By 2007, Karp had become so frustrated with the way many of the Brooklyn Museum’s ornaments were being treated that he wrote to the director, Arnold Lehman, offering to transport them to his own museum. Lehman explained that the Brooklyn Museum had selected close to 200 more artifacts to install in the sculpture garden, and was determining which of these had been donated by Karp and his wife or by Karp’s group. “We would be willing to consider the opportunity to return any of the objects that are not among this chosen group,” Lehman wrote. That letter, dated October 31, 2007, is the last Karp has heard from the museum.
But the museum has not been idle. Unbeknownst to Karp, the museum’s top American-art curator, Teresa Carbone, began discussions in December 2008 with Evan Blum, a Harlem salvage dealer, about the museum’s intention to cull its hoard of ornaments into a more “teachable” group of the best pieces. Last year, the museum and Blum agreed to develop the idea of holding public auctions. Blum, a sort of scavenger to the stars who moves with equal ease among demolition contractors and Hollywood clients, hopes to leverage the trove of deaccessioned museum pieces to help launch an ongoing auction business. At the same time, he says, he wants to help the Brooklyn Museum. “It would be too easy to take advantage of them, but I don’t want to do that,” he told me. “They don’t know what they’re doing. People will just take them for the money, then move on to the next deal, then the next deal.”
Shortly before Christmas last year, a FedEx box arrived at Blum’s salvage emporium, sent by Carbone. Blum opened the box with a razor blade, and out slid a two-inch-thick binder containing photos and descriptions of about 225 ornaments the museum was considering for auction. More than 90 were given either through Karp’s group or by Karp and his wife.
Blum flipped past an evocative sandstone carving of a child and a pelican, then admired a griffin plaque. “Ooh, that’s a nice one,” he said. “It says terra cotta, but it’s wrong; it’s a slab of sandstone.” He thought a moment, then added, “Maybe I should do a lecture, have Ivan do a lecture.”
When he finished examining the images, Blum pronounced his verdict: 20 to 30 percent of the artifacts were outstanding, and the same percentage were nice decorative pieces. “There’s never been an auction like this,” he said.
A month later, Karp greeted me at his OK Harris gallery in SoHo by showing me a passage from Don DeLillo’s period New York novel Underworld:
She stood at parapets and wondered who had worked the stones, shaped these details of the suavest nuance, chevrons and rosettes … and she thought they must have been immigrants, Italian stone carvers probably, unremembered, artists anonymous of the early century, buried in the sky.
When I told him that the Brooklyn Museum was planning to auction off so many ornaments through Blum, Karp was astonished. “If they’re deaccessioning to sell, that’s very discomfiting,” he exclaimed. “They should have offered them to me first to buy!” As it happened, Karp had phoned Blum, whom he’d known and liked for decades, just the day before. Blum had told him that he was consulting with the museum about the expansion of the sculpture garden, but he did not mention anything about auctions.