Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Arthur Gilbert

Arthur Gilbert with his wax effigy in his office at the Gilbert Collection.
In Memoriam. 1.30.02 - A brief encounter understood years later.

In the early 1980s, while living in Los Angeles, a friend of mine and I had an idea for a media project involving laser discs which were then cutting media technology. The idea basically was to store art collections, specifically public ones, on the disc with an accompanying narration, producing what would now be a very primitive “virtual” tour of an art collection.

Looking around for seed money, we were somehow directed to a businessman named Arthur Gilbert who was said to have one of the largest private collections of gold and silver in the world.

Arthur at Cheltenham College, 1928.

We called and made an appointment. His office was in one of the taller business buildings in Beverly Hills. On arrival we could see that it was a very ordinary looking suite of rooms, boxy, non-descript, devoid of a decorative eye or any kind of charm; utilitarian. I was surprised only because of a pre-conceived notion of what an office of a “great collector” (of gold and silver no less), would look like.

After a short wait, a non-descript (and I’m sure quite utilitarian) secretary let us into Mr. Gilbert’s office to meet the man. A large boxy room, painted a very neutral pinkish tone, as I recall. A deep pile red carpet on the floor, as I recall (although it may only be my memory accessorizing the atmosphere, the vibe), there were several pieces of 18th-century furniture, with lots of ormolu and highly lacquered surfaces. All of which looked very out of place (or overdone) in this pedestrian LA/1960s interior.

I was reminded of years before when I visited the house of Gypsy Rose Lee, who lived in a Spanish-style villa in the hills. Her boudoir (and it could only be called that) was very lacey with highly polished black lacquered furniture decorated with roses in mother-of-pearl inlay. It was a very high (and witty) kitsch, which was the woman’s style. Mr. Arthur Gilbert’s office had the same kind of kitsch to this eye. Without the style or the wit.

Mr. Gilbert himself was a good-looking white-haired man, of average stature, with a light even tan and a stone-faced demeanor. Intimidating is the word. I had no idea what his business was – only that he was very rich.

So we told him about our revolutionary and innovative idea (which fifteen years later would become universally matter-of-fact as CD-rom technology): His collection would be set down for all who shared his passion for gold and silver, everywhere and forever.

Mr. Gilbert sat there very sternly listening. He never cracked a smile. When we were through, he told us that he didn’t see why people would want to sit in front of a screen and look at a collection, but that nonetheless, he would consult with Rusty Powell who was then the director of the Los Angeles County Museum and had been already apprised of our idea.

Thank you very much; we bid Mr. Gilbert good-bye, leaving his office and walking through the outer office to the door. Relieved to be leaving. In the outer office we passed the secretary at her desk, and a man in shirt and tie, with his back to us, looking through some papers. In a backward glance, just as we were moving out the door, I noticed that the man was wearing a gun – in a holster – around his waist.

Detail of micromosaic picture of a tigress, after a painting by Stubbs. Venice, 19th century. Gilbert's favorite piece.

When you see something like that, in that context (a business office), the impression is immediately altered. The element of fear seeps in. The intimidating, stone faced white haired man behind the fancy desk. The gun in the outer office.

What it all meant, we were never to learn. Mr. Gilbert consulted with Mr. Powell, who later went on to become the director of the National Gallery in Washington. A few days later Mr. Gilbert sent us a letter stating that Mr. Powell didn’t see much future in that sort of technology, not, at least for museums, and so therefore, Mr. Gilbert was not interested in pursuing the matter.

As it happened the “matter” eventually was shelved and replaced by other endeavors. I never saw, nor heard of Mr. Gilbert again. Until last summer when I noticed his obituary in the Daily Telegraph of London.

I should add that from that single meeting I was left with the memory of a very cold man whose collection of gold and silver played into my imagination in a Midas-like way. After reading his obituary, my impression was altered by explanation, and Mr. Gilbert, with compassion, came within grasp.