This lot is offered without reserve.
An artist, photographer, writer, teacher, champion marksman, big game hunter, World War II patriot, collector, and philanthropist, Russell B. Aitken (1910-2002) possessed the attributes of a larger-than-life character from a Hemingway novel. To those who knew him, however, Russ Aitken was a natural, a man of patrician upbringing with a common touch, an individual of extreme self confidence, boundless energy, and a keen intelligence who sought adventure and excellence in each of his many life endeavors.
From an early age Russ demonstrated his avocation for shooting and outdoor life, while at the same time pursuing two professional vocations, writing and art. He received a degree in journalism from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, his home town, in 1931 and graduated that same year from the Cleveland Institute of Art. From 1931 to 1933 he pursued his studies as a ceramic sculptor in Europe, where exposure to Old World culture made an indelible impression that undoubtedly shaped his future as an art collector. Back in the United States, Russ won critical praise for his work as a sculptor, which culminated in his commission to design and execute the largest decorative mural ever fired in vitreous enamel fused on steel for The Decorative Arts Building at the New York World's Fair. The mural, "Hercules and the Amazons", was later exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in its Industrial Art Exhibition in 1941.
Russ was no less talented - or acclaimed - as a rugged outdoorsman, which was manifest in his legendary skills as a marksman, explorer, big game hunter, and wildlife photographer. He received dozens of awards for skeet and trap shooting, as well as for the far more challenging live pigeon shooting, and his success in the safaris and shikars on five continents bagged him record-breaking trophies and earned him recognition in 1963 as one of the six greatest living big game hunters in the world. His skill as a crack shot was most significantly put to use in the service of his country during World War II, when he was commissioned with the rank of major as a gunnery specialist. As Director of Gunnery at the Yuma Air Field he personally trained 32,000 pursuit pilots and aerial gunners and produced the highest gunnery scores ever achieved by any nation. Of all his many accomplishments, his wartime work with the young American pilots and gunners made him the most proud.
Russ obviously appreciated firearms from a shooter's practical point of view, but as an artist he also came to admire the beauty of deluxe sporting arms created centuries ago by master gunmakers who, aided by iron chiselers, wood carvers, engravers, etchers, and damasceners, transformed weapons into objets d'art. So began his career as a collector of antique firearms. His earliest purchases were on a modest level and included examples of technical interest such as multi-shot and breechloading mechanisms, as well as decorative oriental guns. Following his marriage to Annie Laurie Crawford in 1957, the couple began to amass an important collection of eighteenth century English and French decorative arts that transformed their homes in New York and Newport into spectacular showplaces. In keeping with their ambition to collect only the very best, Russ focused increasingly on highly decorated firearms by the greatest European masters. Some of his prized arms, purchased mostly in the 1960s, include a magnificent sword combined with a wheellock pistol made about 1550 at the French court of Henry II, a wheellock musket of ca. 1600-1610 with elaborately ornamented barrel, lock, and mounts by the famed iron-chiseler Emanuel Sadeler of Munich, a pair of flintlock pistols with stocks of carved ivory and wood by the German Baroque sculptor Johann Michael Maucher of Schwäbisch-Gmünd, and an exceptionally rare pair of Russian flintlock revolvers made at Tula about 1790 for a member of the imperial family. His last major purchase, at Christie's in 1975, of an exquisite pair of gilt and enamel-inlaid Scottish flintlock pistols made about 1780 by Murdoch of Doune reflects not only his passion for richly decorated arms but also his lifelong fascination with all things Scottish. The fact that the pistols had been presented to Jeffrey, Baron Amherst, a leading British officer during the French and Indian War in North America, certainly clinched the purchase.
Russ was equally enamored with French military history and art in the age of Napoleon. He avidly collected uniforms, weapons, and documents of this period, which on several occasions were included in museum exhibitions, notably "Napoleon in Rhode Island" at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art and "The Arts under Napoleon" at the Metropolitan Museum, both in 1978. He particularly prized among his Napoleonic material the firearms by Nicholas Noël Boutet, Directeur-Artiste of the national arms factory at Versailles, and the sword of Joachim Murat, King of Naples, which was made in the Naples Royal Manufactory around 1810.
As a journalist, a career begun at the age of 12, Russ contributed over three hundreed articles to Field & Stream, Argosy, True, Sports Illustrated, Sports Afield, Natural History and Fishing. His book Great Game Animals of the World, published by Macmillan in 1969 and translated into three languages, was a bestseller. Among his articles are two focusing on his own collection of antique arms, "The Investment You Can Hang on the Wall" and "Six Shooters B.C. (Before Colt)", both published in True (September 1963 and January 1967), and one relating his experiences as a wartime gunnery teacher ("The Shotgun Went to War", Field & Stream, July 1947).
Russ and Annie Laurie's shared interests in the decorative arts and antique arms is reflected in their long and dedicated association with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Annie Laurie served on the advisory panel (or "Visiting Committee") of the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts and for more than thirty years Russ served on the same committee for the Department of Arms and Armor. After Annie Laurie's death in 1984, Russ, through the Annie Laurie Aitken Charitable Lead Trust, saw to the endowment of the galleries of English Decorative Arts and, for his favorite department, the galleries of European firearms and edged weapons that now bear his name.
The items contained in this sale catalogue are only part of a very significant collection that was enthusiastically put together by Russell Aitken at the highest level. The collection is now ably curated - and occasionally augmented - by his widow, Irene Roosevelt Aitken. Happily, Mrs. Aitken maintains the family tradition of support for the Metropolitan Museum through her participation on the Visiting Committees of the Departments of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts and Arms and Armor.
Stuart W. Pyhrr
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Curator in Charge
Department of Arms and Armor
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York