In the late 1970s, a prominent New York stockbroker turned his back on civilisation and withdrew into the Appalachian Mountains. ‘It is a compelling story,’ says Christie’s senior specialist in medieval sculpture William Russell. ‘Paul Doll was wealthy, good-looking, and at the centre of New York society. Then one day he just walked off into the middle of nowhere.’
What made his disappearance all the more intriguing was that Paul W. Doll (1926-2020) was a connoisseur of medieval and Renaissance sculpture, and when he vanished, so did his museum-quality collection.
‘He was one of those quiet aficionados who took his time and studied his purchases carefully,’ says Russell. ‘He was immaculately educated in medieval and Renaissance art. The works he owned were historically and spiritually significant. They had originally been made for kings, princes and popes.’
For almost half a century, the whereabouts of Doll’s collection were unknown to all but a few. It was not until the financier’s death in February this year that his extraordinary estate came to light. ‘It was like Sleeping Beauty’s castle,’ says Russell. ‘He had built himself this tiny citadel in a rainforest in North Carolina, and inside were ancient artefacts that hadn’t been seen for almost 50 years.’
‘We don’t know why he left, but I think there was a part of him that yearned for a more spiritual life’ — specialist William Russell
On 15 October, art from the Paul W. Doll Collection will be offered in the Old Masters Sale at Christie’s New York. Russell describes the collection as ‘wildly eclectic’, with works so rare that no other examples have been seen at auction for decades.
Some of the most desirable items were purchased from the celebrated Renaissance art expert and collector Baron Jean Germain Léon Cassel van Doorn (1882-1952), whom Doll met in New York in the 1940s. They include a rare Franco-Flemish tapestry of a unicorn, and a beautiful limestone head of a female saint from the 16th century. Similar examples can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Russell describes Cassel van Doorn as a ‘Titan in the field of 16th-century art’ and believes the young financier couldn’t have had a better mentor. ‘I think the reason Doll was such a fearless collector was that he had been taught to do his homework. He was so confident, and that only comes with looking carefully and doing your own research.’
Although most of the objects in Doll’s collection are from the medieval and Renaissance periods, the financier’s eclectic side is represented by several highly collectable artefacts including a 19th-century ormolu clock and two 1940s brass roosters by the American artist Frances Kent Lamont (1899-1975). The bird is the national symbol of France, and the sculptures were made in solidarity with the beleaguered nation during the Second World War.
In the 1960s, Doll’s collecting began to slow down. ‘I believe he did continue to acquire works throughout his life, but not at the rate or the breadth of those early years,’ says Russell. Instead, the financier pursued philanthropic interests, sitting on the board of the Audrey Love Charitable Foundation for the arts and donating many important medieval sculptures to Bob Jones University in South Carolina.
Then suddenly the stockbroker turned his back on what he saw as his country's disheartening modernity and took himself off to a life of solitude in the Appalachian Mountains. ‘We don't know why he left, but I think there was a part of him that yearned for a more spiritual life,’ says Russell.
As a medieval specialist, Doll would have been well aware of the relationship between seclusion and religious contemplation. His search for solitude in nature follows a long line of thinkers, from Christian hermits to Romantic poets.
It is possible that Doll simply wanted to emulate that free-thinking recluse Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in 1854 that he went to the woods because he wished ‘to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life… and not, when I came to die, discover I had not lived.’
Highlights from the Paul Doll Collection
Popular female saints in 16th-century France were often depicted in elaborately jewelled costumes, and this limestone sculpture with its ornamental headdress is no exception. In 2006, The New York Times featured the artefact in a full-page editorial for the exhibition Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture organised by Charles Little at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The Curator of Medieval Art and the Cloisters had been one of the few people to remain in touch with Doll after he left New York, and managed to persuade the reclusive financier to loan the work for the exhibition. Russell explains that the sculpture would have been damaged during the French Revolution, when many religious institutions were vandalised. He suspects the head depicts either Mary Magdalen or St Catherine, and describes it as ‘very rare, breathtakingly beautiful and otherworldly’.
Doll bought this 16th-century Flemish tapestry from Baron Cassel van Doorn sometime in the 1950s. According to Russell, the Belgian aristocrat had a renowned collection of Renaissance art in Europe, which the Nazis looted after he escaped to the United States in the early 1940s.
‘The Nazis spent much of the Second World War searching for the collection, and eventually found it hidden in the south of France just before the war ended. It was shipped off to Berlin, and the Baron’s descendants have been fighting for restitution ever since.’
The Unicorn Tapestry, which was made in Belgium around 1500, was bought by the Baron on his arrival in New York in the early 1940s. Similar examples were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the late 1930s by the philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874-1960).
The celebrated ‘Cellini’ Cup was said to be one of the prized possessions of the British politician George Guy Grenville, 4th Earl of Warwick, who was a prolific collector of art in the 19th century. The cup depicts the famous Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, when Hannibal’s army annihilated 70,000 Roman soldiers. Considered to be the greatest tactical feat in Roman history, it has influenced military theory for thousands of years.
Doll acquired the cup in 1947; it had previously been in the collection of the American banker J. P. Morgan. ‘It goes from one Neo-Renaissance prince to a new world prince,’ says Russell.
This grisaille diptych was created by the distinguished Renaissance Limoges enamellist Pierre Reymond. Experts believe that the picture is inspired by the work of Albrecht Dürer. According to Russell, there is a mystery surrounding the coat of arms decoration on the front of the enamel’s case.
‘There are three old French families with nearly identical coats of arms, but what is certain is that it was created for a cultivated and noble patron.’ The diptych is comparable to one that is now owned by the Frick Collection in New York.
This is a rare survival from the Medici tapestry workshops that existed in Florence in the early 17th century. ‘It is an absolute jewel and in perfect condition,’ says Russell. The specialist believes it was created by the French master weaver Pierre Févère, who arrived in Florence in 1618.
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‘We have records showing that in early 1619 Févère was given gold and silver thread, which he used in this tapestry.’ A similar work by the weaver can be found in the Pitti Palace in Florence. The tapestry has not been seen in public since it was bought by Baron Cassel van Doorn in 1944.