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

One favorite piece, unusual because it is marked, is a profusely decorated tray (Fig. 13) thought to have been made between 1700 and 1725 in the city of Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. "There is a rich tradition of church silver but this was made for private use. Domestic silver can be ornate or utilitarian but, unlike church silver, which was often kept safe in treasuries, it was much more common for domestic silver to be sold off or melted down," says Mark Castro, who is coordinating Journeys to New Worlds: Spanish and Portuguese Colonial Art in the Roberta and Richard Huber Collection, which opens in February at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Another choice example is an eighteenth-century Andean processional lantern (Fig. 16). "It says so much about the public uses of silver, which you don't find in British America. In Spanish and Portuguese America, silver was out on the streets, in church processions," Barquist says.

The Hubers recently began adding seventeenth- through early nine­teenth-century ivories sculpted by Goan, Ceylonese, and Filipino craftsmen for the Portuguese and Spanish markets. Roberta's interest in the sculptures intensified after 2005, when she met Margarita M. Estella Marcos, a leading authority on the subject, at a symposium at the Ayala Museum in Manila. One of their first acquisitions in the medium was the late seventeenth-century Christ Child at the Column (Fig. 15), an Hispano-Philippine carving notable, says Marcos, for its brilliant craftsmanship and originality. Christ Child as the Good Shepherd (Fig. 3), a diminutive Ceylon-Portuguese depiction of Jesus resting, head on a pillow and hand sheltering a lamb, is vaguely reminiscent of Buddhist art of the period. A nine­teenth-century Hispano-Philip­pine carving of the archangel Michael slaying a dragon stands 45 inches tall (Fig. 14). Its monumental scale is rare in ivory, as is its colorful surface. Most ivories were originally painted but few retain their pigment.

Among a handful of top collectors of colonial Latin American art in the United States, the Hubers are often mentioned in the same breath as Jan Mayer and her late husband, Frederick, who endowed galleries of Pre-Columbian and Spanish colonial art at the Denver Art Museum; the Chicago area collectors Carl and Marilynn Thoma; and Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, whose comprehensive holdings, administered by the New York and Caracas-based Fundación Cisneros, span pre-history to the present."The collectors in this field are thoughtful, mature people. The material isn't plentiful," says Denver dealer Valery Taylor Brown.

Scarcity is not the only barrier to collecting. Provenance questions and patrimony laws, which vary from country to country, are major concerns. "It's often murky where these things come from and countries are being more careful about letting pieces go," says Stratton-Pruitt.

And bias remains. For years, the arts of colonial Latin America were viewed as inferior copies of European art or bastardized versions of pre-conquest indigenous artifacts. American curators often shrank from exhibiting overtly religious work. "The prejudices of high-low, center-periphery are passing. At the end of the day, everyone is realizing that colonial art is far more complex than we ever imagined," Castro says.

In a sign of the times, in late 2010 the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston unveiled its new Art of the Americas Wing, for the first time displaying art of the Western Hemisphere as an organic whole. The department, led by Elliot Bostwick Davis, is preparing a major traveling exhibition on Asia and its influence in the New World for 2014. The show will emphasize decorative arts produced in colonial North, Central, and South America. "The field of American decorative arts is getting very narrow. I'm pushing to expand our horizons by looking more broadly across the Americas. Examining the influence of Asia is just one way to do that," says exhibition organizer Dennis Carr, a curator of American decorative arts at the MFA.

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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