Senate Seeking Its Missing Treasures

Posted September 24, 2004 at 5:29pm

In the hunt for historic treasures of the Senate, sometimes modern technology can come in handy.

The maple-finished Senate prop desk used on the sets of such classic political dramas as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Advise and Consent,” for example, was formally accepted as an addition to the Senate’s official collection of memorabilia earlier this month after popping up on the Internet marketplace eBay of all places.

For roughly $2,500, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society snagged the desk, believed to be the one from which Jimmy Stewart delivered his impassioned “Mr. Smith” filibuster, at the online auction this past spring. The group subsequently offered it to the Senate and anticipates that given its broad popular cultural appeal, the desk could ultimately find a home in the yet-to-be-completed Capitol Visitor Center, said former Rep. Ron Sarasin (R-Conn.), the society’s president.

In other instances, a more traditional mix of snail mail and generous family members of former owners has proven the winning combination, as was the case with the recent acquisition of a 19th-century Victorian rosewood armchair, which originally stood in the Senate Reception Room, and several oil sketches by painter Chester La Follette, one of which — depicting his cousin Sen. Robert La Follette — is a rendering of the painting of the former progressive Republican Wisconsin Senator that hangs in the Reception Room.

“We really need to increase our collection in a concerted way,” said Senate Curator Diane Skvarla, who estimated that “up to 50 percent” of her time in the next year would be devoted to tracking down missing objects. “Up until now if we heard about a thing becoming available we’d just hear about it. Now we are going to go out and look for them,” she added.

In addition to the continued review of auction house catalogues and eBay, Skvarla said the search for objects could also entail combing through the Senate Historical Office’s oral histories for clues to, and mentions of, artifacts, as well as using the Senate Web site to get the word out.

Aiding the Senate in its never-ending quest to expand the collection is the Senate Curatorial Advisory Board, a newly formed panel of blue-ribbon experts aiming to further “professionalize” the way the chamber approaches the task of augmenting and caring for its historic and artistic treasures.

In addition to advising the Senate Commission on Art on matters related to the collection, the 12-member panel, authorized as part of the fiscal 2004 legislative branch appropriations bill, will assist in formalizing the policies and procedures delineating how Senate artifacts are cared for and acquired.

The board held its inaugural meeting in July during which its first batch of acquisitions — the desk, the armchair and sketches — were deemed appropriate for inclusion in the collection. Items not on display are primarily housed in secured storage on the fourth floor of the Capitol.

“It’s a very positive step for the Capitol to seek this outside advice and bring some more expertise to the Capitol for these projects,” said board member and former White House Curator Betty Monkman, noting that a similar permanent advisory committee had been in existence for the White House since the 1960s.

“I think this will have a building effect over time,” said Secretary of the Senate Emily Reynolds, adding that the advisory board’s work would help the Senate “continue to tell the story of not simply the U.S. Capitol … but the story and history of our country.”

Skvarla, who chairs the advisory board, said the panel would play a role in the commission’s ongoing effort to develop both a “master list” of objects related to the Senate that had been lost or sold over the years — such as Old Supreme Court furnishings and historic Russell Senate Office Building “partner” desks — as well as a “wish list” of items it would like to have but has yet to locate, such as New York cabinetmaker Thomas Constantine’s 48 original Senate chamber chairs and portraits of “key Senate figures” such as Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.) and Thomas Hart Benton (D-Mo.).

Skvarla said the commission also hopes to expand the Senate’s collection of “important American artists” depicting “significant American events,” specifically those related to women’s rights and civil rights.

The newly assembled panel of in-house experts should also largely eliminate the need for future “ad hoc advisory boards,” which have been convened over the years to assist with projects such as commissions of former Senate leaders, said Skvarla. Although the advisory board is expected to meet only a couple of times a year, former National Portrait Gallery director and board member Alan Fern said that much of its work would likely be carried out on an informal, ongoing basis with individual members consulted for advice depending on the subject. Already, a subcommittee of board members is providing advice on the selection of the artist who will paint the “Connecticut Compromise” scene intended for the Reception Room, Skvarla said.

To further this effort, the fiscal 2004 legislative branch appropriations bill created a Senate Preservation Fund seeded with $500,000. That fund, Skvarla said, provides a means for the commission to accept financial gifts for the first time. Moreover, because the bulk of Capitol Preservation Commission monies had been earmarked for the Capitol Visitor Center, the Senate Commission on Art had, prior to the new fund’s creation, been without a significant fund “to tap into” to pay for larger-scale acquisitions, she said.

A second advisory board, expected to be finalized before the end of the year, will serve as the fundraising vehicle to help replenish the fund as well as facilitate donations to the collection, said Skvarla. This future board should lessen the chance that when important works come up for sale they are lost to private collectors due to lack of funds — such as what initially occurred in 1993 when the Senate was unable to purchase an elaborate chair used by Vice President Charles Curtis in his Russell office. (That story, Skvarla noted, had a happy ending, with the chair’s current owner eventually agreeing to lend it to the collection after a 70-year absence with plans to deed it to the Senate.)

For much of the Senate’s early history, objects were routinely sold at “yard sale”-like venues in the Capitol, Skvarla said. Despite the existence of a historic property inventory since the 1970s as well as a 1983 Rules Committee directive formalizing the process of selling surplused furniture, in reality, loopholes remained in the oversight of artifacts.

“If a chairman, if somebody petitioned Rules committee and wanted [something], Rules committee said, ‘OK,’” said Skvarla, referring to Senate office building furnishings. Finally, last year Rules ranking member Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) introduced — and the Senate passed — a resolution prohibiting the removal of art and historic artifacts from the Capitol or Senate office buildings by Members or staff.

“We are not going to go after those people and say they have to bring it back, but we would love for them to recognize the importance of bringing it back,” Skvarla said of items that have left the Senate collection over the years.

“We should probably go on the ‘Antiques Road Show’ one time and sort of say, ‘These are the things we are looking for,’” she laughed.