Assessing the Kress Collection

An archetype for the self-made man, Samuel H. Kress was the son of a humble retail merchant who went from working in a stone quarry to building a business empire and becoming one of our country’s greatest fine art philanthropists.

In 1887, Kress opened the first location of his “Kress Five and Dime” chain of stores in Pennsylvania. By the 1920s, Kress’ entrepreneurial success afforded him a penthouse on Fifth Avenue across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. As active as Kress was as an entrepreneur, he was equally as active in collecting European masterpieces and promoting art-related philanthropy in America. Before his death in 1955, Kress had donated a large portion of his collection to museums across the country.

These donations helped to establish the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. as well as smaller local museums that otherwise would not have been able to afford Old Masters for their galleries. Kress’ collection focuses on European art from the 13th to 19th centuries, with a who’s who list of names you’re likely familiar with, including Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck, Bosch and Dürer.

While the S. H. Kress & Co. did operate a store in Columbia, South Carolina, Kress’ biggest impression on the state’s capital was made through his 1954 donation of 78 Renaissance and Baroque pieces to the Columbia Museum of Art, which was designated as a regional center by the Kress Foundation.


Though some of these works, including a Botticelli, are on display, a number of the pieces are currently stored in the CMA’s less traversed quarters, in a secure room below the main gallery floors. To further support the original goal of introducing European art to the public set forth by the Kress Foundation, the Columbia Museum of Art will loan out pieces from their portion of the collection to other institutions and museum in a traveling exhibition. The exhibition is funded by a grant the CMA secured through the Kress Foundation.


Before the selected works could be deemed fit for travel, the CMA contacted Carolina Conservation to perform the condition assessments. Through an on-site evaluation with CMA curators and registrars, Carolina Conservation’s Lead Paintings Conservator Jennifer Bullock worked to outline the overall condition of each piece, one dating as early as 1290, included in the proposed exhibition. Through creation of these condition reports, Bullock helped the museum staff to determine the risk factors for each piece, noting any issues such as flaking paint, loose panel supports and unstable frames that may need to be addressed before crating and shipping of the collection.


Understanding that a collection will be going out on loan and will be subsequently packed, unpacked, repacked and shipped multiple times, requires an in-depth examination of conditional issues that may worsen during the frequent handling and shipping. While stable enough for storage in a museum vault, the collection will require some preventative conservation prior to the level of handling and manipulation required for a traveling exhibition.


During the on-site evaluation, Bullock was able to educate the CMA’s curators, registrars and preparators about the specific reasons each piece would or would not be suited to travel in its current state. This discussion combined with detailed condition reports better prepares museum staff to make decisions about their interventive and preventative conservation options and helps to mitigate concerns over loaning out such an important collection.

The assessment concluded that the majority of the pieces were safe to travel to different museums and institutions throughout the country, though there were nine frames deemed high-risk for travel due to structural issues. In these cases, treatment recommendations were made to outline the work necessary to address the potential risks in handling frames with structural and superficial damage. These treatments will be carried out prior to the exhibition hitting the road early 2020.


If you are a small museum or institution in need of on-site collection assessment, we are happy to offer our services. Call us at 803-781-1515 for more information or to set up an appointment.