Visual Arts

In Miami, money really did grow on trees

Harry Bertoia first created “Money Trees” for the First National Bank of Miami lobby designed by Florence Knoll Bassett. Several of the trees appeared for sale at the 2015 edition of Design Miami/ in Basel, Switzerland, at the Moderne Gallery.
Harry Bertoia first created “Money Trees” for the First National Bank of Miami lobby designed by Florence Knoll Bassett. Several of the trees appeared for sale at the 2015 edition of Design Miami/ in Basel, Switzerland, at the Moderne Gallery. Courtesy of Moderne Gallery

In the late 1950s, a phalanx of 12-foot-tall Money Trees greeted visitors to Biscayne Boulevard’s First National Bank of Miami, their shiny brass “leaves” a luminous homage to prosperity. The forest commissioned by modernist architect and designer Florence Knoll, was created as a 20-foot-long room screen dividing the bank lobby from the teller line.

First National became Southeast Bank. It too is gone, but its Money Trees went on to live a storied life. How apt that they would surface last month in Switzerland, a nation known for its banking.

Three of the Money Tree sculptures were showcased in Basel from June 15 to 22 at Design Miami/. Billed as “the global forum for design,” Design Miami/ is a sister fair to the original Art Basel contemporary art fair and its Miami Beach sibling. The Harry Bertoia sculptures served as the focal point of an exhibit by Moderne Gallery of Philadelphia and New York.

“We wanted to make a splash,” says Moderne founder and director Robert Aibel, who for the past four years has exhibited at Design Miami/’s Miami Beach fair. In this, his first foray into Switzerland, he wanted to be sure he made an impression. “If [the Money Trees] don’t do it, I don’t know what will — because they are so dramatic and people are so fascinated by them.”

The Money Trees arrival in Basel on the 100-year anniversary of Bertoia’s birth followed a decades-long circuitous journey that crisscrossed the United States from north to south, east to west and back again. Along the way, the Money Trees appeared to spread good fortune to those involved with them. (Case in point, Florence Knoll, who was widowed at the time, met and married First National Bank President Harry Hood Bassett while working on the project; he later became chairman of successor bank Southeast.)

By the time then First National opened in 1959, Bertoia had already established himself as a painter, sculptor and furniture designer. Born in Italy in 1915, Bertoia left a legacy that includes “sonambient” sculptures made of metal rods that resonate like Gregorian chants when moved by the wind or human hands, as well as signature works for the Knoll furniture company including the “Diamond Chair” and the “Bertoia Bench.” Knoll and Bertoia had been contemporaries at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan; when she hired him in 1950, Florence Knoll Bassett, as she was then known, gave him free range.

“He had designed no furniture up until that point,” says Fred J. Tharpe, former project manager for Southeast Bank. “But Knoll gave him creative license to do what he wanted to do. As Bertoia put it, his furniture designs were mostly air, because they were very open. They were wire sculptures. They were more air than they were substance.”

Moderne’s Aibel described how Bertoia’s sculptures played a key role in helping the bank establish its corporate identity.

“They dominated the bank in many ways,” Aibel says. “They dominated the visual appeal of the bank. The mid-’50s was a time when people were getting really serious about designing corporate headquarters. … It was sort of the Mad Men approach where a corporate office takes on design as a feature to enhance their image. Whereas, prior to the ’20s and ’30s, design was more a part of residential living than it was corporate. That really took off in the ’50s.”

What Knoll Bassett designed for the bank lobby could well have served as a set for Mad Men, complete with black leather Barcelona chairs and teak walls.

In addition to the Money Trees, Knoll Bassett turned the lobby ceiling into a triumphant statement. Because the bank building afforded little outside light, Knoll Bassett created a ceiling that resembled a giant skylight by creating pyramid-shaped light boxes with florescent lights above them. The illuminated ceiling was anchored on one end of the lobby by five Money Trees and on the other end by another stand of trees, which appeared as if they were growing out of the bank floor.

“The base was bolted to the concrete slab and the stone floor covered it,” Tharpe says. “So all you had was the vertical trunk that came up out of the floor.” When the bank decided to sell the sculptures to a New York art gallery rather than relocate them in their new location, moving them required Herculean effort. “When we took them out to ship them to the Staempfli Gallery, we had to take out four squares of marble and unbolt them from the slab,” Tharpe explains.

Victor Elmaleh, a University of Virginia-trained architect who had a knack for real estate development and an affection for art, purchased the Money Trees soon afterward and shipped them to his design store in Los Angeles. In 2000, he shipped them back east as a donation to his alma mater, where they remained in storage until 2012. That’s when the School of Architecture found a suitable indoor location for six of the Money Trees. But the school lacked the space to adequately display all 10. Kim Tanzer, who was then dean of UVA’s School of Architecture, oversaw their installation at the school’s newly expanded Campbell Hall.

Around the same time, Tanzer says, she was looking for ways to finance the school’s first doctoral program. She asked Elmaleh and his wife, the former ballerina Sono Osato Elmaleh, for permission to sell the sculptures for that purpose.

“They were very sweet,” Tanzer says. “Their intention was to make the most of them in whatever way we wanted to. I think if we could have kept them in perpetuity that would have been great.”

But even selling them wasn’t straightforward. Because none of the sculptures was signed, the university needed to establish that Harry Bertoia created them. Unfortunately, the artist had died in 1978. However, his son Val, who was a young boy when Knoll commissioned the work, remembered them well and authenticated the Money Trees.

“As a boy I was so amazed at the reflective qualities because at the time these were brand new — they were so shiny, so glittery that I always have that memory in my mind,” Val Bertoia says. “He was so inspired by the reflecting surfaces, even in nature, with wet leaves with the sunlight. He started making these in the studio, melting either brass or nickel onto steel plates. The idea was to pick up the beautiful luster and the reflective qualities.”

The university’s next challenge was to establish their value and determine how best to sell them. Tanzer sought guidance from another UVA alumnus, Nicholas Acquavella, whose family owns the New York-based Acquavella Galleries. Acquavella discussed a possible sale with Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Ultimately UVA issued a request for proposals to sell all 10 sculptures, and Sotheby’s won the bid. Sotheby’s New York organized an auction of Bertoia’s works with the Money Trees as the main draw.

Sotheby’s estimated the individual sculptures would sell for $150,000 to $200,000. Unfortunately, they failed to meet that price at the June 11, 2014, auction. As Sotheby’s continued looking for a buyer, Tanzer’s time as dean was winding down.

“Sotheby’s ultimately sold them on my last day as dean, which was June 30, 2014,” says Tanzer, netting the university $1,050,000. That provided the seed money to launch the school’s doctoral program.

The Moderne Gallery paid $1.2 million for the set of 10 and now lists them at $295,000 each, says gallery owner Aibel. The gallery since sold one at auction and has nine more available.

According to Aibel, the sculptures can be placed indoors and out, in a home or at the office.

“We’ve had a lot of interest and every single [inquiry] has been residential,” Aibel says.

The buyer just needs to ensure the ceilings are high enough, he says, explaining, “I had someone who wanted to buy them the other day; depressingly, [the trees] were three inches too tall.” Maybe the would-be buyers could take a page out of Florence Knoll Bassett’s book and bury the sculpture base below the floor.