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Selling off my art collection


Taking Degas' horse home
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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I was at that time flying via Washington. I was going to a National Academy meeting. So I land in Washington, I have this... just a little bag in my hand, otherwise I checked the luggage. I go through the line, and this was, of course, in the pre-inspection, not like today. It was slowly moving, and finally the man came and said, 'Anything to declare?' I said, 'N... no'. But the way I said it, you know, not really, you know, these people are very good. He said, 'Nothing?' Well, I said, 'Nothing, just a piece of art'. He said... how do you say, because it was very clever, he said... I think I have it here because it’s such a funny story. Let me see whether I... 'Nothing to declare; how long were you in London?' I hesitated a couple of seconds before answering. 'Nothing', he repeated, 'you didn’t buy anything?' My airline bag was sitting next to my suitcase on a low platform between us. I put my hand on my bag, a protective gesture. 'Buy anything?' I echoed. 'Oh, I did buy something, but nothing to declare. It’s just an art object', I added, silently apologising to Degas in his grave. 'I see', the agent nodded, as if he’d expected just this answer, 'And what did you pay for it?' Realizing that the time for off-handedness had passed, I mentioned the non-trivial five digit sum I paid, and mumbled 'guineas'. His face showed no surprise. You see I picked guineas, because that would be the... the smallest number. At that time I think it was probably $4 to the pound, and guineas was 10% more than the dollars, so the sum, the actual number sounded smaller even though the value was bigger. His face showed no surprise, nor did he pursue the question of currency, he didn’t even ask the nature of the art object. He stroked his chin. 'Are you an art dealer?' 'No', I replied quickly, 'I’m only a collector'. Impassive, he pursued, 'And what do you collect'? My left index finger slowly traced the outline of the bronze horse in the thin airline bag. I felt like a defendant, who knows that each answer would lead to further questions. 'Art', I said. I said, 'Art', I said. 'I understand that', replied the inspector, with limitless patience. 'Whose art?' Whose art, he was after all no simpleton, but what did he know about art? I considered murmuring Picasso’s, although I owned only one of his sculptures, and a rather minor one at that. With our two children, my second wife and I had visited the Tate Gallery's great Picasso retrospective, in 1967, and we stood, overwhelmed and euphoric in front of it. Well, here I’m telling, I’m calling this... telling this story about it here. I didn’t tell any of this to the customs inspector, I decided to test, rather than impress him. 'Klee', I said, pronouncing it the correct German way, as C-l-a-y, figuring that would separate... separate the potters among the inspectors, from the cognoscenti. 'Paul Klee', he exclaimed, a smile stealing over his face, 'my favourite. Have you been to the Phillips collection here in DC?', he continued. 'If you haven’t, you should see their Klees'.

It turned out that I’d picked the principal art specialist among the Washington customs inspectors. His primary function was the evaluation of important art imports, especially to local dealers and collectors, whom he mentioned, and some of whom I knew. He was serving temporarily as backup to some regular inspectors at Washington’s Dulles Airport. For several minutes we exchanged Klee lore. 'The most intellectual painters are among the most verbal', I proclaimed, oblivious of the passengers waiting behind me. 'Can you think of anyone else who would use a title like, Two Men Meet, Each Thinking the Other is of Higher Rank [sic]' one of the great ones that I own. I mentioned that I’d bought several Klees from Berggruen's Gallery in Paris, and when the inspector nodded understandingly I pointed to my bag. 'Don’t you want to see this?' 'Don’t bother', he smiled, 'I better take care of these passengers. Enjoy DC', he waved me on, 'and don’t forget to stop at the Phillips'.

So this is why I decided to pick that for the real story, even though Degas was an exception, in a way, because the really important thing were Klee, which I really collected since that time, and have collected ever since, Paul Klees.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: The Phillips Collection, Two Men Meet, Each Believing the Other to Be of Higher Rank, Edgar Degas, Paul Klee

Duration: 5 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008