When browsing the glass cases at a jewelry store, if you ask to see something a little different, there’s a good chance the salesperson will lean over and say in a low, conspiratorial tone: Let me show you something special.
“People come in looking for something for Christmas, and we say to them: ‘Would you like to see something from history that you don’t get to see every day?’” said Bob Strehlau, owner of Bove Jewelers in Kennett Square. “Their eyebrows go up, and they say, ‘Absolutely!’”
Hanging on the wall behind the glass cases, and on display pedestals on the showroom floor, are 48 pieces of art by Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Edgar Degas, Salvador Dalí, Georges Seurat, and other masters. In a discrete corner of the showroom is a framed American Express credit card that has been manipulated by the elusive street artist Banksy.
These are all originals, either one-of-a-kind paintings and drawings or prints hand-signed by the artist. Collectively priced at more than $10 million, the pieces were loaned by longtime customers of Bove for a brief, pop-up art exhibition inside the jewelry store.
“It was easier than you would think,” said Matt Strehlau, who works with his brother in the store. “These are good clients of ours. We have their trust already. They thought it was a great idea.”
The idea, hatched by the Strehlau Brothers, was to generate some excitement on Kennett Square’s State Street commercial corridor, where Bove has been since 1929. Over the last 91 years, it has been through four owners. Bob Strehlau acquired it in 2016 after the previous owners closed down the deeply indebted business.
Strehlau said he had to shutter the business for 90 days at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. He now has all his employees back to work, but customer visits are by appointment only. There is no more idle browsing, which used to bring foot traffic into the store.
“We started brainstorming what can we do for fun, without charging anyone, just to have people have a great night out during the pandemic,” said Strehlau.
The van Gogh is a brown India ink drawing of a landscape with a tree, rendered in the artist’s unmistakable marks, staccato jabs of monochrome ochre color. The provenance of the work, proving its authenticity, is filed behind the frame.
There is a price tag: $4,850,000.
“I’m not here to sell it. I’m here to showcase it,” said Strehlau. “But the people that own these, if someone is interested who will appreciate it, they will be happy to name a price.”
Strehlau said all 48 pieces were loaned by three private art collectors in the Kennett Square region. They are not identified, for security reasons.
One of the contributing art collectors, who preferred not to be named, has been a customer of Bove for 45 years.
“When the guys at Bove Jewelers called me and told their idea, I was on board. I just wish I had thought of it first,” the collector wrote in an email. “I have lent some of my favorites to be seen by people who would’ve never seen my private collection before, and now they can view them and maybe put a smile on their faces in a crazy time of our lives.”
The show is riddled with pieces by Picasso, including small cubist drawings in ink and a bearded self-portrait. A 1965 ink drawing by Dalí features a nude woman holding a globe of the earth on a scepter, with the note “Pour Jean.” Nearby is a Dalí self-portrait with a red lobster on his head.
In one corner, near the watch winder, is a Degas ballerina rendered in colored pastels. In the opposite corner, is Seurat’s colored charcoal drawing “Fisherman on the Banks of the Seine.” It’s a version of his oil painting of the same name that is at the Musée d’Art Moderne of Troyes, France. The unidentified owner suggested a price of $2,375,000.
Strehlau does not expect people to come in randomly off the street to see the borrowed artwork — visitors must call in advance to get in. But he hopes that people who come in to shop, or get small repairs like a new watch band or a ring resized, will pause for a few minutes to take in the unusual gallery, chat, and leave with a good feeling about State Street.
In a small way, Strehlau hopes his pop-up will help the bottom line of Kennett Square’s commercial corridor.
“This block-and-a-half of Kennett Square, in my eyes, is the most important part of Kennett Square,” he said. “We have hair stylists, a bakery, art galleries, jewelry stores, women’s boutiques, and restaurants — which are the toughest-hit. They are essential in my mind.”
The Christmas season is good for jewelers like Bove, but winter weather is bad for restaurants not permitted to host diners indoors. The surprising art exhibition may give them all a needed bump.
“I’m not an essential business, I can tell you that,” admitted Strehlau. “I’m lucky enough to be open when my fellow merchants and restaurants are having a tough time. What more can we do to have fun during a pandemic?”
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