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ART : The Apartment of Antiquities : A collection of 200 works from the ancient world moves from a Manhattan couple's very private enclave to a rare public viewing at the Getty.

October 09, 1994|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

NEW YORK — "Hi. I'm Larry Fleischman," says an energetic man, striding down a hall and shaking my hand as I step out of an elevator in an elegant high-rise. The high-powered businessman, who gained financial success in television, real estate and investments before taking over Kennedy Galleries, one of the world's leading American art dealerships, is anything but the intimidating character one might expect.

"And I'm Barbara," says his effervescent wife, inviting me into the couple's apartment, where treasures from ancient Greece, Rome and Etruria compete with stunning views of Manhattan.

Bronze and marble statues of Greek gods--Dionysus, Athena, Apollo and Venus--stand on pedestals and window ledges. Fragments of ancient frescoes hang on walls. Painted ceramic vessels sit on shelves, while jewelry, small sculptures and hardware nestle in vitrines. Seen through a broad sweep of windows, the bustling city resembles a modern tapestry with miniature buildings deliberately organized in geometric patterns.

It's an astonishing environment, known only to the Fleischmans' friends and to scholars who make pilgrimages here to see one of the world's leading private collections of antiquities. Neither art as decor nor a pretentious showcase, the two-story apartment is a sort of live-in museum that mixes domestic comfort with aesthetic and intellectual stimulation.

As befits a couple who treat their art acquisitions as members of the family, the Fleischmans' collecting is essentially a private love affair. But it's about to go public in "A Passion for Antiquities: Ancient Art From the Collection of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman," an exhibition of more than 200 objects opening on Thursday at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu. The show will continue at the Getty through Jan. 15, then travel to the Cleveland Museum of Art from Feb. 15 to April 23.


The upcoming exhibition is the first and--the Fleischmans say-- only time most of the ancient artworks will be removed from their apartment and put in the public eye. Parting with their treasures for several months may prove to be traumatic, but a few days before the tedious process of wrapping and crating begins, the Fleischmans are excited about the project. "We trust the Getty," Barbara says. "They are doing everything in the most professional way."

Going all out for the event, the Getty will install the works in about half of its first floor galleries, which are appropriately housed in a replica of a 1st-Century Roman villa. Getty Trust Publications has issued a fully illustrated color catalogue of the Fleischman collection. In addition, a series of public programs will offer Roman-theme family days, lectures by scholars and Larry Fleischman and performances of ancient Greek and Roman comedies.

The Fleischman celebration recognizes private collectors as a source of inspiration and support for museums, says Getty Museum Director John Walsh. But the exhibition also offers a hint of the future at the Malibu villa. In 1997, after the Getty's collections of European paintings, drawings and sculpture, decorative arts and photographs move to a new museum at the Getty Center in Brentwood, the villa will be converted into a museum and study center for antiquities. Temporary exhibitions will then become a major part of the program.

Large private collections of antiquities are extremely rare, but the Fleischmans' cache is extraordinary, says Marion True, the Getty's curator of antiquities.

"What distinguishes their collection is both the variety of the pieces--from a Cycladic head to beautiful late Roman glass--and their quality. Every single piece is exceptional. . . . I have never seen a collection selected with such sure taste," she says.

The exhibition is designed to celebrate the Fleischmans' day-to-day relationship to their chosen artworks. The idea is to preserve the intimate character of the relatively small objects and to display them in thematic categories, as at the Fleischmans' apartment.

"Visitors will not only have the chance to view some of the most brilliant works of art from ancient Greece and Rome to be seen anywhere, but they will also have the unusual opportunity to experience some of the pleasures and sense of discovery that true collectors enjoy," True says.

One thing exhibition visitors will not witness, however, is Larry's penchant for tinkering with the collection's arrangement. "He's our installation and lighting man," Barbara says. "If I hear a noise at 5 a.m., I know it's Larry moving things around." And if all is quiet at that hour, he is probably reading one of the books in their antiquities library.

Sometimes he brings pieces together because of their function, as in a group of metal weights. "Larry became fascinated with weights," Barbara says of a display of tiny metal objects in the shape of animals.

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