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How One Gallery Transformed America's Art Landscape

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Before there was a Metropolitan Museum of Art or a Central Park or a New York Times, when the city had a population of 300,000 and the Trinity Church steeple was New York's tallest building, the Knoedler Gallery was selling fine art to the few Americans who had taste and bankbooks to appreciate it. Founded in 1846, Knoedler & Co. - the oldest art gallery in New York - recently celebrated its 150th anniversary with an exhibition that traces its role in American social and aesthetic history.

The show's curator, art historian Sam Hunter, professor emeritus at Princeton University (N.J.), calls Knoedler "a driving force in the evolution of the art world in America." He notes the gallery's significant role in "nurturing American artists and collectors," as well as in "the establishment of New York as the center of the art world."

"It's hard to think of anything in American lasting 150 years," says J. Carter Brown, chairman of the all-arts cable network Ovation. The anniversary exhibit, according to Mr. Brown, "traces the trajectory of an object as it makes its way from the easel to the museum to the public." He should know, for the institution he formerly directed, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, was a major beneficiary of Knoedler's dealings.

Brown hailed "a wonderful moment" in the gallery's history when "Knoedler captured the prize." He is referring to 1931, when the Soviet Union was starved for hard cash, and sold 25 masterpieces from the Hermitage Museum to Knoedler for $12 million. Andrew Mellon then acquired and later donated most of the works to the National Gallery.

The paintings - jewels of the core collection - include old masters like Botticelli, Raphael, and Rembrandt. The works, Mr. Hunter says, "do nothing less than define our national cultural heritage."

In fact, seven of the 12 Vermeers and more than 150 Czanne oils in American collections were sold by Knoedler. More than 40 percent of works in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., and 65 percent of the Frick Collection here are recorded in Knoedler ledgers.

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