It’s a good story, worthy of a movie maybe, but Heidi Pribell still was taken aback by the response she got when she told it at the Harvard Club the other night.
“I received a standing ovation,” said the well-known Boston interior designer.
The tale begins back in 1999 when one of her clients was considering buying a condo at the corner of Beacon and Joy streets and asked Pribell to take a look at the place. In the basement, she found several original mantels that had been removed and were about to be hauled off to a salvage company.
“Most were wood, but I saw one marble mantelpiece across the room and my heart started racing,” says Pribell, who graduated from Harvard and worked for many years as an antiques dealer. “I recognized it as something exquisite — a diamond in the rough — and I advised the client to have it included in the purchase and sale agreement.”
Fast forward to 2011. The client was selling the unit and asked Pribell if she was interested in the mantel. It wouldn’t come cheap, they said. She hesitated because the resale market for a meticulously sculpted caryatid mantle is iffy — and the thing is heavy.
“But I just felt it was a rapturously beautiful item so I took the risk,” she said.
Only then, when she was personally invested in the item, did Pribell look into its provenance, researching at the Boston Athenaeum and the Boston Public Library. She discovered it was commissioned in 1805 and carved in Tuscany. She won’t reveal the designer’s name, but says he was a friend of Thomas Jefferson’s and examples of his work can be found at Monticello and the University of Virginia.
What to do with an old mantel? She thought about a private sale, but rejected the idea.
“It just seemed unfair for some elitist industrialist billionaire to possess it,” she said. “I want everyone to know about it.”
Enter Tom Michie, the Russell B. and Andrée Beauchamp Stearns Senior Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts. He and Pribell have known each other for a while, and he thought the mantel would fit neatly in the museum’s collection.
So that’s where it resides now. No one will say what the MFA paid for the piece, but Pribell donated a portion of it so her name will be on it when it’s finally exhibited next spring. (It’s currently being restored.)
“I’m thrilled,” she said. “I’m so glad it was saved.”