Who Was O. Roy Chalk?

O. Roy Chalk
(Courtesy of Coronet magazine, August, 1966.)

O. Roy Chalk (7 June 1907 – 1 December 1995) was a wealthy entrepreneur and art collector.1 He and his wife Claire purchased the Delapierre portrait from the estate of Mrs. Josef Stransky at an auction at Parke-Bernet Galleries (now Sotheby's) in New York on the afternoon of 16 October 19542—just a few hours after Hurricane Hazel grazed the city.

The Chalks owned the painting jointly until his death in New York at the age of 88. She sold it at an auction at C.G. Sloan & Company in Maryland on the afternoon of 14 April 1996.3

Chalk and the Houdon Bust of Jefferson


Houdon bust of Jefferson (1789) once owned by Chalk. (Christie's auction catalog, 29 May 1987, p.17.)

In 1962, Chalk traveled to France to purchase the plaster bust of Thomas Jefferson sculpted by Jean-Antoine Houdon in 1789 that now resides at Monticello. That bust, which was exhibited at the "Salon de 1789" in Paris just before Jefferson left to return to America, is considered by experts to be the finest Houdon bust of Jefferson known to exist.4

And, even though Jefferson's daughter (Martha Jefferson Randolph) criticized the bust for making Jefferson look too old,5 it is considered by many experts to be the most accurate likeness of Jefferson ever created. A later marble copy of Chalk's bust was used as the model for the "Jefferson Nickel." 6

When Christie's sold the Chalk bust at auction in New York on 29 May 1987, it became the most expensive portrait bust ever sold and set an all-time record for a piece of pre-20th-century sculpture.7

Chalk's Art Collection and Other Interests

Chalk and his wife owned and lived in a 16-story apartment building on Fifth Avenue in New York—directly across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art—that Chalk purchased for $1,000,000 in 1942.8 They amassed an art collection that included notable works by Vincent van Gogh, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Mary Cassatt, and other distinguished artists.9

The Chalks donated the famous 38-carat "Chalk Emerald" to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C., in 1972. (It is displayed there next to the "Hope Diamond.")10

From 1956 to 1973, Chalk owned D.C. Transit, which at the time was the predominant bus and streetcar company in Washington, D.C.11

Late in his life, Chalk became a highly paid Washington lobbyist for the Republic of Russia.12 Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he is credited by some as having helped draft the Constitution of the Russian Federation, ratified on 12 December 1993.13

Is It Significant That Chalk Owned Both the Delapierre Portrait and Houdon Bust?

The fact that Chalk owned both the 1785 Delapierre portrait and 1789 Houdon bust of Jefferson for many years may be coincidence. To date, the research team has found no evidence that Chalk had evidence—or even suspected—that the Delapierre subject was Jefferson.

Nonetheless, Chalk's prominence and proximity to the Metropolitan Museum of Art afforded him the means to do extensive research, possibly allowing him to uncover some of the details discovered by our team.

Moreover, Chalk's stealth was legendary. Had his research led him to conclude that the Delapierre subject was Jefferson, that judgment might have motivated him to later seek out and purchase the 1789 Houdon bust of Jefferson in Paris.14 But he may well have kept his views on the Delapierre portrait to himself.15

References and notes

[2] Parke-Bernet auction catalog (French XVIII Century Furniture and Objects of Art, Friday & Saturday, October 15 & 16 at 1:45 p.m., 980 Madison Avenue, New York, 1954), page 56, item number 258 (illustrated), signed and dated 1785. Curiously, the painting was misattributed in the catalog to the artist "Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre" (French: 1713-1789). This may have been due to misinterpretation of the signature by experts at Parke-Bernet Galleriesor perhaps was because the signature was not clearly legible when they received the portrait. In any event, the first correct attribution known to the research team—in sources dating back to and including the Ugo Bardini letters of 1927 and 1928—occurred in April 1996, when C.G. Sloan & Company in Bethesda, Maryland, offered the portrait for sale (on behalf of Mrs. O. Roy Chalk) in an auction catalog.

[3] C.G. Sloan & Company, Inc., auction catalog (Estate Auction, April 13 & 14, 1996, Daily 10 a.m.), page 111, item number 1479 (illustrated), signed "B.N. de la Pierre" and dated 1785. See also The Magazine Antiques, Vol. CXLIX, No. 4 (April 1996), p. 541.

[4] Susan R. Stein, The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1993, pp. 230-231.

[5] In a letter to Thomas Jefferson dated 16 April 1802, his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph said of the bust: "...I found fault with Houdon for making you too old..." (see Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, Houdon Bust).

[6] Susan R. Stein, The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1993, pp. 230-231.

[7] Christie's Review of the Season 1987, edited by Mark Wrey and Susanna Spicer, Phaidon-Christie's Ltd., Oxford, 1987, p. 339.

[8] Arthur Myers, "O. Roy Chalk: Making His Mark," Coronet magazine, August 1966, pp. 146-151.

[13] Several websites indicate that Chalk helped Russia draft its first constitution after the breakup of the USSR; however, the research team has not been able to confirm this information.

[14] Chalk's purchase of the renowned 1789 Houdon bust of Jefferson suggests that his primary interest was the subject rather than the artist, because other fine busts by Houdon would have been much easier to procure at the time. According to Professor Alfred L. Bush (Jefferson and the Arts: An Extended View...The Life Portraits of Thomas Jefferson, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1976, p. 32): "...in 1963, the French Fine Arts Administration provided an export permit for a plaster acquired by Roy Chalk of Washington, [D.C.] but only after another [Jefferson bust by Houdon] was donated to the French government by Edmond Courty."

[15] When Chalk's wife Claire inherited the portrait following his death, she may not have been aware of what he knew about the item. Efforts by the research team to discover more about O. Roy Chalk's knowledge or opinions concerning the 1785 Delapierre portrait have not been successful.