On Thursday, the poppies were in flower at the Georgi, big, orange petals at the end of tall stems.
The hydrangea trees, curving in a row across the lawn, weren’t blooming yet, but the breeze carried blasts of lilac scent. The Batten Kill wraps around this lawn, making it a peninsula of grass and flowers, with the house on a rise, surrounded by the rushing of the river.
This land, along with a house containing valuable Renaissance-era paintings and an irreplaceable gem and mineral collection, was a bequest to the town of Salem in the will of Jessie Glen Georgi. The property was transferred to the town’s care in the late 1980s and, ever since, town officials and Georgi staff, paid and volunteer, have been trying to figure out what to do with it.
Jessie Georgi left to the town her house, her car (a 1952 Buick convertible), her land and the gems, minerals, furniture, rugs, paintings and knickknacks she and her husband, a mining engineer, had acquired over decades of collecting.
It had long been her “cherished aim and purpose,” she states in her will, “to establish a museum for the education and enjoyment of the public, particularly the inhabitants of the hamlet of Shushan.”
She also set up a trust for maintenance of the property and operation of the museum. The trust now contains about $500,000, and the principal has grown over the years, said town Supervisor Sue Clary. But because interest rates are low, the town is earning only about $6,000 a quarter — $24,000 a year — for maintenance and operation, which is not enough.
More than 30 years have passed since the bequest was made, but Jessie Georgi “cherished aim and purposed” has not yet been realized. At one time, the Georgi had a provisional charter as a museum from the state Education Department, but that has lapsed. Clary has looked into getting it renewed. If she can establish the Georgi as a nonprofit institution, it can accept donations and apply for grants and, maybe, become self-sustaining.
The Georgi’s list of needs is long, but at the top is a climate control system for proper conservation of its 16 Renaissance paintings. The paintings have survived centuries and crossed the Atlantic Ocean. It would be a disaster if their boards were to crack and colors fade now. But some people familiar with the Georgi’s collection fear that, because the paintings are not being kept in museum-standard conditions, serious deterioration is happening already.
The problem with the paintings
Walk into what Jessie Georgi called her “River Property House” and you enter a big, mostly empty room with a wood floor. A few cabinets against the walls hold the gems and minerals Henry Georgi collected during his mining work, mostly in South America.
A smaller inner room is also empty, except for the paintings on the walls. Looking at them is disorientating. The room is chilly and feels like it has sat empty for years. But the paintings are glorious. You could be in a Renaissance room at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, looking at them, or in an intimate museum in Italy. It’s hard to reconcile the quality of these works — and their number and variety — with their location in an empty building on a dead-end street in a tiny hamlet in Salem.
The Georgi’s isolation, which makes it difficult to draw visitors interested in Renaissance art, has been a challenge for town officials trying to establish the site as a real museum. It also has had consequences for the paintings.
In 2019, the Georgi contracted with Mark Lawson, an antiques dealer and professional appraiser from Saratoga Springs, to examine and evaluate some decorative pieces from Asia. While there, he noticed the Renaissance paintings and, in his report to the museum, he mentioned them.
“The quality of the collection is impressive, with many exceptional works of historical and cultural significance,” he wrote, of the paintings. “While their monetary value is high, that value may not fully reflect the irreplaceable nature of these works of art.”
“Most of the works on display exhibited evidence of damage and ongoing deterioration that will be difficult and costly to address. Some works have environmental damage that is now irreversible. It would be accurate to say that the collection is being slowly destroyed by regular exposure to extreme fluctuations in temperature and humidity as they are currently housed. If allowed to proceed unchecked, these works of art will continue to be irreversibly damaged and are at risk of being ultimately lost.”
An unsuitable climate
Clary agrees with Lawson that the situation is urgent. But over the years, other town officials have pooh-poohed concern for the paintings, pointing out that they survived for hundreds of years without air conditioning or dehumidifiers.
Jonathan Canning, curator at the Hyde Collection Art Museum in Glens Falls, conceded the paintings’ resilience over the centuries in Italy. But pointed out the climate in the Mediterranean region is far milder than in upstate New York. The paintings were done on wood panels, he said, which can crack if exposed to large swings in temperature like we experience here.
Heat and humidity must be carefully balanced when conserving paintings like these, because the panels can be dried out and cracked by heating systems used to bring up the temperature in the winter, Canning said. At the Hyde, the heat is maintained year-round at 70 degrees, the relative humidity at 50%.
“I can imagine it’s a real challenge for them,” he said.
The building has heat, but with only a crawl space underneath — it was originally the Georgis’ fishing cabin — and a single, insufficient dehumidifier, the space gets cold sometimes, hot others and damp frequently.
In 2015, the Georgi had to be closed, its artworks placed in storage, to deal with an infestation of mold. At that time, the cost of climate control was assessed, including just for part of the building, but the work was never done.
“The collection’s deterioration and loss would be a tragedy,” Lawson wrote at the end of his letter to the town. “It would be, almost certainly, exactly the opposite of what the intention of the Georgis were in entrusting the responsibility for its care and maintenance to the town of Salem.”
This summer and beyond
Although the artworks are behind locked doors these days, the grounds are open as a public park and are used by mothers with babies in strollers or people with dogs on leashes and others seeking a meditative spot to eat lunch, talk on the phone or watch the river.
Plenty of local people would be content with just having access to the park, but under the terms of Jessie Georgi’s will, a museum must be maintained in the river house or the house and property will be donated to the Henry Krumb School of Mines of Columbia University in memory of Henry Georgi. In that circumstance — a failure to meet the conditions of the will — the art collection would go to the Fogg Museum at Harvard University and the mineral collection to the Smithsonian.
Wendy Bordwell, who acted as a part-time director of the museum for about eight years until being laid off in February, believes the town lacks the resources to run the Georgi as a full-time museum. She recommended, before leaving, that the museum put at-risk items, such as the Renaissance paintings, in permanent, climate-controlled storage and make them available for virtual viewing in video tours on the Georgi’s website.
Concentrating on the digital experience would open the Georgi to a far larger audience than will ever make the journey to Shushan, while also protecting irreplaceable works of art, she said.
As for value, neither Bordwell nor Canning nor Lawson nor Chris Daly, an art history graduate student from the local area who has done extensive research into the provenance of the Georgi’s Renaissance paintings, was willing to speculate how much money they are worth.
The market fluctuates, and prices are dependent on various factors, including condition, the significance of a particular work and the strength of the evidence behind its attribution to a particular painter. A quick browse online of paintings by some of the artists represented in the Georgi’s collection revealed sale prices ranging from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But even priced conservatively, the paintings are valuable, and they are beautiful. They are a surprising treasure to have hanging on a couple of walls in a fancy former fishing shack in Shushan.
And even though these treasures were meant for the enjoyment of the local people, for now, no one can see them. Whether that changes will depend on how successful Sue Clary and others are in navigating the terms of a decades-old bequest that, despite the good will of its author, has created an ongoing dilemma for the town of Salem.
Will Doolittle is projects editor at The Post-Star. He may be reached at email@example.com and followed on his blog, I think not, and on Twitter at @trafficstatic.