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Cataloguing the unsaleable: in the April 1989 issue, the publication of a catalogue of the collection of the dealer F. Mason Perkins prompted John Pope-Hennessy to recall his visits to Perkins in Assisi.

Ideally it should be possible to separate property from people, but sometimes it is very hard, and nowhere have I found it harder than during my visits to Perkins's haunted house. Since there was no electric light, the pictures were all but invisible. 'This is perhaps the most beautiful Madonna Masolino ever painted,' declared Perkins in an undertone as we faced a panel which, in the gloaming, looked remarkably unlike Masolino to me. The prevailing sense (and this was felt by all the people at Assisi that I knew) was one of deep unhappiness. Perkins was a zealot; he went to mass daily in the Lower Church, and on the feast of the Perdono he set off in the morning at half past five to make sure of a place in the Porziuncula. But he had driven two wives mad--literally so: the first, the historian of Siena, Lucy Olcott, was shut up in a London asylum, and the second, Irene Vavasour Elder (under whose name he published a number of articles), warned me when I met her in 1937 against the prevalence of witches in Cortona, who blew herbs into one's pillow causing a wasting illness from which there was no recovery. On my last vist to Assisi before Perkins's death, in 1954, Perkins and his wife were eating in different rooms, and the on dit at Assisi was that the purpose of the benefaction of his paintings to San Francesco was to do his wife out of the proceeds that might accrue from sale ... His widow received a partial copy of the head of Goliath from a Caravaggio, but managed to retain some of the other paintings and is reprimanded in the present catalogue for doing so ...

What of the quality of the exhibited collection? I am rebuked by Federico Zeri, in his introduction to the new catalogue, for saying that it consists mainly of paintings that were unsaleable. This, however, is the simple truth. At the time Perkins was selling pictures, good primitives were readily available, and none of the self-respecting New York collectors with whom he dealt would have contemplated buying a panel by the Master of Sant' Ivo in which the Child's head is partially effaced, a Bicci di Lorenzo in which the lateral saints are severed through the hips, a flattened Segna discarded from the Home Collection, two much-damaged little Madonnas ascribed to Pietro Lorenzetti, half a battered Bartolo di Fredi, a head cut out of an altarpiece by Pier Francesco Fiorentino, or a titivated and regilded Christ Child by the Pseudo-Pier Francesco Fiorentino. Zeri claims that Perkins could, had he wished, have sold the Ortolano St Sebastian (but not to a collector in the 1930s and not today to me) ... He also complains that I have described Perkins (who undoubtedly had a first-rate eye for Sienese pictures) as 'simply an attributor of paintings' ... Attributionism is indeed a valid department of art history, but a lower one than synthesis.
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Title Annotation:From the APOLLO archives
Author:Pope-Hennessy, John
Publication:Apollo
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 1, 2005
Words:494
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