Locating Rose H. Lorenz in the Frick Archives

Newspaper clipping showing a seated woman surrounded by books and drawings of frames and paintbrushes
“Rose Lorenz, Greatest Woman Athority [sic] In The World of Art.” From The Sunday Oregonian, October 5, 1913. Courtesy of the University of Oregon Libraries

The Frick Collection and Frick Art Reference Library Archives contain the stories of countless individuals, institutions, and events that are significant to the history of art and art collecting. These include scores of lesser-known figures, many of whom interacted with the Frick, whose fascinating histories await discovery. One such figure is Rose H. Lorenz (1863–1934), a gallery and auction house professional in the early twentieth century, who gained expertise in her field and built a career that defied the era’s expectations of women.

Despite Lorenz’s relative anonymity nearly a century after her death, new findings show how she left her mark in all three collecting areas of the Archives: the history of the museum and library, the Frick Family Papers, and a growing collection of manuscripts from art collectors, dealers, artists, and scholars.

Handwritten letter on American Art Association letterhead
Letter (transcribed below) from Rose H. Lorenz to Henry Clay Frick, February 5, 1915. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

Rose H. Lorenz’s name surfaced during recent research by my colleague Julie Ludwig, Archivist, into the art collecting of Henry Clay Frick, with whom Lorenz corresponded on numerous occasions. On company letterhead and in newspaper articles, she is described as the secretary of the American Art Association (AAA), an influential New York City art gallery and auction house in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

However, it is clear from documentation that this title obscures her essential role and wide range of responsibilities at the AAA. Beginning her career as a “catalogue girl” in the 1870s, she would go on to design exhibitions, liaise with prospective collectors, appraise and authenticate works of art, and act as an auction agent for clients. After his retirement, the founder of the AAA, Thomas E. Kirby, employed Lorenz to help him write his memoirs, whose drafts reveal the scope of her influence: One excerpt describes her as a “lieutenant” of Kirby, alongside a list of only three other staff members, all men.

Much of the existing documentation about Lorenz is found in the AAA’s records, the bulk of which are held in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. A small subset was donated in 1956 to the Frick Art Reference Library, whose American Art Association Records are available to the public for consultation. Lorenz appears throughout these records as a correspondent, as the subject of letters, and in newspaper articles about AAA auction sales, the opening of a new gallery space, and Kirby’s retirement. Her work is praised by both Kirby and clients alike, with one calling her exhibition design choice “an inspiration.”

Sale receipt on American Art Association letterhead
Receipt (transcribed below) from Rose H. Lorenz to Henry Clay Frick, February 4, 1915, for her services as an auction agent at the sale of the Ichabod T. Williams Collection. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

The Frick Family Papers also contain several letters between Lorenz and Henry Clay Frick. Following his purchase of several Indian, Persian, and Arabian rugs at an AAA auction in 1906, the receipt for which appears to be in Lorenz’s handwriting, Lorenz wrote to Frick in 1915 about an upcoming sale of tapestries and laces that, she stated, “would I think be in keeping with your other works of art.” Though Frick declined to acquire these items, Lorenz reported just a few weeks later (see letter above) that she successfully purchased two paintings as an auction agent for Frick (Romany Girl by George Fuller and Tiller of the Soil by Jacob Maris, both of which are now in the collection of The Frick Pittsburgh). After the payment was settled for these paintings, Lorenz wrote to Frick, “It is always a great pleasure for me to serve you and other friends, who permit me to draw their attention to what I earnestly believe they should buy, and who have confidence in my judgment.”

Within the Frick Art Reference Library’s central correspondence files, two letters between the AAA and the library addressed directly to Lorenz, and others alluding to her work, help suggest that she operated with some degree of independence at the gallery. Additional records document a visit by Lorenz to the Frick’s galleries (prior to the museum’s public opening in 1935), after which she sent a letter to Helen Clay Frick, Mr. Frick’s daughter and the library’s founder, recommending repairs to three Anthony van Dyck paintings, including Ottaviano Canevari and Genoese Noblewoman. Reference worker Daphne M. Hoffman followed up on this request with Helen, describing Lorenz as someone “well known to you” and “a sort of dealer.”

Several contemporaneous newspaper articles profile Lorenz, noting her success in the male-dominated art world of the early twentieth century. Some describe her as an expert on Chinese art, a specialty of the AAA, while others praise her skill in arranging works of art for sale. Still others mention her compensation, which the New York Tribune reported in 1916 (see below) as $20,000 to $25,000 per year—astonishing earnings for an art professional of any gender at the time, amounting to over $500,000 in today’s money.

Newspaper clipping of a woman seated at a desk in front of large bookshelves
Detail of a blurb on Rose H. Lorenz from a spread in the New York Tribune on women professionals who make $10,000 or more per year, December 17, 1916. The caption reads: “Miss Rose Lorenz began her career as catalogue girl in an art gallery. Today she’s an art specialist, and can tell at a glance the value of this or that work of a master of any period. Her opinion is constantly sought by buyers and sellers. She earns between $20,000 and $25,000 a year.” The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

Even so, a New York Times article from 1914 titled “Woman’s Good Taste Her Stock In Trade,” also held in the library’s AAA records, amply describes Lorenz’s expertise and its impact on the gallery’s success, describing her as “a genius in this kind of work”—all without ever mentioning her name. She is recognizable only by cross-referencing other documents, and in the past, anyone searching for her name would never have discovered the laudatory article.

As such, dedicated research is often required to uncover the stories of compelling individuals like Lorenz, in order to overcome historical biases as well as the nature of archival description, which generally focuses on contextualizing a body of records rather than cataloging individual objects or people. In processing the AAA records gifted to the library, my colleague Susan Chore, Archives Lead, took the first step in correcting for this type of omission by adding Lorenz to the list of names in the collection’s finding aid. It is hopeful that these discoveries generate further findings from similar records held at other art libraries.

To make the rich evidence of Lorenz’s life and work accessible to other institutions and to researchers far and wide, I have created a new Wikidata entry for Rose H. Lorenz. The entry digitally links information about her from the Frick Archives and several other sources, and it can be cited and added to as more information about her comes to light. Research and tools like these help ensure that the accomplishments of Rose H. Lorenz—just one of the captivating figures represented in the Frick Archives—are not forgotten.

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