Art of the Deal: One Museum's History of Merchandising

The Metropolitan Museum of Art was open for business even before it was officially open for art. In 1871, before ensconcing its collection the following year in a former dancing school in downtown New York, the museum was selling a portfolio of Old Master engravings for $25 a set.

One of the gift shop's all-time bestsellers is a pair of teardrop earrings based on Rubens's 1616 painting "Venus Before the Mirror." One faux pearl is white, the other black to indicate different facets of the goddess of love. The earrings became a rage in the mid-1980s, as fashion icons as diverse as ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev and Diana, Princess of Wales, were photographed wearing them. News stories reported people flying in from England with a commission to bring back dozens.

Yet selling personal adornments was not always embraced at the Met. During his tenure as director, Thomas Hoving proposed a line of clothing based on Costume Institute holdings, like an elegant, 1910 long duster.

He hired Marisa Berenson, descendant of the great art historian Bernard Berenson, to model the clothes in a catalog. "It scored unbelievably well in a test," Mr. Hoving said. He recalled ruefully how a trustee sniffed, "Don't you think it's a little downscale to get into the rag trade?" The project was scrapped.

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