August 25, 2006

Three Days in the Desert

Okay, if the idea of spending 3 days in well over 100 degree heat sounds a little crazy, you're right, but we were committed to a family get-together in Palm Desert in August and there was no turning back!

After a grueling 15 hour trip to cross the country and get to our destination we were rewarded with this magnificent view from our hotel room. This shot was taken early in the morning (jet lag) with the rising sun casting long shadows over the gorgeous mountains. You are probably wondering why it looks so green. This is the magic of irrigation that has allowed the arid desert soil to be cultivated into verdant paradises now populated by thousands of people escaping the metropolis of Los Angeles. This area has a long history - the city of Palm Springs was the winter resort to the stars with Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope as habitués of the now defunct Palm Springs Racquet Club. One can easily imagine the glamorous movie stars of old enjoying the sun and palm trees in this Art Deco inspired playground to the rich and famous.

But we were there in August and it was definitely off-season. In fact many shops and restaurants were closed until the fall. This didn't stop us - we had 3 days and were determined to make the most of them. So we did! We started with the fascinating Living Desert zoo and gardens featuring animals and plants native to both African and American desert environments. They also have a state-of-the-art wildlife hospital where veterinarians treat sick and wounded wild animals and birds, and visitors can witness some of the procedures and see some of the convalescing "patients".

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the fancy shops and restaurants on Palm Desert's posh El Paseo Drive, then cooled off in the hotel's enormous swimming pool.

Wednesday started off at about 95 degrees and kept getting hotter. What could be better than to visit the most American of enterprises - the local Harley Davidson motorcycle dealership!! Palm Springs Harley Davidson has been supplying HOG owners with the finest in motorcycles and accoutrements since 1984. It was extraordinary to see. The showroom is filled with the latest models and vintage machines that are so fabulous they make you want to throw caution to the wind and just ride! The staff is very knowledgeable and their enthusiam is infectious. One gains a new appreciation for the culture surrounding this classic bike.

Time for lunch at the local In-n-Out Burger where we had the most extraordinary good luck while waiting for a table. Seated by himself was an older but very sporty looking gentleman who was finishing his hamburger and very graciously invited us to sit with him. Paul Gilbert turned out to be a docent at the Palm Springs Air Museum and a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross. He had flown 35 missions as pilot of a B-17 bomber, the last foray getting him shot down in the North Sea and rescued by the RAF. My baby boomer husband and brother-in-law were fascinated, and urged Paul to continue with his recollections until he really, finally, had to go!

It was getting really hot out so we decided to cool off by riding the Aerial Tramway 2.5 miles up the San Jacinto Mountains to an elevation of 8,500'. This 10-minute ride in a rotating tram car offers breathtaking views of the desert and mountains and the added bonus of a 30 degree drop in temperature at the top! The mountain station is the starting point for hikes in Mount San Jacinto State Park and we thoroughly enjoyed an hour long nature hike with fabulous vistas and chance sighting of a red tailed hawk.

Back down the mountain and a last, quick stop at the Palm Springs Art Museum to see their lovely collection, then back to the cool of the hotel pool!

Our last day dawned hot like all the others but we had a mission. Our chance encounter with Paul Gilbert inspired us to visit the Palm Springs Air Museum to learn more about these brave men and women who fought for our freedom during World War II. Located in a hangar next to the local airport is an exceptional collection of vintage aircraft and memorabilia, staffed by Air Force veterans who are happy to share their stories with the new generation. It was a very moving and worthwhile visit.

Our desert holiday was almost over and it was time to hit the road back to the big city. We pointed our rented Jeep west and drove past the extraordinary sight of the California Wind Farm and its thousands of windmills, on our way to Los Angeles and a few days on the coast before heading back home.

Our heartfelt thanks to Peggy and Derek, and to our family, for making an unlikely premise for a holiday into a really wonderful time.

August 12, 2006

"Just a Chap Passing Through"

You might find the idea of a book on "The Secret World of Fine Art Insurance" to be soporific at best, but I can honestly tell you that Bill Smith's "Just a Chap Passing Through" has all the intrigue of a good detective novel combined with some insider glimpses into the world of fine art.

Bill Smith was more than an insurance adjuster, he was THE man to go to in the case of damage or theft of art work. Respected, indeed revered, by all parties involved in claims from collectors and curators to law enforcement and even the insurance companies themselves, Bill Smith knew the world of fine art inside out and backwards and could be counted upon to look after all sides in a considerate, expedient and fair manner.

Written in his own voice, this collection of tales and remembrances brings to life the gumshoe adventures of a conscientious man in the field. When the Art Institute of Chicago had 3 Cézanne paintings stolen in December of 1978, it was Bill Smith, in concert with the museum officials and the FBI, who nabbed the thieves. When a prominent physician fulfilled his art fantasies by stealing the works he wanted, it was Bill Smith who put the pieces together and solved the case. When a priceless Stradivarius violin was stolen on Nantucket Island, it was Bill Smith who guided the local police to the hiding place.

Story after wonderful story, with some private observations interjected in the form of "Conversations While Dancing", "Just a Chap Passing Through" takes the reader into the rarefied world of fine art, grand theft and good versus evil. Bill Smith died in 2002. This book is a tribute to a man who was both passionate about and dedicated to the work he loved. It's a great read!

August 06, 2006

Crazy for Klimt

When the Neue Galerie opened in November of 2001, New York City gained a true gem in its cultural crown. Now, with the museum's recent acquisition of Gustav Klimt's masterpiece "Adele Bloch-Bauer I", the Neue Galerie has become a shining star on the international museum stage.

For a limited time, New Yorkers have the rare opportunity to see 5 magnificent Klimt oil paintings together in one room. This breathtaking assemblage of drop dead gorgeous works is further enhanced with an exhibition of drawings and watercolors by Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, including preparatory sketches for the paintings on view, from the museum's own collection.

The story of this exhibition reads like a thriller with a happy ending. Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer were wealthy Austrians and patrons of the arts in turn of the century Vienna. Klimt, the leading artist of the day, painted two portraits of Adele, a gold portrait done in 1907 and inspired by the Byzantine mosaics at Ravenna, and a more vividly colored, Impressionist inspired, depiction done in 1912. These 2 portraits, several Klimt landscapes, and the rest of the Bloch-Bauer's earthly possessions were seized by the Nazis in 1938. For many years following World War II, the family's Klimts hung in the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, the property of the Austrian government. In the late 1990's, a new effort was made by the descendents of the Bloch-Bauer family to reclaim their estate, and, after years of court battles on both sides of the Atlantic, the family won. Earlier this year, the surviving niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Maria Altmann, was awarded ownership of the long lost treasures. Enter Ronald Lauder, heir to the Estée Lauder cosmetics fortune, co-founder and President of the Neue Galerie and lover of 20th Century German and Austrian art. Realizing that this was a unique chance to acquire one of the greatest paintings of the age, Mr. Lauder made headlines around the world when he paid a staggering $135 million for "Adele Bloch-Bauer I".

This is truly a Win/Win situation - the Bloch-Bauer heirs receive substantial monetary compensation while ensuring that this cultural icon remains a treasured object in public view AND Mr. Lauder acquires the "Mona Lisa" of the Wiener Werkstatte, a work that catapults both he and his museum into the international limelight and enhances both reputations enormously.

I urge you to visit the Neue Galerie to see this remarkable group of paintings before the exhibition closes on September 18. While you're there, treat yourself to lunch or coffee and cake at the superb Café Sabarsky and enjoy a taste of Vienna. If you still have time and energy, take a short walk down Fifth Avenue to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and visit their small but impressive temporary show of drawings and watercolors by Schiele and Klimt from the Scofield Thayer Collection. Finish your day with a look at the Met's sumptuous Gustav Klimt painting "Mäda Primavesi", 1912, and you will have had a perfect afternoon!

P.S. The day after I posted this blog, the New York Times headline read "Returned Klimts to Be Sold at Christies" thereby solving the mystery of what will happen to the 4 Klimts on display at the Neue Galerie that were returned to the Bloch-Bauer heirs and not purchased by Mr. Lauder. Stay tuned - these prices are going to be HUGE!