South America's epic past unfolds in a New York City town house

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, November/December 2012 | 

"Everything is timing," says Richard Huber, recalling opportunities spotted and seized over a long career that took him and his wife, Roberta, around the world. On a gamble, they invested in vineyards in Chile, an icebreaker in Antarctica, even an emerald mine in Minas Gerais, Brazil. A twenty-five-thousand-acre cattle ranch in the Brazilian outback served as a family retreat. "It took eleven hours to get there by plane, truck, and riverboat from São Paulo. Running water was dicey. Oh, it was primitive but I loved it for my children," Roberta says.

A similarly intrepid spirit marks the couple's approach to collecting. Over four decades, with more pluck and imagination than formal guidance, the Hubers assembled one of this country's major private collections of Spanish and Portuguese colonial paintings, sculpture, and silver, much of it made in the South American viceroyalties of Peru and Rio de la Plata prior to 1820. Timing, as Richard says, is everything. Eager to redress past oversights in their collections and present a more balanced view of cultural influences in the New World, American museums are driving the growing interest in Latin American art. "The 1990s marked a new golden age for the field, with several very informative shows that brought colonial art to a wider audience," says Joseph J. Rishel, the Philadelphia Museum of Art's senior curator of European painting, who organized the 2006-2007 traveling exhibition The Arts in Latin America, 1492-1820 and is supervising the museum's forthcoming show of the Huber collection.

The Hubers' first purchase, in 1973, foreshadowed the adventure to come. "We were visiting Sucre, Bolivia, and heard about a woman with a colonial era reverse painting on glass for sale. We went to her house that evening and bought it for $100," Richard recalls. Dating to the late eighteenth century and still housed in its original frame, the work, possibly by a skillful amateur, depicts Saint Augustine in the company of other theologians (Fig. 2).

Like the explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who documented every detail of his travels in Latin America between 1799 and 1804, the Hubers have created a pictorial record of their South America sojourns. Reared in North Carolina and educated at Harvard, Richard leapt at the opportunity to work in Buenos Aires, where the Bank of Boston transferred him in 1962. After a brief return to Boston, the family moved to São Paulo in 1967. "I couldn't wait to get back to South America," says Roberta, a petite, Massachusetts-born blonde whose energetic pace matches that of her husband. Richard's career later took them to Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, New York, Chicago, and Hartford, where he retired as Aetna's chief executive in 2000.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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