Photo: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann/File Photo. Christie's in Paris. November 27, 2019. I believe that cultural heritage is a...

The Mozart Verona Portrait and the Question of Cultural Heritage

Photo: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann/File Photo. Christie's in Paris. November 27, 2019.

I believe that cultural heritage is a public trust and therefore consider myself to be a public servant. To me, it's a matter of principle that it should be inclusive, never exclusive. It belongs to all of us in shared ownership. And given Mozart's view on the accessibility of his music, he would undoubtedly agree. Artifacts and artworks, including authenticated portraits of historical figures, should be maintained and exhibited by public history agencies including museums, archives and libraries. But in reality, auction houses are full of collectors vying for new pieces and privatization is on the rise.

From November 23rd to 27th, the 1770 portrait of the 13-year-old Mozart ("The Verona Portrait") was on display for auction at Christie's in Paris (see article, the lot info and take a virtual tour). The expectation was that Lot #217 would sell for over $1 million, and it easily exceeded the pre-sale estimate at EUR 4,031,500 ($4.4 million) after a "long bidding battle between three telephones" (per an article from The Strad).

To be at auction with an undetermined fate isn't ideal for a portrait on the eve of its 250th anniversary (Mozart was painted from life on January 6th and 7th, 1770), but my hope is that the new owner will recognize the anniversary in some way in Verona and then make a loan to the Mozarteum for public exhibition. The sale of this beloved portrait implores me to ask the larger ethical questions facing my work generally as a Music Heritage Preservationist: Who controls our cultural heritage? Who collects what and for whom? And most importantly, how does it effect access, reception and sustainability for audiences, the lifeblood of all arts?

When I watched the film Mozart: Aufzeichnungen einer Jugend (Mozart: A Childhood Chronicle) for the first time, I found the scene with Mozart sitting for this portrait to be one of the most affecting moments in Mozart filmography, perhaps for its connection to one of the only authenticated renderings of Mozart's likeness that has survived to us. Read my article and watch the excerpt.

This photo of my visit to Mozarts Geburtshaus in Salzburg, the residence where Mozart was born on January 27, 1756, captures a demeanor I rarely display outwardly on camera: the seriousness of my devotion and feelings of guardianship. I couldn't smile. I was overwhelmed with emotion upon entering the apartment to the sound of Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus. Although I had visited before, this was a new exhibit and experience. The power of an historic place is evergreen and ever-changing. I owe a sizable debt to the photographer, my twin sister Sheryl, for without the passion and friendship we share, I wouldn't have allowed myself to be so vulnerable!

The exhibit was a mixed-media interpretation. Central to this particular section was a 19th Century painting of Mozart at the keyboard. Adjacent to the artwork was a gilded inscription indicating the supposed location of the infant prodigy's cradle alongside a reproduction of Mozart's 1770 portrait. Within the context of the subject at hand, this photo becomes a statement in juxtaposition and irony.

The question of cultural heritage (ownership and ethics) is one that's constantly being studied and examined by academicians and practitioners, but it isn't discussed nearly enough in the public sphere where the potential for its impact is greatest. The Mozart portrait at auction presents an opportunity to create awareness and discussion about this subject. My primary concern is for the compromise of history and heritage on the most fundamental, grassroots level where audiences incubate and develop, for they will ultimately determine the past's present and future.



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