The Collector Hrandt Avakian

The inauguration of the art collection Beatrice and Hrandt Avakian, held on a torrid day in August 1974, brought together an extremely numerous public.The exceptional interest manifested was owed to the fact that two siblings living in modest conditions, from hand to mouth, were making a donation of special artistic value to the state. Curiosity prompted hundreds of persons to partake in an event of outmost importance to the Bucharest museum life, in order not only to witness a novel collection of Oriental and Far-Eastern decorative art, but to ascertain the size of the collection, the importance, value and authenticity of the donated objects. On this occasion, the visitors to their utter astonishment became aware of the vast number of former fiery amateurs and connoisseur collectors of extra-European decorative art in Romania, the scattered remnants of which came to form the present collection. Little was known of the collection and its value, as only a limited number of the new collectors, painters and members of the Armenian religious community could even catch a glimpse thereof; this, as its owners stored them in crates and rarely kept the objects up for display, as their humble abodes did not leave enough houseroom for an exhibition.Now the objects were displayed in their full glory, judiciously exhibited according to the laws of modern museology. The collection was housed by the ground and upper floor of what used to be a part of baroness Woronieka's home, who was the former wife of statesman Tache Ionescu (at 19 Ion Mincu Alley). The house was aptly fit up so as to meet the requirements of a contemplation of the exhibition, as complete and propitious as possible.The collection totalled – according to stipulations in the donation deed authenticated by the State Notary's Office, in District 1, under number 5087 of June 3rd 1971, concluded between Beatrice, Hrandt Avakian, spouse Rosalia and the former Committee for Socialist Culture and Education – 870 items (2,731,580 lei) of which 557 worth 1,546,000 lei in "Oriental ivory, jade and embroidery (145 items), cloisonnés, pieces of furniture, Bohemian crystals, jewellery, etc." were Beatrice Avakian's lot. The remaining collection – 313 items worth 1,185,580 lei, donated by Hrandt Avakian and wife Rosalia, included "paintings on Chinese and Tibetan paper and silk, Persian miniatures from 16th to 19th centuries, Chinese vases and statuettes in stone, bronze and wood from 16th to 19th centuries, metal objects from India and Islamic countries, enamelled Persian pottery, rugs and fabrics, as well as European furniture"1.Hrandt Avakian saw the light of day on March 29th 1900, in Aleppo, Syria, as the first-born of the Cashier General of the local Postal Offices, son to a blacksmith in Varna.Inauspicious times for Armenians prompted the family to leave town in 1920 and find at a cousin's (Karekin's) suggestion refuge in Romania, at Balcic.There, the Avakians (mother and five children, among which the eldest – the future collector, the father having demised in 1915) opened an unassuming book and glassware shop. The encounter with artists, especially during summertime, had positive effects on the future existence of young Hrandt Avakian. In contact with their universe and creation he felt the irresistible call for painting. Iser was the first artist to consent to initiate him in the mysteries of this form of art.Several summers consecutively, Avakian kept him company in "landscaping," minutely producing sketches in pencil under his guidance. In the summer of 1929, J. Al. Steriadi invited Hrandt at his own expense to accompany him at CapeCaliacra, where he wished to paint a number of landscapes. At the end, pleased with his quiet and submissive bearing and saluting his talent, he suggested his employ as a warden at KalinderuMuseum in his capacity as director, where an opening presented itself.Hrandt Avakian very eagerly2 accepted the offer which would not only secure a future existence away from his family but also give him the formidable opportunity of contact with the artistic movement in the Capital and of frequenting one of the private studios where he could master and perfect his artistic craftsmanship. In his generousness, J. Al. Steriadi provided him with a free-of-charge, spacious room in the basement of the museum and within months offered him, for a respectable honorarium, the massier3 obligations in his private studio peopled with female apprentices, which was situated in the directorial lodgings in the museum annex. The initiation in the mysteries of painting, methodically offered in the educational studio of Jean Al. Steriadi, enabled Hrandt Avakian to profusely master the craft and, within a short time, in 1931, present himself to the public with a private exhibition4. At the same time, the ongoing and close contact with the patrimony of KalinderuMuseum familiarized him with decorative arts. In time, he would channel his concern on Eastern pottery and Far-Eastern bronzes, which he had been more in contact with since his childhood. He grew fond thereof, and assiduously haunted second-hand bookshops and antique stores in order to enjoy and admire them. Rarely in the space of several years, he would purchase, on special offers and at a very low price, valuable objects; they were never in an intact state, nonetheless. He was, after each sale, adamant on accumulating a certain sum of money, which would later materialize into an art object compensating for the estranged piece. The collector's passion abruptly manifested itself in the interval 1943-1944, coincidental with his material improvement – he had become a well-known, popular and an extremely sought-after painting restorer – and with the opportunity to acquire exquisite pieces on account of his expert knowledge.He would find reliable associates for his hobbyhorse, recruited amongst family members: first his sister, Beatrice, a renowned seamstress of the time, then, by alliance, his wife, in whom, also an admirer of artistic beauty, he would not only find a moral, but a financial supporter, as well, as she held a well-paid position with the US Embassy.Extremely propitious circumstances would make it possible for him to set up a valuable and secretly coveted decorative arts collection over a period of about 15 years. If in former times acquiring an art object was a laborious process requiring a large amount of money, patience and perseverance – as the buyer had to await extreme cases in a collector's life (i.e. demise, loss in business, etc.) when he or she would alienate an object of art – the precipitation of social and political events following [the] August 23rd 1944 [anti-fascist palace coup d'état] prompted many a collector, be it out of prudence or stringent pecuniary needs, to forcibly liquidate their collections, thereby generating an abundant offer on the artistic market. Only rarely did he make his purchase at Romarta, the only state-owned art shop, in spite of its extremely low pricing, instead, most often – from collectors in the know: Al. Satmari, Adrian Maniu, dr. O. Proca, Al. Băgulescu and Barangian, or from antique shops frequently owned by fellow Armenians (Sarchisian, Harmelin), Dumitru Rădulescu, D. Neagoe, or from families who would commission a work of resoration in view of a subsequent sale.He preeminently collected Persian and almost no Chinese pottery as he deemed the latter to be with a shine too cold of the enamel, in certain objects, and with decorative motifs too gaudy, in others. He started to give top priority to wax-moulded bronzes, because of their uniqueness.From the collector and painter Alexandru Satmari, Hrandt Avakian purchased a small Corinthian vessel from the 4th century B.C. (inv. 83734), one of the acquisitions negotiated over a period of 2-3 years: a natural transaction between two aficionados wishing to conclude a mutually equitable trade. He would also be the source for acquiring a number of Romanian icons dating back to the 19th century (inv. 83356, 83357).Poet Adrian Maniu had a vast and widely-ranged collection, the public reputation of which was made up by the Roman gems, acquired from the site of the ancient fortress Romula in the proximity of his ancestral estate. Contrary to Alexandru Bogdan Pitesti who instilled the passion of art collecting into him and who kept his collection at the disposal of each and every amateur, he would keep it secret and partly reveal it to the interested and the very persistent in getting acquainted with his acquisitions. Their number was scarce: most of them succeeded in getting a glimpse on conclusion of a trade in kind. With all these restrictions, Hrandt Avakian was privileged to admire it almost in its entirety. It is from the poet that among others he purchased a sculpture rendering the goddess Venus uncovered at Romula (inv. 83628), a Persan poly-lobed plaque from the 18th century (inv. 83642), a Negro head – Roman art – from the 3rd century (inv. 83627), objects partly paid for, partly covered by restoration works of paintings and icons.From the famous collection of Far-Eastern art of colonel Alexandru Băgulescu, exhibited in 1940 at the Romanian Athenaeum, Hrandt Avakian succeeded in buying a marvelous Japanese tray (Kutani), 17th-18th centuries, purchased from a relative who had received it as a gift (inv. 83586).He was more fortunate in coming into the possession of three Chinese paintings, one depicting an interior scene with ikebana (18th century), the second, a woman with elephants (19th century) and the latter, three characters beside a tree (19th century), (inv. 83494, 83491, 83492), originating in the collection of banker Aristide Blank. In 1946, in his wish to take up the publication of the magazine Light and Color, the latter initiated the selling of several canvases and art objects, leaving the procedures into the hands of his former artistic advisor J. Al. Steriadi. Among the first to admire them was Hrandt Avakian, who was assisting him in the transactions on his request.On seeing him constantly enraptured over the three paintings, J. Al. Steriadi advised him to purchase them, leaving it to him to state the price and fix the installments. This was a nightmare to Hrandt. He deemed them wonderful and invaluable, therefore they would deserve a very high price; the generous offer of his master overwhelmed him. He was not able to price them and in the end it was J. Al. Steriadi who relieved him of his dilemma in stating an amount mindful of his purse and material standing.A vast number of icons and other objects ended up in Hrandt Avakian's collection as a result of long-wearing negotiations with dr. O. Proca.He [the doctor] would put up an object or two for sale only to change his mind in the middle of transactions, for he could not dismiss them easily, was in return open to supplanting them. He would often make new suggestions even in the case of second options. The negotiations were not accounted for by the doctor's wish to heighten the price, but by the regret of not being able to admire them any longer. When urgent needs forced him to sell at any price, he would alienate the objects otherwise offered at a fixed price for a sum somewhat lower than the initial, thus punishing himself for not having behaved loyally towards the prospective buyer. Patiently, Hrandt Avakian would regularly pay him visits, putting up with his whims, which he commiserated with and even approved of to a certain degree, as he was an admirer of his passion and sound expertise in the domain of Far-Eastern art. In time, the doctor escaped the nightmare of firsthand sales in preference to the mediation of his sister who, in her turn, solicited the support of collector Adrian Maniu, a person of vast connections and many acquaintances – who were friends of the arts and who would, as a result of their material standing, wish to set up a collection.Among the objects originating from Dr. O. Proca's collection5, we shall make mention of a number of icons: Mother of God with Infant Jesus (School of Crete, 18th century, inv. 82776), two triptychs (GreekSchool, 18th century – inv. 82798, 82797), a Japanese vessel (19th century – inv. 83293), Oriental boxes for watches (inv. 83219, 83237) and tobacco (inv. 83221).The fine Persian miniatures dating back to the 18th-19th centuries (inv. 83496, 83497, 83498) were acquired from his fellow ethnic Bargian, constrained to sell off a part of his art collection in order to cover expenses of his travel to Argentina, where he settled down in 1948.Amongst the well-known art merchants, collectors in their turn of a particular art form, the former magistrate Alexandru Dragomirescu was fond of European china, particularly of the Deruta (Italy) and the Delft (Holland), whereas Neagoe was of Far-Eastern metals. Although closely acquainted with both, he rarely purchased – only from the latter – a number of jewels, as the respective collector was very keen of dispensing with the objects which did not correspond to his passion at the consignment shop. Amongst these we may note the pendant necklace (inv. 83075)6. We could mention alongside the two merchant collectors the slightly more unassuming Dumitru Rădulescu, known as the Blaze – also the name of his second-hand bookstore – who developed a passion for Romanian painting. From him, Hrandt was able to purchase a Chinese painting on silk by Wen Cheng Ming (inv. 83489).Highly valued in Hrandt Avakian's collection was a statuette, purchased from merchant I. Levy, rendering a standing Buddha – immortalized in various still lifes by its initial owner, painter Theodor Pallady, who had received it as a gift from Matisse. The statue was placed on a cabinet as a counterpart to another Buddha, purchased from Romarta. The latter had been in the previous possession of archaeologist Spitzer who had taken part in an excavation in India; on parting, his colleagues presented him with this gift.Painter Hrandt Avakian succeeded throughout his life in setting up one of the most renowned decorative and Far-Eastern art collections in this country, due to his passion and his expertise in such vast a domain, acquired with great perseverance, as well as to the material sacrifice made during his lifetime. The acquisition of each object would be been keenly surveyed by the collector, who decided to own it by virtue of an outstanding quality displayed, often intuited only by him. Therefore, as always, it is left to the pundits to pursue their close and in-depth study on the subject matter and turn their findings to good account.
1 In return for the donation, it would be incumbent upon the state, according to Article II, Paragraph 3, to grant "for the duration of the party's life, an apartment composed of four rooms, hall, kitchen, bathroom, two necessariums, one pantry, one storing rooms and one washhouse within the precincts of the building in which the collection is to be exhibited.." Paragraph 4: "The state shall pay the expenses to be rendered to the state incured by the apartment of the donors and, if need be, the repairwork derived from their exploitation in time, as well as maintanance taxes of any kind, administrative, regarding security services, etc., both for the wing devoted to the collection and for the wing in which the dolnors shall dwell." Paragraph 5, line 1, stipulates that, in the case of Hrandt Avakian, "a monthly sum equivalent to the difference between the pension received from state social security and the maximum pension granted to members of the Union of Plastic Artists to the individuals who hold the title of artist of the people" shall be received. Upon increase of the latter, Hrandt Avakian's pension shall be modified accordingly. Paragraph 2 stipulates that, in the case of demise, "the spouse shall receive a monthly sum equivalent to the difference between the succesorial pension and the pension granted to members of the Union of Plastic Artists to the individuals who hold the title of artist of the people." In the case of Beatrice Avakian, the state shall provide for a monthly sum equivalent to the difference between the pension received from state social security and the maximum pension granted to members of the Union of Plastic Artists to the individuals who hold the title of artist of the people. In 1988, Beatrice and Hrandt Avakian and consort Rosalia complemented their donation by adding 114 objects worth 161,250lei (notarized deed concluded in District 5, Bucharest, Nr.14462 of December 22-th 1988), of which 42 objects worth 65,350 lei from Beatrice Avakian and 72 objects worth 95,900 lei, from Hrandt and Rosalia Avakian.2 He was hired on April 1-st 1930, cf. The State Archives of Bucharest, Arts Section Resources, File 9/930 and The Ministry of Instruction, File 566/931, p.5.3 In France, a volunteer student is recruited among the best to besome studio supervisor (massier), in charge with hisprofessor's managing attributes in the latter's absence: he would position the model according to the professor's instructions, see to the good seating of the students and their easels.4 The exhibition opened in the Ventura Theatre hall between February 1-st – March 1-st. 22 oils and aquarelles, 58 drawings and aquarell drawings were on display.5 In order to achieve an artistic equilibrium in all genres in which donations were made by each sibling, both agreed that a number of pieces acquired by one should be ascribed to the other's lot. 

by Petre Oprea