Q&A with Mona Lee Nesseth

It takes a distinctive aesthetic, passion, and discipline to collect rare and beautiful objects. It takes a profoundly generous spirit to then pass that collection on so that more people can enjoy them. Mona Lee Nesseth, a Graduate Gemologist, custom jewelry designer, and antique and estate jewelry expert, made a truly graceful gift when she bestowed her exquisite collection of hand fans to the FIDM Museum & Galleries, which are now showcased in the current exhibition, A Graceful Gift: Fans From The Mona Lee Nesseth CollectionThe exhibition is open for one more month – make sure you catch it before it closes on July 2!

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Mona Lee Nesseth (left) with FIDM Museum Curator Kevin Jones (center) and Fashion Council Chair Mima Ransom (right).

Elizabeth Hinckley, editor of the FIDM Museum Newsletter, recently sat down with Mona to learn about her journey from enthusiast to collector, and the fan that started it all…

How did your fan obsession begin?

I have always been mesmerized by hand-held fans, both antique and contemporary. I am inspired by their beauty, their flirtatious function, and the enchanting stories that they can conjure.

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France, 1800-1805
Hand-painted parchment, gilt brass, turquoise & mother-of-pearl

What is it about this particular accessory that has smitten you?

I admire the refined combination of master artistry, history, fashion and function. Throughout history, fans have been utilitarian symbols of status, romance and sentimental tokens commemorating momentous personal and historical occasions, including weddings, mourning, and the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

I am enchanted by fans depicting mythical tales. I am captivated by fans that celebrate the mundane and by fans that are evocative romantic displays of everyday life, fantasy, even controversy. I am charmed by fans creating delicate patterns with lace. I am bedazzled by fans that sparkle with glistening spangles and gems. I am mystified by the intricate hand-crafted labyrinthine carvings and engravings found on the sticks and guards of the fans.

Given your love for these fans, why did you decide to donate them to the FIDM Museum?

It started with a single fan, the carved mother-of-pearl, lace and diamond signature Phébé hand fan, attributed to having once belonged to Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the mother of William Randolph Hearst. Many years ago, I ferreted the Phébé hand fan at a coin dealer’s dingy booth at an Antique and Estate Jewelry show. I hesitated momentarily, because I wasn’t sure that I wanted a fan that was uncommonly signed Phébé. However, the Phébé hand fan was truly magnificent and the diamond signature added intrinsic value, so I forgave the anomalous christening and acquired the Phébé hand fan.

I loaned this fan to the FIDM Museum for consideration in a retrospective exhibition of historic fashion and jewelry. Upon the return of Phébé to me, Curator Kevin Jones proclaimed that if I ever wanted to donate Phébé, the FIDM Museum would love to adopt her. I gracefully declined the FIDM Museum adoption/donation request and proceeded to privately admire and treasure my precious acquisition. Three years ago, Kevin gently admonished and reminded me to always handle Phébé with great care, because it was very fragile. I realized that the time had come to release, share and preserve Phébé so I phoned Kevin to offer my treasure to the FIDM Museum. Kevin joyfully accepted the donation and extemporaneously drove to my house to retrieve Phébé in case I had a change of heart.

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Félix Alexandre, Artist
Dumoret, Jeweler
France, c. 1875-85
Mother-of-pearl, point de gaze lace, gilded silver & diamonds

Subsequent to donating Phébé to the FIDM Museum, I missed her, so I searched the world for a replacement historic hand fan. I acquired a gorgeous Tiffany fan that featured a fantasy scene of goddesses and putti. When Tiffany arrived, I recognized that she was also very fragile and precious, so I called up Kevin and declared that Phébé was lonely, so I found her a companion.

At this point in time, I had an epiphany – I enjoyed the thrill of the hunt. I proceeded to scour the world of fans, in search of historic hand fans that tickled my fancy and were worthy of the FIDM Museum Collection. I did not want to donate fans that were not Museum quality, so I enlisted Kevin’s guidance, preferences, and "Wish List". Once I found fan candidates for the collection, I shared the photos, information, and condition reports with Kevin Jones. If Kevin approved of my selections, then I proceeded with the purchases and had the fans sent directly to the FIDM Museum (so I wouldn’t be tempted to keep them!).

I surprised Kevin with a special luxury fan that I commissioned to be made especially for the collection, by the famous gem artist Nicolai Medvedev and his daughter Olga. It has been a blissful journey curating the hand fan collection with Kevin Jones.

Are you still collecting fans?

Yes, I am still collecting fans for the FIDM Museum. There are quite a few fans that Kevin and I have on the FIDM Museum "Wish List" for future acquisition.

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Spain, c. 1855-65
Hand-carved gilt mother-of-pearl, hand painted lithograph

As a collector, do you have any "rules" you follow?

The fans must be magnificent, notable and museum worthy. I pay attention to the details of workmanship and artistry, and the fans must evoke an emotion. I have an affinity for objects that sparkle and shimmer, so I defer to Kevin to make sure that the collection is diversified, important, and not monotonous.

Do you have tips for folks that are interested in collecting something?

Collect what appeals to your personal sensibilities, brings you joy, and speaks to you. If the items have intrinsic value, research availability, what dictates and affects the value. I often dream or obsess about what I collect, which gives me the impetus to acquire an item.

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Any interesting experiences in the process of collecting the fans?

The pursuit of museum-quality historic hand fans has presented the opportunity to become acquainted (mostly via email and wire transfers) with the luminaries of the fan collecting world. The fan collectors, experts and dealers have graciously shared their expertise, insights, and treasures, and presented me the opportunity to procure exquisite fans for the FIDM Museum Collection. I only gave up the initial two fans- Phébé and Tiffany. The remainder of the fans were curated and collected, in concert with Kevin Jones, and delivered directly to the FIDM Museum, so I never took physical possession of the subsequent fans.

How does it feel to be benefactor on such a large scale, that a museum exhibition is the result?

I pinch myself in disbelief and am exhilarated every time I visit A Graceful Gift: Fans FromThe Mona Lee Nesseth Collection.

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Adolphe Thomasse, artist
Maison Duvelleroy, retailer
France, c. 1905
Silk taffeta, mother-of-pearl sequins & mother-of-pearl

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