Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Print Dealer's World of Robert Fridenberg

 

Park Avenue Hotel, late nineteenth century

There he was at the reunion dinner of 1914, standing in a ballroom at the Park Avenue Hotel, rubbing shoulders with the other men who had dropped out of the City College class of 1880.

You could hardly blame him for shrugging off the degree. By 1914 Robert Fridenberg had risen to the top echelon of print dealers in New York City. A fixture at art auctions who routinely carried off prize engravings, he had one year earlier purchased The Burgis View, a 1717 mint condition print of the New York City skyline seen across the harbor from Brooklyn.

Triumphantly, Robert sold Burgis to an anonymous collector for the ungodly sum of $20,000, about eight times the price previously paid for any print of New York City. Within a few years the collector’s identity would be revealed, but for now Robert reveled in the speculation surrounding “the greatest find of a rare print in a century,” he told the New York Times.

 Partial screenshot of newspaper story about Burgis View

Robert had traveled a ways since 1880 when he abandoned formal education. Living on West Fifty-Second Street with his widowed mother and seven younger brothers and sisters, he had decided to get out of New York. His older brother Albert, a physician and head of the household, may have tried to persuade him not to move out west. Robert went anyway.

He shows up in Arizona Territory in 1882, one year after the Southern Pacific Transportation Company linked Tucson to a transcontinental railroad. His trade is not listed in the Graham County census. Perhaps he is part of a wave of Jewish settlers who are populating Tucson and Tombstone. Perhaps he has decided to become a Mormon.

Neither was the case. Rather, Robert had joined several thousand men from all over the world, from China and Russia, England, Ireland, Mexico, and Germany, hoping to make a fortune in the territory’s Copper Mountain Mining District. The miners, largely under the age of 40, lived in shacks in Clifton, Pima, Oro and surrounding southeastern towns. 

 Copper Mountain, Arizona, nineteenth century

They labored at the top of a canyon whose high cliffs were cut by the switchback San Francisco River. The ore was loaded onto wagons pulled by mules or cable cars that maneuvered down steep inclines well over 1,000 feet long. Once at the river’s edge, the ore was transported to refineries via baby-gauge railway. 


R. Fridenburg (misspelled), 1882 census

Robert lasted a few years. Despite the vagaries of the copper market, he may have returned to New York City with a pile of money. He certainly returned to a new profession.

By 1886 Robert was the proprietor of a small art shop on Forty-Second Street where – unlike most dealers who specialized in works by European artists such as Daumier – he sold engravings of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Soon he moved on to Currier & Ives prints, purchasing them for $1 and selling them for $2. 

Robert may have anticipated that wealthy collectors would eventually find American art and furnishings worthy of display in their homes. The trend began during the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia. By 1890, there were historic preservation societies, a steady stream of patriotic commemorations, and fierce competition for Americana.

***

Robert’s parents, Henry and Bertha Fridenberg, were German Jewish immigrants who arrived in New York City during the 1850s when Nathaniel Currier and James Ives first set forth to capture old New York.

He was born on leap day, 1860, and grew up on the Lower East Side where his father worked first as a pawnbroker and then as manager of a public bath. Robert once recalled fishing in the swamps along the banks of the East River.

In 1890 he married Miriam Heynman Barnett of Philadelphia and they became parents of Robert Jr. and Paul. Mysteriously, both sons changed their surnames to “Perez” when the US entered World War I. Perez is a common name among Sephardic Jews. Robert Perez became a physician and Paul Perez started as a newspaper reporter and became a screenwriter of English and Spanish language films.

By the time Robert Fridenberg died in 1946, his hair was completely white and he sported a big white mustache and gold rimmed spectacles. He claimed to possess two million prints and engravings that filled three floors and the basement of 22 West Fifty-Sixth Street.

22 West Fifty-Sixth, left storefront, 1940
(City of New York Municipal Archives)

I don’t want to believe that Robert valued the prints exclusively for the profit, notwithstanding his evident delight with the newspaper coverage of each winning bid.

Surely he possessed a genuine affinity with the images of early American life and the landscapes and streetscapes of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century New York. Did he wish he could have steered that cart full of crates and barrels down that Broadway? Mailed a letter at that post office? Escorted that woman into the Crystal Palace?

No print in the world can reveal that information.

 

http://www.throughthehourglass.com/

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