection.
Bieringa’s enthusiasm for the transaction made in 1983 has not been sustained by the institution that had facilitated the bequest. Indeed, The Box in a Valise, documented on its acquisition, has been shown on two occasions: at the Auckland Art Gallery, for the exhibition ‘Chance and Change’ in 1985, and more recently in 2003 at the Te Papa Museum, in ‘Past Presents’, an exhibition of works focusing on gifts to the collection (Fig.2). The BETTY waistcoat and The Chess Players were also documented upon their acquisition, but Te Papa Museum art catalogue files have not recorded any further movement of these items for exhibition, either within the institution or beyond. In addition, the 80 sculptural works by Betty Isaacs have never had any comprehensive exhibition and remain in their brown cardboard boxes in storage. Duchamp’s works have never formed a collective basis for any exhibition in New Zealand, though such an exhibition is long overdue. Therefore, akin to one of Duchamp’s time based pleasures (from his delayed work on the Large Glass), these three Duchamp works have, as in that figure of speech, gathered dust.
Fig.2: Esquisse of Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise by M. Moore, 2007

So what can be made of the fate of these Duchampian artworks? Firstly, their disappearance into a Museum Collection in a small city in an isolated country at the “bottom” of the South Pacific has effectively meant they were until now lost to Duchamp scholars. This fact starkly reminds us of New Zealand’s peripheral situation vis-à-vis the centres of culture and for which delays are a particular and peculiar circumstance. Yet, delay is also a favoured operation and strategy of Marcel Duchamp and the sequential ‘delays’ to the uptake of Duchamp’s work in the 20th century suggests that the marginal geographical location where these three Duchamp pieces are located is an affirmation of the ubiquity of their maker. These facts only impresses a stronger urge to make some sense out of these works within the cultural context in which they reside, in relation to the wider operations and strategies of Marcel Duchamp’s creativity. Rather than simply celebrate their re-discovery, I would argue the fate of these works actually tallies with aspects of Duchamp’s practice and this approach would stitch the works back into the picture.
It is Duchamp’s ability to resist classification, at variance to other 20th century artists, that spawned a highly mobile legacy across historical periods and across generations of art makers. It is here that register is found with the Isaacs’ bequest: not for the first time material and visual artefacts by Duchamp’s hand slipped across national borders, arriving in a new context. The Isaacs’ bequest is part of a navigation of ‘Duchamp’ beyond the cultural centres within which he had historically operated. Marcel Duchamp’s legacy functions in the New Zealand context, as elsewhere, as an inescapable and indispensable example for local artists, but who have developed their distinctive practices not only as faint echoes of mainstream models but as canny adaptations within the limits of a local situation.
The dedications by Duchamp to the Isaacs (the earliest of which was signed by Duchamp in 1959, and the last in 1967) were made within this period that Duchamp was somewhat of a travelling inscriber: a (supposedly) retired artist, pen in hand, authorizing and laying claim to various reproductions of his work. “The sixties are notably the replica years – replicas of his own work, made by others and signed by Duchamp” (Naumann & Obalk 2000: 15). Here the works in the bequest of the Isaacs offer a vital model to a culture that has historically relied on the reproducibility of art and the beneficiates of ‘friends’ to participate in wider culture (Fig.3). New Zealand’s position in the history of art is necessarily replete with (international) comings and goings: replete with networks formed overseas, of generating acquaintances, friendships and unions to serve as contacts and to sustain lines of communication upon returning. It is befitting that gifts from Duchamp are, in turn, gifts to New Zealand’s National Museum, made under the auspices of friends of this country.
Fig.3: Duchamp with a chess set made and
presented to him by his friend and fellow artist, Max Ernst

NOTE: This text is a substantially modified extract from a full article that was first published as
‘Attracting Dust in New Zealand – Lost and Found: Betty’s Waistcoat and Other Duchampian Traces’ in tout-fait: the Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, Nov ’07
Bieringa, Luit. 2005. Personal Interview. 17 May.
Bieringa, Luit 1981. Letter to David Clark Jr 20 May. Te Papa archive file MU00000-4-23-2.
Daniels, Dieter 2002. ‘Marcel Duchamp: The Most Influential Artist of the 20th Century?,’ Museum Jean Tinguely Basel (ed). Marcel Duchamp. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz. 25-28.
Hamilton, Richard 1965. ‘Foreword’ in NOT SEEN and/or LESS SEEN of/by MARCEL DUCHAMP / RROSE SÉLAVY 1904-64. New York: Cordier & Ekstrom.
Naumann, Francis M. 1999. ‘Proliferation of the Already Made: Copies, Replicas, and Works in Edition, 1960-64’. Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Amsterdam: Ludion Press. 208-254.
Naumann, Francis M. 2003. ‘Duchampiana II: Money Is No Object’, Art in America (March): 67-73.
Naumann, Francis M. & Obalk, Hector (eds). 2000. Affect Marcel – The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp. London: Thames and Hudson.