With all the attention being given to L.A.'s two new art museums, you'd think modern art was the only game in town. Not so, as "Treasures of the Holy Land: Ancient Art From the Israel Museum" moved in to the County Museum of Art and thousands came to see it.
A black-tie reception for 2,000 kicked off the exhibit of ancient pieces, which includes sculptures, artifacts, mosaics and Dead Sea Scrolls. The show's first stop was the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but local collectors B. Gerald and Iris Cantor decided that those on the other coast should have a chance to see it too and sponsored the exhibit here.
"It's something that the community should see," said Iris Cantor, wearing a knee-length black cocktail dress with tulle petticoats. "And it's something that people would never see again. When you see it you get thrown back thousands of years. It's amazing."
When asked what piece he favored, Gerald Cantor immediately answered, "The Statue of Hadrian (a bronze, circa AD 135-138). We're collectors of sculpture, and I didn't think sculpture was made like that at that time. It has a wonderful patina."
Guests wandered through the exhibit, where the smell of fresh paint mingled with the odor of Giorgio perfume. They oohed and ahhed over the collection, especially the carnelian necklaces ("Wait till you see the little bits of jewelry!"), coins from AD 66 to 70 ("I didn't know they used coins!") and, of course, the Dead Sea Scrolls ("You better go see them so you can tell your mother.").
Outside they lingered over the buffet and ate falafels that dripped tahini sauce on tuxedo lapels and mink stoles.
Couples in formal attire and sweet young things in strapless taffeta dresses strolled through the court, a few darting into the new Robert O. Anderson building or the museum gift shop (Nancy Powell, wife of County Museum Director Earl A. Powell III, stopped into the shop to pick up some dinosaurs for her children who are studying them in school). Occasionally, one could spot a woman bending down and tugging at her leg, a victim of the rubber grout in the court that traps high heels.
There was a touch of glittery Hollywood at the reception in the form of Merv Griffin and Eva Gabor, who came to have their photograph taken with a sculpture titled "Griffin" (circa AD 210-211). The griffin also has its paw on a wheel of fortune. And that, as every good TV watcher should know, is a Merv Griffin show.
Also among the guests were president of board of trustees Daniel Belin and wife Daisy, Caroline Ahmanson, Anna Bing Arnold, Israeli Consul General Eytan Bentsur and wife Naomi, Disney head Michael Eisner and wife Jane, and art collectors Marcia Weisman, Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert, and Nathan and Marion Smooke.
Martin Weyl, director of the Israel Museum, was beaming like a proud father for most of the night as he greeted guests. "Most of the news about Israel is bad," he said. "And people don't know that there is a normal creative cultural life going on. Many of these items have artistic importance, as well as historical. And I think when people visualize scenes in the Bible they see paintings. This is completely different; from this people will see that the past looks different from what they thought."
County Museum Director Powell said he was "humbled" by the exhibit, and he talked animatedly about the bronzes. "The casting is absolutely astonishing," he said. "With the lost wax method there is not one bubble in it."
Added Miriam Tadmor, the senior curator of Chalcolithic and Canaanite periods for the Israel Museum, "All of this is such a high level of artistry and technology. Also, people are interested in religion. To take a name like Pontius Pilate--suddenly it becomes a reality, not just a word. The ancient art is also appealing to those who like modern art. And for me, of course, it is home."