The Legacy of Spain

Date February 28, 2006 at 11:00 PM

Categories Performing Arts


Like many New Mexicans, I have a love of Spanish, Mexican, and Southwest antiques.

A couple of pieces of early and mid-nineteenth century Spanish furniture, purchased from Ron Messick's Canyon Road gallery before his death, grace my home, as do an old Mexican chest I found in a dusty Mexican village near Zacatecas and a couple of small tables I bought at the Mexican Connection in Santa Fe. Yet I've been ignorant about the Spanish New World colonial heritage which forms so much of the design aesthetic of New Mexico and the Southwest. Although none of my pieces are Spanish colonial, that era forms the backdrop and context for understanding them.

So I set out on a voyage of learning from local experts, starting with Ray Dewey, co-owner of the Owings Dewey Fine Art galleries in Santa Fe. He's collected, bought, and sold Spanish Colonial art for thirty years, has been on museum boards, and has served as an expert for identifying and valuing pieces on the popular Antique Road Show.

He begins by defining Spanish Colonial: art, furniture, and objects made in the New World from 1521, when the Spanish conquered Mexico, until 1821, when Mexico achieved its independence. The designs of the New World originated in Spain and Portugal, incorporating both European and Moorish influences. The lively trade between Acapulco and Manila in the Philippines also introduced porcelain and other Chinese wares as well as indigenous Mexican crafts. Add to that other Europeans who came to the colonies, like Italian artists who went to Peru, and colonial arts and crafts took on a life of their own. Also, differences in available materials in the Spanish colonies quickly began to differentiate colonial products from their Old World counterparts.

"It's complex,"€ Dewey says. "There's furniture, textiles, ceramics. They evolved over the years. You had all this influx of merchants, bureaucrats, military, private citizens, business people. A lot of objects were brought in by trade."€ The best things were made for wealthy people. Later I learn from a docent at The Museum of Spanish Colonial Arts that the Spanish crown controlled trade in the colonies, forbidding the extraction of iron, for example, to protect mining interests at home. Iron became so expensive that a broken latch might be repaired in silver.

Pottery quickly became big business. The king authorized the manufacture of pottery in Puebla in the 1530's, probably after monks there sent for artists from Talavera de la Reina in Spain to teach the indigenous people how to make majolica ceramics. Talavera majolica, with its delicate Arabic-inspired blue-on-white designs, was fired with tin (rather than lead) glazes in Nueva España. In the 1600's Mexican artists began making more colorful designs, using greens, mauve, and yellow, like we see today. Real Mexican Talavera, Dewey emphasizes, only comes from Puebla. What we see from places like Guanajuato and Delores de Hidalgo duplicate the style but can't be called Talavera.

People transported some furniture from Spain to the colonies, but by and large craftsmen built things from scratch. Dewey tells me, "You could get dark walnut, hardwoods, in Spain. In Mexico you had to get other woods like mesquite and pine and sabino. It was different wood, and maybe they used different tools, so they had to work it differently. Look at an 1820 New Mexican trastero. It's very simple, whereas in Spain it would be detailed, carved. Here there wasn't the economy and market to support that. In Mexico City there was more wealth. As you got away from there designs got simpler, less elaborate."€

Dewey introduces me to Susan Tarman, an antique gallery owner who has come to browse his art gallery. A couple of days later she's showing me around her collection of pre-industrial revolution antiques, including a magnificent baroque walnut table from 1680 Spain. Price tag: $16,000, in line with what I find from other Southwest dealers.

In the 1980's, Tarman sold a lot of Spanish colonial silver. "It was going for breathtaking record prices at Christie's,"€ the famed auction house in New York, she recalls. "The market was so hot that huge South American concerns started faking Spanish colonial silver. It killed the market."€ She hasn't dealt in it since, although she shows me a couple of early 19th century silver candleholders with carved foliate designs. They're probably from the Territorial era, not colonial, but the style is about the same. New Colonial pieces are introduced by high end antique shows that come to Santa Fe, she says.

Dealers like Dewey and Tarman find pieces in private collections, perhaps from other dealers. Robin and Barbara Cleaver, on the other hand, live in Mexico over half the year, and have located great colonial work all over the country. "Our great joy is being out on the road,"€ Barbara says in a phone interview from the hotel they own and run in Puerto Escondido, and where you can stay in a suite with Colonial furniture. "It's always fun to have a quest. Robin will get on a plane and fly somewhere for one table."€ They sell their treasures to other dealers, a little on the Internet, and to a few private but knowledgeable collectors.

The combination of living in Mexico, immersion in the culture, expertise in and love for the objects, and the time to scour the countryside on innumerable car trips has given them access to things most of us couldn't get. She recalls driving into a little town out in the boonies of the state of Oaxaca. "The town owned a 17th century table. It wasn't being used. It had cobwebs. We told them it was worth a lot of money and that we'd pay them a lot. We're not interested in stealing, in getting pieces for nothing. After we left, the town council got together and voted on it. A year later we went back there and they remembered us. We bought it."€

The Cleavers befriended some people there, and the next time they returned, they had the pleasure of seeing that the town had used the money for maintenance and repairs, including fixing a gaping hole in the wall of a church resulting from an earthquake.

Still, most of what they acquire originates in private Mexican family collections, and here the Cleavers have an edge. Robin's family moved to Mexico in 1960 when he was in high school. Barbara calls him more culturally Mexican than American. Over time, he became one of Mexico's premier Colonial antiques dealers. "He gets some of the best material that comes through,"€ Barbara says. "Dealers who don't deal with foreigners are comfortable with him. He gets offered things first."€

Echoing what Ray Dewey told me, Robin says that there are fewer and fewer colonial antiques to find. One reason is that "the climate is tough on man-made things. They don't last long."€ They once found a colonial era table decomposing, but the owners decided to let it fall apart rather than sell it. "We buy less and less colonial art because there is less, and we won't touch anything that's questionable."€ Thieves rob churches, and the Cleavers won't buy a piece without an established provenance.

To see a wide variety of colonial era work I go to The Museum of Spanish Colonial Art on Santa Fe's Museum Hill. Finally I can put it all in context: the history and land, the beauty of the pieces, the comparison of Spanish and colonial furniture, paintings, and ceramics, traditions like straw appliqué (which looked like gold in church candlelight) that continue today. Greater appreciation of Colonial craftsmanship has developed along with my increased knowledge, and now I want to own a vaguely affordable colonial object-an 18th century silver cup or candleholder, say-to accompany the antiques I already have.

There are two locations for the Owings Dewey Gallery, 76 East San Francisco (505.982.6244) and 120 East Marcy (505.986.9088), both in Santa Fe.

You can view the current offerings of Robin Cleaver Colonial Antiques at The photographs shown here are from their collection.

The Tarman Gallery is located at 343 Wext Manhattan in Santa Fe. 505.983.2336.

The Museum of Spanish Colonial Art is on Museum Hill at 750 Lejo in Santa Fe. 505.820.2557.