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The soup thickens


A visit to the inter-library loan desk this morning rekindled the fire under Gabriel Spat (a.k.a. Salomon Patlajan). I couldn’t resist sharing.

Artist Gabriel Spat has not been treated well by history. During his last fifteen years, Spat enjoyed some success in the art worlds of both New York and Paris. Catalogues from each city include lists of private buyers who had a Spat or two hanging on their walls—lists including familiar names from American history (familiar to me at least) and a few that will be recognized by everyone: Mrs Robert F. Kennedy and the Duchess of Windsor. At one time, apparently, he had been fashionable. Let’s hope that translated into financial security.

Commercial success doesn’t often translate into historical recognition, however. Art historical texts are silent; catalogues from gallery shows are ephemeral; and the handful of printed and on-line biographical sketches compound old rumors about Spat’s origin and clarify little. I doubt that Gabriel Spat matters to many who don’t own one of his works. That being said, there are a surprising number of Spats that come up for auction—nearly a hundred lots in thirty years—though no more than five or six in an average year; his peak was 2009.

Happy Accidents

Finding Gabriel Spat was a happy accident. Finding out about him requires conscientious effort. dogged sleuthing and a little old fashioned luck. Any moderate success I’ve had depends on the latter two. It’s both amazing and amusing how easily the most repeated claim about him can be undone.

The consistent theme among Spat’s biographies is ambivalence about his place of birth: hesitant claims are made for both the United States and France. Yet ten minutes in on-line genealogical records settles the question. Spat’s 1948 application for naturalization yields his date and place of birth—13 July 1890 at Kishinev, Romania—with one significant bonus: confirmation of his change-of-name. Before that date his legal name had been Salomon Patlajan (pronounced, I am told with authority by Larry Carcoana, as “PAHT-la-zhon”). Armed with new information and fortified with these few incremental accomplishments, more dated events came forward—summarized in the previous blog entry.

There’s nothing magic here; just a few standard resources available to everyone: 1) ancestry.com (the cheap library-based version); 2) WorldCat (a.k.a. OCLC, for “old school” research types like me); 3) NYTimes.com for its search engine and then off to MSUM and their microfilm reader-printer; 4) the indefatigable staff of NDSU’s inter-library loan office; and, of course 5) the full complement of google search engine tools, particularly google.books. At one point in my life I foolishly believed people would pay me to do this. I was wrong.

Often I can’t reconstruct the path that takes me an answer. So, Wednesday morning at ILL one of my requests was sent back for more information. I couldn’t recall where I’d seen the factoid in question, but that sent me off in new directions toward another breakthrough. Spat had been born in Moldova when it was a part of Romania, but so had another artist—Naum Patlajan, a.k.a. Numa Patlagean—just two years earlier in 1888. Of him, there is more detail on the early years while he studied at the art school in the provincial capital. Naum was a sculptor who also emigrated to the Paris art scene and Naum also fled to the south of France when the Nazis invaded. Remarkably, he settled at Antibes and it was Antibes that appears as Spat’s last permanent residence on the 1942 passenger manifest that records his first known arrival in the U.S.

I know this is tedious, but stick with me.

Having learned of a long-lived school of art in Kishinev/Chesinau, I suddenly found myself in need of a Romanian and decided to make a quick trip to Zerr-Berg Architects and their star employee Lawrence Carcoana, NDSU graduate and genuine Romanian emigrant. I don’t know Larry’s path from the Homeland to America, but he confirmed for me the two principal paths that others have taken: exiting Europe during the Nazi era through two ports: Lisbon, Portugal and Casablanca in Morocco. The latter was Spat’s window to the West.

The path forward now depends on Mr Carcoana’s willingness to help penetrate the archival resources of eastern Europe. My current quest is an email for the school in Kishinev and the hope they will cooperate. Wish us luck.

1 Comment

  1. Larry Carcoana says:

    Dear Ron,

    I kept looking for potential ties to Chisinau (or Khisnev in Russian script), so that you may direct your research closer to Patlajan’s “Alma Mater”. However, the Republic of Moldova, although culturally and affectively Romanian land, has been under Soviet control for decades. Even to this day the political situation in this part of the world is not too keen to the promotion of cultural values that highlight the inherent Romanian heritage. The events in the life of Naum and Salomon most likely have been “burried” during the 1940’s when history took the unfortunate turn leading to the “re-culturalization” of the Republic of Moldova.
    So the more I thought about it the more I became inclined to believe that a writer (or historian), or an art-critic would be able to help you further your research. The other day I was watching an interview on TV with a writer originally from Bucovina (another Romanian area in the north of Moldova) who is a resident writer at Bard University. His name is Norman Manea. I don’t know him personally but he made quite an impression on me. His phone number and e-mail address are on the B.U. website. I am not sure why I am confident he may offer some support but you should try? I am truly impressed with this detective story but even if it the excitement is indeed contagious, I realize that you are a much better Sherlock Holmes than I could ever be. Nevertheless, know that I am glad to be of help.

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