Salisbury House, 1935: Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, & Carl Weeks

On a January afternoon over eighty years ago, two celebrated American artists visited Des Moines as guests of Carl Weeks.

Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, increasingly famous for their Regionalist art, lectured at Hoyt Sherman Place as guests of the Des Moines Women’s Club in the winter of 1935. The Des Moines Register covered the event and noted that, “Appearing in a gray suit in need of pressing and assuming a nonchalant, slouchy stance with hands in trouser pockets, Benton…launched into a detailed explanation of the development of art through the various ages.”

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A newspaper clipping from The Des Moines Register picturing Thomas H. Benton seated in the middle with Grant Wood on the left and Carl Weeks on the right.

Next, the artists motored several blocks to Salisbury House. Carl Weeks, Grant Wood, and Thomas Hart Benton were photographed together in the Library at Salisbury House. All three appeared to be having a grand time!

We can’t say for certain if Wood and Hart Benton stayed the night at Salisbury House (it seems likely.) However, we do feel confident that Carl and Edith would have entertained their guests in fine style.

The Weekses acquired a Benton painting while they lived at Salisbury House. This work was later gifted to the family of Hud Weeks, Carl’s third son. To the best of our knowledge, the Weeks family did not own an original Grant Wood painting…but they’ve got an amazing story!

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The title page of a 1940 edition of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath published by the Limited Editions Club and illustrated by Thomas Hart Benton, Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

Main Street illustrated by Grant Wood

An illustration by Grant Wood from a 1937 edition of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street published by the Limited Editions Club, Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

 

Books illustrated by Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood from the Salisbury House Permanent Collection can be seen on display in the Library during a regular guided tour of Salisbury House through January 28, 2018.

 

 

The American Chap-Book Christmas ~ 1904

Our annual holiday blog post turns this year to a “little magazine” from the Salisbury House Library, entitled The American Chap-Book: Christmas, A.D. MCMIV by William H. Bradley.

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As its whimsical cover suggests, this little book is a delight.

A peek inside the front cover reveals Carl Weeks’ book-plate (nearly all of the books in the Library collection contain this book-plate):

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And the following page immerses us into the marvelous world of Mr. William H. Bradley.

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Bradley’s diminutive booklet (it measures 4″ x 7″) combines his essay on “Appropriateness” relative to type composition in advertising, alongside selected examples and various Christmas greetings.

Suffice it to say that, on the subject of typography and design, Bradley had strong feelings. Born in 1868 in Massachussetts, Bradley began working in a printer’s workshop at the age of twelve after his father’s death. He later moved to Chicago for a short period of time. His sojourn in the Midwest produced The Chap-Book, a forerunner to The American Chap-Book. Although the publication ran only from 1894-1898, its influence was immense. Bradley’s design for the cover of an 1894 Chap-Book, entitled “The Twins,” also produced in poster form, is considered by many to be the first American Art Nouveau poster.

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After a few years in Chicago, Bradley returned to New England and worked independently. He established The Wayside Press in 1896 and, among other things, published Bradley: His Book. He described it as, ““a little magazine of interesting reading, interspersed with various bits of art, and privately printed at the Wayside Press[,] Springfield, Mass.”

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The publication was successful, but Bradley was eventually forced to sell the press because of health concerns. After regaining his strength, Bradley continued his work. He relaunched The Chap-Book as The American Chap-Book in 1904, in association with the American Type Founders Association.

Bradley became increasingly well-known through the rest of his career as an illustrator and designer. He later dabbled in film as well. The Saturday Evening Post eventually named him the “Dean of American Designers,” and he died in 1962.

His talent and panache shines through the pages of this little Christmas American Chap-Book in the Salisbury House Library. Each page has been scanned and included below. Happy holidays!

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Cezanne and Corot and Manet, Oh My!

One of my favorite things about Salisbury House is that our museum’s collection, which was originally acquired by Carl and Edith Weeks in the first half of the twentieth century, has remained largely intact. Still, it’s also true that various pieces left the collection over the years. Furnishings and other household items were disposed of in the years immediately following the Weeks family’s departure from Salisbury House in the 1950s. A gorgeous Joseph Stella painting originally acquired by the Weekses brought a record price at auction in 1986.

Indeed, until quite recently, your correspondent believed that the Stella painting ranked as the most significant work to leave the Salisbury House collection.

This certainty has been called into question.

Over the summer, I’d returned my attention to an old inventory of Salisbury House completed in November 1953 as ownership of the property and collection transitioned to the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA). This inventory was a rough draft, completed by Carl Weeks, Ina Carlin (his secretary), and ISEA president Charles Martin. The many emendations, check-marks, and marginalia suggested that the group moved from room to room as they finalized which pieces in the collection would be included in the sale contract. If a work was crossed out in the inventory, it remained with the Weeks family. If not, it would become property of the ISEA.

An entry for George Frederick Watts’ Iphigenia caught my eye. It had a line drawn through it, as if it were not to be included in the sale.  “That’s funny,” I thought, “the Iphigenia is on view in the Common Room today.” Then I looked closer. Someone had written “OK” next to Iphigenia. An adjacent parenthetical read (To replace Corot).

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Corot? As in Jean Baptiste Camille CorotThat Corot?

I read on.

A few pages later, I noticed that a work by Narcisse-Virgilio Diaz de la Peña, which currently hangs in the Common Room, was also crossed out, marked “OK,” and “substituted for….”

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Édouard Manet? Oh boy…

It was, then, with a now-familiar feeling of excitement that I came upon a crossed-out entry, replaced by a J.B. Manson still life (which currently hangs in Edith’s Dressing Room):

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Cezanne. Paul Cezanne, about whom Picasso and Matisse are believed to have said, “He is the father of us all,” was originally part of the Salisbury House collection.

I needed a minute.

…………

Revived, I immediately began to wonder: when were they sold and where did they go? Who sold them?  A search through the Salisbury House archives yielded some promising results.

A clipped newspaper article from the Des Moines Register, dated October 1967, partially answered these questions.

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The article yielded a few key pieces of information.

  • Carl, who passed away in 1962, didn’t sell the paintings himself (nor did Edith, who predeceased Carl in 1955)
  • Since the article indicated that the Corot “belonged to the estate of the late Carl Weeks,” his heirs (sons Charles, William, Evert, and Lafayette), must have sold the works – which of course made sense because these three paintings were specifically exempted from the sale of Salisbury House to ISEA
  • The Corot, the Manet, and the Cezanne were all sold in in this 1967 auction held by Parke-Bernet Galleries (later acquired by Sotheby’s).

The Salisbury House archives also provided tantalizing images of the Manet in-situ.

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Edith’s Dressing Room at Salisbury House, c. 1928.

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Carl at the Weeks’ post-Salisbury House residence on Lincoln Place in Des Moines, c. 1961.

 

This was getting good. It seemed time to find the Parke-Bernet auction catalog from October 1967.*

For this, we turned to back issues of The Burlington Magazine, digitally available on that boon companion of all academic researchers, JSTOR. The Burlington, founded in 1903, aimed “to cover all aspects of the fine and decorative arts, to combine rigorous scholarship with critical insight, and to treat the art of the present with the same seriousness as the art of the past.” The periodical has appeared every month since its inception.

Happily, The Burlington also includes gallery and auction catalogs, including that for our 1967 Parke-Bernet sale.
Burlington Cover

The first reference to the Weekses’ paintings appeared below, in a notice for an auction on Thursday, October 26th at 8:00 PM. The notice also referenced the Cezanne, Corot, and Manet:

Weeks brothers_painting descriptions

 

The Parke-Bernet auction notices included images of particularly fine works that would be offered for sale:

Manet in Burlington

 

Corot in Burlington

When the hammer fell for the final time on the evening of October 26th, 1967, all three works from the “Weeks Bros. Collection” belonged to new owners.

So: how much did they sell for?

The Corot sold for $310,000 in 1967 or around $2.2 million in today’s dollars.

The Manet sold for $75,000 or around $550,000 in 2017.

The Cezanne sold for $40,000 or around $293,000 today.

And: where are they now? 

The Corot was purchased by entrepreneur and art collector Norton Simon and his wife, Lucille. Mrs. Norton retained ownership of the work during the couple’s divorce, and it ultimately landed at the Norton Simon Foundation in California. It remains there to this day.

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Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, La Cigale (1865-1875). Norton Simon Art Foundation

Wonderfully, its provenance includes Carl Weeks. Visit the painting here.

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The Cezanne also turned up online.

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Paul Cezanne, Cinq pommes (1877-1878). Private Collection of Mr. & Mrs. Eugene Thaw, New York

This handy Cezanne catalogue raisonné indicates that the painting has remained in private hands since its sale in 1967. Here again, the work’s provenance includes the Weeks family. Visit the painting here.

Cezanne catalog entry

Interestingly, the provenance for both of these works indicate that Carl purchased them in the 1920s from the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris, founded by the famed champion of Impressionism, Paul Durand-Ruel.

The Manet, however, has proved a little trickier to track down.

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Édouard Manet, Jeune Femme au Chapeau (1881).

A digital search party turned up little online in terms of concrete information about the Manet’s post-Weeks ownership. Finally, we reached out to Sotheby’s Museum Services Department for assistance. Our contact there indicated that the piece was most likely in private ownership and that her department would conduct further research. As of this writing, we have not received additional information from Sotheby’s regarding the Manet’s current whereabouts.

The (re)discoveries of artworks previously in the Weeks collection confirm yet again the keenness of Carl’s and Edith’s art collecting and the remarkable quality of the works that they acquired. It is, of course, entirely understandable that Carl decided to reserve the Corot, the Cezanne, and the Manet for his sons during the sale of the property. Still, this curator can’t help a twinge of regret these artworks no longer hang in the halls of Salisbury House.

*For this research, I brought in a ringer. I am indebted to Martha Sibbel, J.D., for putting her prodigious skills to work on behalf of this post.

The Cardinal Comes to Salisbury House

Anthony Van Dyck, a Flemish painter active in the early seventeenth century, was famous for his realistic, non-embellished portraiture.

Van Dyck’s style caught the eye of Cardinal Domenico Rivarola, a wealthy and notable Roman Catholic Cardinal who commissioned Van Dyck to paint his portrait in 1624.

 

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Anthony Van Dyck, Portrait of the Cardinal Domenico Rivarola. Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

 

The Cardinal’s portrait is a wonderful example of Van Dyck’s work. Does it catch your eye? In early 1924, it caught the eye of Carl Weeks, who saw the painting in the Jackson. P. Higgs Gallery in New York (the Higgs Gallery was part of the larger and prestigious Bachstitz Gallery in The Hague). Carl would buy the painting for the Salisbury House, but not until almost a year later, and through what Higgs ultimately described as “devious ways.”

Before we begin our story, let’s introduce some significant players:

  • Mr. Anthony Van Dyck– Flemish artist
  • Cardinal Domenico Rivarola– Cardinal who commissioned the portrait
  • Mr. Carl Weeks– founder of Salisbury House; art collector
  • Mr. Kurt Walter Bachstitz– Notable European art dealer active in the 1920s whose main gallery was located in the Hague, Netherlands
  • Mr. P. Jackson Higgs- Art dealer from New York City under Bachstitz; would later form his own gallery
  • Dr. Gustav Glueck– Austrian art historian who helped confirm the portrait’s authenticity
  • Mr. Wilhelm von Bode– German art historian who helped confirm the portrait’s authenticity
  • Mr. Henry Reinhardt– U.S. art collector, influential in the creation of art museums in the American West; created Reinhardt and Son art gallery; died 1921
  • Mr. Paul Reinhardt Son of Henry Reinhardt; Carl works with him to secure the portrait
  • Mr. Hermann Frankl- Austrian art dealer and personal friend to Carl
  • Mr. Landeck- Agent working for Reinhardt and Son
  • Ms. Moore and Ms. Carlin- Secretaries to Carl and the Armand Co.
  • Dr. Wendland- Originally sold the Cardinal to Bachstitz

Thus, our story begins with Carl’s decision to stop into the Higgs Gallery in New York in the early months of 1924. At that time, the price of the painting was $80,000. On March 14, 1924, Higgs reaches out to Carl and offers him a brochure on Van Dyck.

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Carl writes Higgs back a few days later and expresses his interest in the painting, though he declined to buy it at the time due to his current financial situation with building the massive Salisbury House (1923-1928).

Higgs, realizing the value of the Cardinal Rivarola painting, urges Carl to make the choice soon so he doesn’t miss out. On March 31, 1924, Carl writes to Higgs offering $10,000 cash and $75,000 stock in the Armand Co. Higgs writes back to Carl on April 8, informing him Bachstitz did not accept the offer, and has not put the portrait up for sale in Europe yet. Higgs urges Carl to act quickly.

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Carl understands there is real value in the Cardinal portrait, but is worried over the low price he was offered: Carl believes if the Cardinal Rivarola were a true and authentic Van Dyck, it would sell for a much higher price. Throughout the month of March, Carl is unsure of the painting’s authenticity. He wants the piece, but isn’t willing to pay for a fake.

On April 9, Carl writes his Austrian friend Hermann Frankl and asks him to approach Dr. Glueck (without using Carl’s name) to ask about the validity of the painting. Then, Carl receives multiple letters from Higgs urging Carl to buy the portrait.

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On May 29, Frankl telegrams Carl and warns him to be careful around Bachstitz and Glueck. The summer continues with Higgs urging Carl to buy.

On September 6, Carl writes Higgs, sharing Carl’s records of the painting’s ownership, noting and inquiring about a gap in the records. Carl also writes back to Frankl and inquires why he shouldn’t trust Bachstitz and Glueck. Frankl writes Carl back, describing Bachstitz’ bad European reputation and Glueck’s good one.

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On September 29, Higgs responds to Carl about the records of the Cardinal’s ownership to help Carl fill in the gaps.

The same day, Carl writes Frankl asking if he would try to buy the Cardinal from Bachstitz at a lower price than $80,000, making sure to leave Carl’s name out of the picture. At this same time, however, Carl has another plan set with Higgs, who plans to get Bachstitz to sell to him at a cheaper price, and then sell the paining Carl. On November 19, Higgs writes Carl their plan is still on.

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Meanwhile, Carl is using another agency, Reinhardt and Son, to investigate the painting further. On November 24, Carl telegrams them asking what they have discovered.

Reinhardt telegrams back the same day to let Carl know the investigation is still underway, and that they could also buy the portrait at a price cheaper than was offered to Carl (another interesting aspect to this issue is that two portraits of the Cardinal Rivarola were made by Van Dyck: one for the Church, and one for the Cardinal’s personal home. Salisbury House remains in possession of the portrait acquired by Carl, while the other is housed at the Portland Art Museum.)

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Carl and Landeck (the agent working for Reinhardt and Son) have a telephone conversation two days later discussing the price of the Cardinal and how Carl plans to acquire it. The same day, Carl writes Landeck asking him if he could get the Cardinal for under $60,000.

On November 27, Higgs telegrams Carl that the auction for the Cardinal is a week away, and that Bachstitz may go low or as high as $100,000. On November 28, Landeck telegrams Carl to assure him $60,000 is probably a fair price, though he is fairly certain they can get it for $50,000. Landeck tells Carl that he thinks Higgs may still be selling for Bachstitz and tells Carl to use his own judgment when dealing with Higgs.

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On December 2, Higgs writes to Carl he has missed out on the portrait for offering too low of a price. On December 10, Bachstitz writes Carl that the gallery’s contract with Higgs was officially over, and negotiations for the portrait would now be through Bachstitz. Carl offers Bachstitz $30,000, and informs Reinhardt and Son.

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On January 20, 1925, Landeck writes Carl to let him know they have brought in another player, Dr. Wendland, who originally sold the Cardinal’s portrait to Bachstitz. Wendland is now working with Carl and Reinhardt and Son to help Carl acquire painting.

Wendland, acting secretly as Carl’s agent, offers Bachstitz 200,000 Swiss francs for the piece, plus a 10% commission for two reasons: the francs to make Bachstitz think the piece was being sold in the Netherlands, and the commission to make him think he is selling it to a personal client.

Carl authorizes Landeck to go up to 220,000 Swiss francs, if necessary. The same day, Landeck phones Carl letting him know Bachstitz would do 125,000 Dutch guilder,  but Wendland believes they can get the deal for 200,000 Swiss francs, and he declines the offer. Wendland counter-offers the same 200,000 Swiss francs, but without the 10% commission, which he believes Bachstitz will accept.

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Carl writes to Bachstitz on January 26 that he is not longer interested in purchasing the Cardinal, though on January 31, Carl telegrams Bachstitz his offer for the Cardinal at $30,000 is still on the table. On February 4, Reinhardt and Son gallery receives the portrait.

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On February 13, Bachstitz writes Carl that the Cardinal has been sold to someone else, and is sorry Carl missed out on it.

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On March 3, Carl replies to Bachstitz that he believes he will be the owner of the portrait eventually.

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On March 11, Higgs writes Carl that the Cardinal sold, and asks if Carl bought the painting through “dubious” ways. Carl writes back on March 13, stating it was the Reinhardt and Son Gallery, not Carl, who got the Cardinal, though they were saving it for him until his next New York visit.

For nearly a year, Carl engaged in a various methods of subterfuge or, depending on your perspective, strategic business tactics, in order to secure his ownership of this Van Dyck painting.

The deal was ultimately a success from Carl’s point of view. He had originally encountered the Cardinal in early 1924 at the Higgs (Bachstitz) Gallery and it was offered to him for $80,000. In 2017, that would be about $1,200,000. Carl thought he could get a better deal from his Austrian friend and small-time art dealer, Mr. Frankl, whom Carl asked to buy the painting on his behalf at a cheaper price. Carl saw an even better opportunity  through the Reinhardt Gallery, who promised a good deal on the painting by going through their agency. Finally, after Reinhardt’s associate, Dr. Wendland, was able to “buy back” the Cardinal from Bachstitz (to whom Wendland originally sold it), Carl was able to snag the Cardinal for only 200,000 Swiss Francs, or $36,595.

Today, we are incredibly fortunate that the Cardinal still adorns the walls of Salisbury House. Plan your visit here!

Secrets of the Shrunken Heads

Hello! My name is Alexandra Brennan and I am an intern at the Salisbury House this summer. I have been working “behind the scenes” at the Salisbury House, learning about the unique position a historic home holds as a center for education, history, and culture. Although I only have a few weeks left until I leave to go back to school, I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to explore the Salisbury House’s history and collections over the past couple months.

Among all the objects in the Salisbury House’s collection, few are as mysterious as the shrunken heads. It is unclear when, where, and from whom the Weeks family acquired the heads; the only evidence of Carl’s interest in shrunken heads is a novel in the library written by a friend on the topic. When the ISEA moved into the Salisbury House in the mid-1950’s, the shrunken heads, also called tsantsas, became an integral part of the museum for school children. The heads were displayed in the Indian Room as curiosities—strange artifacts sure to stick in memories of young visitors. In recent years, the tsantsas have been in storage, partly due to the objects’ fragility and partly due to changing sensibilities regarding the display of human remains in museum settings. The shrunken heads remain among the most contentious, memorable, and gruesome objects in the Salisbury House, with their individual histories and even authenticity a matter of conjecture.

The only shrunken heads in the world come from the Jivaro peoples in Ecuador and Peru. “Jivaro” actually refers to a group of tribes with a shared language, though the many different tribes share cultural and religious beliefs. One of the shared beliefs between these Jivaro tribes is that a person’s soul is not fixed in one body, and that by killing others, a new soul may be imparted into the killer. Constant warfare, paradoxically, was meant to bring eternal life. It was because of this culture of killing that the practice of shrinking heads developed.

The first step to creating a shrunken head was to carefully peel the skin off the skull. The skull was discarded, and the skin was pulled over a wooden ball to maintain the shape of the head. Then, the skin was shrunk by boiling the head in a mixture of water and tannins. The head was dried with hot sand and rocks, and the skin rubbed with ash. Like Egyptian mummies, shrunken heads are preserved to last for centuries (one of the heads in the Salisbury House’s collection may be over 200 years old). However, Egyptian mummification took 70 days, and the entire process for shrinking a head took less than one week.

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Front cover of Tsantsa. New York: Brentano’s, 1932.

So how did such strange artifacts end up in the Salisbury House? Unfortunately, there are no neatly kept receipts or records to suggest how two shrunken heads came to Iowa. The only connection is through a bookseller and an author. From the 1920’s to the 1940’s, Carl Weeks bought many of his rare and antique books from a bookseller in New York City named Harry Marks. It was through Harry Marks that Carl acquired much of his collections of D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce, as well as many of his letters from famous historical figures and old Bibles. Harry Marks was also the man who sold Carl books by a man named Isadore Lhevinne, an author and philologist who had studied and lived among the Jivaro people in Ecuador.

Lhevinne was born in Bobruisk, Russia in 1896. He attended school in Poland, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1920’s with a degree in philology. Although his earlier works focused on stories about the Jewish experience throughout the world, Lhevinne’s interest in foreign languages sent him to southern Ecuador. It was there, in the sparsely populated and thick jungles of Ecuador, that Lhevinne was first introduced to the Jivaro peoples. He spent part of 1931 living among the Jivaro people, studying their language and culture. It is unclear when Carl Weeks and Isadore Lhevinne met, whether it was before or after Lhevinne’s trip to Ecuador. What is certain, however, is that by 1932, the two men were close enough that Lhevinne dedicated Tsantsa to Carl Weeks.

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Note from Harry Marks to Carl Weeks, pointing out a story about Isadore Lhevinne in “Young Wings” magazine. Note says: “To C.W. See pages 9-4-5. Harry”

Tsantsa itself is not a scholarly work. Instead, it tells a story of a white American man who travels to Ecuador and falls in love with a 15-year old Jivaro girl. The novel is an adventure story filled with “fervent eroticism” and takes advantage of the exotic setting to shock readers. The novel includes scenes of head shrinking and drug-induced ceremonies, and the protagonist even kills a 15-year old girl’s husband in a duel. The book uses many of the prevalent stereotypes and prejudices of the era, depicting the Jivaro people in turns as independently noble and ferociously savage. Although it sold fairly well, today Lhevinne and Tsantsa are largely forgotten to time.

Perhaps it was through this close relationship between Isadore Lhevinne and Carl Weeks that the tsantsas came to the Salisbury House. Certainly, if Lhevinne spent time living among Jivaro people, he would have had access to shrunken heads. Today, the Salisbury House has very little remaining correspondence between the two men, so it is unclear if the tsantsas were gifts from Lhevinne.

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Story in “Young Wings” magazine about Isadore Lhevinne regarding his novel The Enchanted Jungle, 1933. “While he was in Ecuador, Dr. Lhevinne…traveled in a light canoe over dangerous water falls and swirling currents interrupted by an endless series of whirlpools. He hacked his way through the trackless jungle ants so thick there was no room to sit down; he traveled on horseback, muleback, and foot, and endured the never-to-be-forgotten experience of a siege by an enemy tribe while he was living among the Jibaros.”

In the early 20th century, shrunken heads became a popular tourist souvenir and collector’s item, and the thriving market led to an abundance of fake tsantsas made from monkeys, sloths, and other animals. According to some forensic researchers, “presence of sealed eyelids, pierced lips with strings sealing the mouth, shiny black skin, a posterior sewn incision, long glossy black hair, and lateral head compression are characteristic of authentic tsantsas.” According to these guidelines, one of the tsantsas in the Salisbury House may be real; the other’s lips are not sewn shut, but that may indicate that it was made only for trade purposes and not as a ceremonial war trophy. Another way to determine whether the heads are truly human is to look at the ears, which should simply appear to be smaller versions of human ears, since the many folds of the ear are hard to copy. Once again, the Salisbury House’s tsantsas appear to be authentic, although according to the Smithsonian, more than half of the shrunken heads in museums and private collections in the United States may be fakes. The most reliable method of determining whether shrunken heads are authentic is to do a DNA analysis. Perhaps one day we will learn who made these heads and how they came to be in Des Moines, Iowa. But for now, the secrets of the tsantsas remain hidden behind sewn-shut lips.

Shrunken

The tsantsas will be on display at our Night at the Museum event, August 24, 2017. Please visit our website or call (515) 274-1777 for tickets and more information.

The Piano

The Salisbury House piano is one of the most special pieces in our collection. First and foremost, you should know that this is no ordinary instrument.

It’s a Steinway.

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It’s a custom-built Steinway style D concert grand piano.

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It’s a custom-built Steinway style D concert grand piano with genuine ivory and ebony keys.

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It’s a custom-built Steinway style D concert grand piano with genuine ivory and ebony keys, encased in 16th century, hand-carved English oak.

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And, as it has for the last 86 years, this custom-built Steinway style D concert grand piano with genuine ivory and ebony keys, encased in 16th century, hand-carved English oak, ornaments the southwest corner of the Salisbury House Common Room.

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As you begin to reel your jaw up from the floor, you may wonder how, how, did this magnificent instrument find its way to Des Moines, Iowa?

We’re glad you asked.

It began, of course, with Carl Weeks.

Carl and his wife Edith began building Salisbury House in 1923. Along the way, they made the acquaintance of William Rasmussen, a New York-based architect, who became involved in designing and furnishing the family’s new home. Rasmussen also played a role in bringing the Steinway to Salisbury House.

In early 1929, Carl and Rasmussen contacted Steinway & Sons in New York  to inquire about the creation of a piano especially for Salisbury House.

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The accompanying sketch and note are lost to history, but it’s clear that by July 1929, Steinway was ready to proceed with the project.

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It was decided that the case of 16th-century oak for the piano would be executed by Frederick Tibbenham, LTD., based in Ipswich, England, and then shipped to Steinway & Sons in New York.

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Carl gave the go-ahead on September 5, 1929.

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Note the date of this order confirmation from Steinway to Carl –  September 9, 1929. Of course, Carl et al couldn’t have known it at the time, but the United States was forty-five days away from what became known as Black Thursday. On October 24, 1929 the stock market crashed to the tune of five billion dollars.

Despite the economic turmoil that gripped the country in general and businessmen like Carl Weeks in particular, work on the piano continued.

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The piano was completed in July 1930. According to Mr. Collins, Steinway’s sales manager, the instrument “is one of the finest toned ones we have ever produced, and therefore its beauty is comprehensive.”

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A Steinway of this caliber didn’t come cheap. Costs for the piano, including the 16th-century English oak components milled by Tibbenham and Steinway’s own expenses for the instrument, totaled $5,927.28 (over $84,000 in 2017 dollars).

And this about eight months into the worst economic crisis in American history.

In September of 1930, Sales Manager Collins placed a delicate inquiry to Carl regarding his plans for taking ownership of his new piano.

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Carl responded promptly, and indicated that he and Edith would be in New York in early October. They would then arrange for the final inspection of the piano. Around the time of this visit, Steinway provided the Weekses with a full invoice for the project.

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A subsequent invoice indicated that Carl made a cash payment of $1,000 on November 6, 1930. Still, a balance of $4,927.28 carried over into early 1931.

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Another letter, noticeably testy in tone, arrived from Steinway for Carl in early January 1931.

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Here ends our archive’s extant correspondence between Carl and Steinway, but we can safely assume that payment was eventually rendered.

Today, we are left with an incredible, fantastic, one-of-a-kind piano and a remarkable story of Carl’s determination, in the face of mounting economic uncertainty, to faithfully render his family’s dream of Salisbury House.

David Ross, one of our long-time tour guides, plays the Salisbury House Steinway.

 

Beginning on May 10, 2017, learn how YOU can secure an opportunity to play the Salisbury House Steinway. Call our offices at (515) 274-1777 and ask about The Steinway Experience. 

 

The Christmas Story, 1483-Style

As December 25th approaches, we wanted to share a significant part of the oldest bible in our Library and Rare Documents collection at Salisbury House: the traditional Christmas story from Luke 2:1-20. Our oldest bible dates to 1483 (for more on this and other incunabula in our collection, click here), and its text is, as one would expect, in Latin.

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Below, the bible is open to the section in Luke wherein the Christmas story is told. Luke 2 begins on the left page, at the very bottom of the left-hand column of text:

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Here’s a closer detail of this page (look for the rubrics, in red ink, that indicate the start of the second chapter):

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Want to read along? Here is a handy, side-by-side reading of the Christmas story:

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It can be a bit of a slog – but a rewarding slog! – to read the English version of the Christmas story alongside its 1483 Latin counterpart. Happy holidays!

Want to see the 1483 bible in person? Our Treasures Tours will return in late spring 2017; check out salisburyhouse.org for more information.

 

(re)Discovering History in the Salisbury House Library

The Library at Salisbury House is the stunning manifestation of Carl Weeks’ longtime love of collecting books. From fifteenth-century incunabula, to Grant Wood, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and D.H. Lawrence, the collection includes a trove of wonders.

Most of these books are still displayed on the shelves in the Library at Salisbury House, as they were during the Weeks family’s residency (from 1926 to the early 1950s).

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Archival Image of the Library, c. 1930

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The Library Today

Our records include several Library inventories from over the years, but it became clear that a newly-updated catalog was necessary. Thus, we embarked upon a multi-year project of revisiting every entry in the collection inventory. Each book was taken off the shelves, meticulously examined for condition issues, ephemera, signatures, etc. and – crucially – each book’s location in the Library was confirmed and/or corrected as well.

We could not have finished this mammoth project without the assistance of our wonderful Library volunteers: Christine Whitney, Charles Timberlake, and Judy Ford were integral to the inventory’s successful completion.

Two and a half years later: we’re done! The dream, from our museum staff’s perspective, would be to make the inventory fully available and searchable online. For now, though, we wanted to share a very special discovery that Judy and I made during the final day of updating the collection.

Two medieval Books of Hours number among the most visually stunning works in the Library. These volumes typically contained a range of psalms, hymns, and prayers, and became immensely popular among laymen and women between the 13th and the 16th centuries. The two Books of Hours in the Salisbury House collection contain elements typical of most works in this genre – illumination, decorative borders, full-page illustrations (called miniatures), and text in Latin.

Pictured below is one example from our collection, including the cover, full-page miniature, and decorative text:

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The second Book of Hours in the collection is slightly larger. It dates to the late 14th century and is also highly decorative:

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These two volumes represent the full extent of the Books of Hours in the Salisbury House collection.

….or do they??

As it turns out: we have a third Book of Hours! Now, we did start to wonder as we neared the end of the inventory. We had noted a third entry for a Book of Hours in the old inventory but, believing as we did that the two known copies were all we had, assumed that the third item in the inventory was a duplicate/erroneous entry. Soon, though, we rediscovered a bit of history lost among the shelves in the Library at Salisbury House.

It all began innocuously enough. We pulled a volume enclosed in a very nice, custom-made case with the label “Novum TestamentumJohn Trumbull’s Copy – 1794″ on its spine.

“Well, that’s interesting,” we agreed, “it must be early American artist Trumbull’s copy of the New Testament.”

As with every book we pulled from the shelves during the process of updating the inventory, we removed it from the case for a closer inspection of condition, etc.

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First, we noticed that the book itself didn’t quite fit into its custom-made enclosure:

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Odd.

And then we opened the front cover.

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Hmm. Well, that certainly doesn’t look like it’s from the late 18th century, we agreed. That feeling grew as we leafed through subsequent pages.

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And then we realized – we’d found it! There actually was a third Book of Hours! It had, many years ago, been mistakenly placed in a case that belonged with the Trumbull New Testament (which sat, uncased, a few books down the shelf).

This third Book of Hours includes less decorative elements when compared to the other two, but it will always hold a special place in our hearts. All in all, it’s not a bad day at work when you (re)discover a late 14th/early 15th century book in your museum’s collection!