SANTA FE, N.M. — Peruvian ambassador’s collection displayed at Museum of Spanish Colonial Art
The descendent of a Spanish conquistador, Pedro Gerardo Beltrán Espantoso traveled the world collecting everything from Peruvian silver to Chinese screens.
Today, the treasures of those travels are on exhibit at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art.
The owner of the Peruvian newspaper La Prensa, Beltrán Espantoso was Peru’s ambassador to the U.S. His term as his country’s minister of finance and prime minister (from 1959-1961) helped stabilize the Peruvian economy. He and his American wife, Miriam Therese Kropp, collected artwork from Massachusetts to Japan. The couple had no heirs, so when Miriam died in 2010, a family friend and attorney placed the collection in a Christie’s New York viewing last November.
Despite competition from both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Santa Fe’s Museum of Spanish Colonial Art landed the gift of a lifetime. “Window on Lima: The Beltrán-Kropp Collection from Peru” will showcase the results starting Saturday.
Chief curator Robin Farwell Gavin says the title was carefully chosen.
“The bulk of it is not Peruvian,” she said. “It’s from all over. It shows how cosmopolitan Peru is and was. All these objects were coming in because of Spain’s global trade.”
Objects such as hand-painted Chinese screens, a French porcelain table setting for 46 and a Japanese watercolor table screen.
None of the works have been publicly displayed until now.
The 96-piece collection includes a rare 19th century églomisé (reverse painting on glass) frame originating from the Cajamarca region of northern Peru. Modeled after similar Italian frames, it surrounds a mid-20th century painting of a Madonna and Child. Christie’s auction house has called the ornate object the largest of its kind in the U.S.
“It’s the frame that’s really important, not the painting,” Farwell Gavin said. The frame is painted on reverse glass, with Rococo-meets-Arabesque swirling forms accompanied by birds and feathers. The 5-foot-tall object surrounds an inner frame of paper flowers.
A silver on wood cross dates to the 1800s.
The Peruvian crucifix features hand-made nails with finials reflecting a distinctively European flourish. The curves and swirls show the influence of the Rococo period. The stylized Cristo figure is bookended by dangling grape clusters symbolizing the Eucharist. The sun and the moon depicted in circles on the arms of the cross usually refer to the darkness that overcame the earth during the crucifixion. The skull and crossbones refer to Golgotha, the place of the skull. It also functions as a memento mori, a reference to the fleeting nature of life. The heart pierced by a dagger designates the Virgin’s sorrows.
Incan textile designs cover a silver early 20th century jewelry box. Artisans inlaid an 18th-century velvet-lined wooden jewelry box with tortoise shell and mother-of-pearl.
“The (New Mexican) marquetry technique of straw applique probably grew out of this,” Farwell Gavin said.
A silver filigree basket of peacock feathers may reveal the origins of this fine silver embellishment now undergoing a New Mexican revival.
“The technique probably came up from South America through Mexico to New Mexico,” she added.
The Peruvian objects both deepen and enhance the museum’s own collection of largely New Mexican work and scattered pieces from the colonies, Farwell Gavin said.
“It helps further our mission of placing Spanish Colonial art in the broader colonial context,” she said. “We’ve never had much from Peru.”
Museum director Donna Pedace said the Santa Fe museum’s focus on Spanish Colonial art gave it an edge. The collection would have amounted to a fraction of the holdings of the Met, likely relegated to a department. The Museum of Spanish Colonial Art is the only museum and conservation facility in the U.S. devoted exclusively to the art of the Spanish colonies.
“For once, it was to our advantage to be a small museum,” Farwell Gavin said.
Technicians have converted the museum’s main gallery into a replica of the Beltrán Espantoso estate in Lima. Important documents, correspondence and letters paper one wall.
“There are letters from Georgia O’Keeffe,” Farwell Gavin said. “There are letters from David Rockefeller. These people traveled in heady circles.”
Beltrán Espantoso’s mission was to improve the lives of the Peruvian lower classes, she said. He pushed financial reforms for low-interest home loans and reformed agriculture.
In 1956, Beltrán Espantoso and many of his editorial staff were arrested following the revolt of an army garrison. La Prensa closed for several days. When it reopened, Miriam ran the paper until her husband got out of jail 26 days later.
The government of dictator Manuel Odría accused Beltrán Espantoso of being the principal instigator of a subversive campaign.
After Juan Velasco Alvarado became president in a 1968 coup, the ruling leftist military junta divested Miriam of her position and her stock in La Prensa. In 1972, they razed the family home.
The couple fled to Europe. Miriam had already dismantled their house and shipped their belongings to the U.S. In 1972, the Columbia University School of Journalism awarded Beltrán Espantoso the Maria Moors Cabot Special Citation, a medal created for him because he had already won their gold medal.
The couple settled in San Francisco in 1974. Beltrán Espantoso received honorary degrees from Yale, Harvard and the University of California. He was a visiting scholar at the University of Virginia. They continued to travel and spent considerable time in Europe until his 1979 death.