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Crowns & Confidences, continued...

Walter Cohen is sitting in his office in Center City Philadelphia, wearing one of those baby-blue smocks that dentists use to shield their shirts from spray and spittle. On a wall facing his desk hangs a framed copy of "Flowers in a Crystal Vase," its colors slightly brighter than the original’s. Cohen, the chancellor emeritus of Medical College of Pennsylvania-Hahnemann University, still keeps up his periodontal practice, and is kind enough to squeeze in an interview about Evans between patients.
   
Back in the late 1940s, when he was a student at Penn’s dental school, the Evans Museum was open once a year, on Alumni Day. He still remembers visiting it as a junior and seeing "this beautiful writing table" that the czar of Russia had given to Evans, inlaid with photographs of Nicholas, Alexandra and their children. The whole museum, for that matter, was filled with the extravagant mementos of Evans’ life: paintings and jewelry and medals and tea services and snuffboxes—even Evans’ carriage.

Manet's "Still Life with Brioche," purchased by Evans in 1880, turned up in a North Philadelphia warehouse in the 1970s. The artist had originally painted a plum or apricot in the lower left-hand corner.

    But in the late 1950s, under the late Dean Lester W. Burket C’29, the school needed space for classrooms, and the museum was turned into the admissions emergency clinic. Its contents were cleared out. Some things went to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington; some were put in storage warehouses. Others ended up in dumpsters.
    "When they cleared out the museum, things were thrown in the trash that people picked up," says Cohen. "Faculty members told me that sketches, the death mask of Verdi, I think—things that were significant were just tossed out. That was traumatic. I’m glad I wasn’t part of that."
    But Cohen could not forget that table. When he became dean in 1972, he and a curator from the Philadelphia Museum of Art drove up to a warehouse in North Philadelphia, where the remains of the Evans collection were stored. They finally found the czar’s gift, which was badly warped.
    Then, says Cohen: "I saw this lovely painting of a flower in a brioche, and it was signed ‘Manet.’ And I said, ‘Look at this!’"
    The curator reminded him that some of the paintings in the Evans collection were not considered authentic, and Cohen acknowledged the possibility that the "Manet" was among them. But he liked it, so he took it back and hung it in his office, where it remained for several years, along with another "fake" Manet they had found, a lithograph titled "Polichinelle."
    The school, he decided, should take a detailed inventory of what remained of the Evans collection, with the idea of selling off its contents to form an endowment. (At that time, such decisions were in the hands of individual deans; now there is a centralized University policy for dealing with art.) They called in Christie’s, the auction house, whose consultants went through the collection.
    "When they came to my office, they said, ‘What’s this?’" he recalls. "I said, ‘It’s signed "Manet," but I’ve been told it’s a fake.’" Christie’s agreed, and valued it at $400.
    In 1979, Dr. Paul Todd Makler M’43 GM’53, now curator of the University’s art collection, became a special assistant to President Martin Meyerson Hon’70 and recommended that an inventory of Penn’s entire art collection be taken. One of his first stops was the dental school, where he saw the painting of the brioche hanging behind a secretary’s desk. "I didn’t think it should sit there," he says, "so I took it off the wall and brought it back on the trolley car to my home and said to my wife, ‘Look! We have a Manet!’ And then we started to look into the matter."
    Makler took it first to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose curator of French Impressionism did not think it authentic. Makler, unconvinced, then called an old friend: Anne Coffin Hanson, professor of art history at Yale University and author of Manet and the Modern Tradition. The painting "looked good" to her, recalls Makler, whereupon she went back and read the 1897 notaire’s list of Evans’ possessions when he died, and discovered that the dentist had indeed owned a number of paintings by Manet. One was an oil of a brioche, which Manet had mentioned in his expense book ("Evans, 1880, brioche … 500 [francs]"). Another was the lithograph of Polichinelle, "with the autograph signature of the artist." Another was a "marine view." Then there was one of flowers in a crystal vase—which, after another search of that North Philadelphia warehouse, was found, unframed, in a box of miscellaneous items. It was inscribed, "a mon ami le Dr Evans, Manet." Hanson would later write up the story in an article for Art in America titled "A Tale of Two Manets."
    By then, a sympathetic judge had agreed to let the school "de-accession" its collection, and in 1983 the "Still Life with Brioche" and "Flowers in a Crystal Vase" were auctioned off for $2.1 million. "Brioche" now hangs in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh; "Flowers" is at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The "Polichinelle" lithograph went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
    But the third oil painting by Manet, the "marine view" ("Beach, Low Tide") that had hung in Evans’ operating office in Paris, was unaccounted for—until Cohen mentioned it to one of his dental patients: the late Violette DeMazia, curator of the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pa. She knew exactly where it was: in the Rockefeller collection in New York. The lawyer who settled Evans’ estate, she said, took it in lieu of a fee.

When Charles C. Harrison C1862, provost of the University, sailed to France in June 1897, he intended to talk to Evans about a possible legacy. That impending visit, notes Milton Asbell in his history of the dental school, was a "stimulus" to Evans, who reacted by "setting down in black and white very definite plans concerning the distribution of his wealth."
    But Harrison and Evans never got to have that talk. Agnes Evans died shortly before Harrison arrived, whereupon he learned that Evans had just sailed for America, intending to bury her in Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia. Harrison promptly headed back to the United States, but he missed him on this side of the Atlantic, too. (According to Carson, Evans did have a "congenial meeting" with Harrison’s predecessor, Dr. William Pepper C1862 M1864, since Evans was then trying to convince French universities to recognize American college degrees.) And in November—almost exactly half a century after arriving in France—Evans died suddenly of angina pectoris at Bella Rosa.
    He was buried in the mausoleum he had built for his family in Woodlands Cemetery, which is marked by a 150-foot, Washington Monument-like monolith that cost upwards of $100,000 in 1897 dollars. It still casts the longest shadow in the neighborhood.

Tom and Agnes Evans had no children. The closest he came to a dental heir was a former playmate of Lou-Lou’s at the Tuileries named Arthur C. Hugenschmidt D1885—who, at Evans’ urging, attended Penn’s new School of Dentistry, then gradually took over Evans’ practice, which he carried on, with considerable flair, for half a century. Evans had less luck with his nephew John Henry Evans, whom he had brought from Philadelphia to work as an apprentice in his office. The younger Evans so infuriated his Uncle Tom with his pretensions to nobility (and for swiping some of his patients and using the famous name Evans on a line of dental products) that the elder Evans tried—unsuccessfully—to have him deported. He also pointedly cut him out of his will, "for reasons as well known to the said John Henry Evans as to me."
   
Many thought that Evans would leave his fortune—some $5 million in 1897 dollars—to the city of Paris, or for a museum there that would display his art collection and royal gifts. But when the will was opened, it provided for a museum and a dental school—"not inferior to any already established"—on his family’s property at 40th and Spruce streets in Philadelphia.

Evans in 1888, posing with Mery Laurent's dog while on holiday at Royat. Laurent and Mallarme were there, too.

    Evans’ relatives—16 of them, led by the said John Henry Evans—tried to overturn the will, on the grounds that he had left the money to the Thomas W. Evans Museum and Dental Institute, which did not actually exist at the time of his death. Years of legal wrangling followed. So did millions of dollars—not to mention a Manet—in lawyers’ fees. By the time the dust settled, the Philadelphia-based Thomas W. Evans Museum and Dental Institute Society was left with about $1.75 million—a goodly sum in those days, but not enough to build and staff the kind of facility Evans had envisioned. The University had a keen interest in the outcome, but since it could not afford to look too interested, Harrison advised Dr. Edward C. Kirk, dean of the dental school, to "leave it severely alone."
    Finally, in 1912, a compromise was announced: the new institution would be called the "Thomas W. Evans Museum and Dental Institute School of Dentistry University of Pennsylvania," and its board would be made up of trustees of both organizations. In May, 1913, the cornerstone for the handsome collegiate Gothic building was laid, amid much hoopla and praise for Evans. Among the well-wishers was the former Empress Eugénie, then 87 years old, who sent a letter congratulating Kirk on the "realization of the generous idea" of her late friend and protector.
   
"I am reminded of his sincerity," she wrote, "the proof of which he gave me in the darkest hours of my life."

Evans’ life inspired several books, many magazine and newspaper articles, and a number of doctoral theses, including Anthony Branch’s unpublished "Dr. Thomas W. Evans: American Dentist in Paris 1847-1897," a copy of which is in the dental school’s library. But his story is one for the movies, really, and when Walter Cohen was dean of the dental school, he went so far as to pitch the film rights to "Masterpiece Theatre" and a few Hollywood producers. There was some interest, he recalls, but there was also one small catch.
   
The character of Evans, he was told, could not be a dentist.

 

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