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Internationally renowned expert on Dutch ceramics Ella Schaap dies at age 108
Ella Schaap (middle), Mary Anne Dutt Justice, curator of European ceramics at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (right) and Robert D. Aronson (left) in 2016.

AMSTERDAM.- On Saturday July 10th, a mere 3 days after her extraordinary 108th birthday, Mrs. Ella Schaap passed away. Mrs. Schaap was connected to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for no less than 56 years, as a volunteer and from the age of 92 as a Curatorial Associate in the field of European Ceramics. She published several titles amongst which ‘Three Delft Pieces in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’ (1967), ‘Dutch tiles […]’ (1984), ‘Dutch floral tiles in the golden age and their Botanical prints’ (1994) and ‘Delft ceramics […]’ (2003). Mrs. Schaap was a turn-to authority when researching Delftware and specifically Dutch tiles. She was awarded a royal decoration by HM Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 2003 for her dedication to spreading awareness of Dutch ceramics in United States. Ella was not only a friend, she was a scholar, an authority, a great specialist in the field of Dutch ceramics, a stable factor and a staple of our little but global community. She will be sorely missed.

Born in Amsterdam to a Jewish family on the eve of World War I, Ella Schaap went on to become the first Dutch exchange student at Barnard College, a refugee of World War II who crossed the Pacific under threat of Japanese attack, a collector of contemporary art, and one of the world’s foremost experts on Dutch ceramics. She organized the first exhibit in the U.S. on Dutch tiles in 1984 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she climbed the ranks over 45 years, rising from volunteer to associate curator and retiring only at age 92. Schaap was knighted in 2007 by the Queen of the Kingdom of the Netherlands as a “Ridder” in the order of Oranje-Nassau for her work in publishing three books and numerous articles on Dutch ceramics, as well as Museum installations and exhibitions.

Ella Betsy Sanders achieved all this with no bachelor’s degree, and no formal education in art history. Born to a Dutch banker who became the director of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, Ella initially studied to become his assistant, with coursework in economics—unusual for a woman at the time. After high school, in 1932, she became the first Dutch exchange student at Barnard College. Walking across the newly-constructed George Washington Bridge that year, Ella had her first date with her future husband Dolf Schaap, a Dutch tobacco merchant whose work took him around the globe and whose hobby—climbing the Alps by rope—excited a 20-year-old yearning for adventure. They married in 1934 and had two daughters in the Netherlands.

The couple was personally aware of the danger Hitler posed because of their volunteer work with German refugees. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, the small family immediately left the Netherlands. They settled first in Indonesia, a Dutch colony at the time with a large tobacco industry, where Dolf’s expertise was valued. When Hitler invaded Holland less than a year later, Japan was simultaneously pushing into the Pacific, and Dutch men in Indonesia were being drafted to fight the Japanese. The family managed to escape on the last passenger ship from Indonesia to the US and later learned they’d left just in time; Japan invaded Indonesia and sent colleagues and relatives to internment camps. The journey to the US was itself a treacherous ordeal. Food was rationed, and to avoid notice of the Japanese and their submarines, the captain forbade any light on board. To keep busy, Ella learned to knit in the dark.

From San Francisco, the family made their way to Philadelphia, where Dolf worked as a tobacco broker and Ella volunteered at the local rationing bureau. They offered to take in family from the Netherlands, but were rebuffed and the relatives they left behind ended up in hiding, or in camps. After the war, Ella volunteered in the slide library of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but her knowledge of Dutch language and history made her invaluable when the museum received a donation of thousands of Delft tiles. Ella delved into decades of extensive research.

After the war, the couple had a third daughter. In the 1960’s, they took in an exchange student from Japan. This move ended up making Ella something of a name in Japan: as the exchange student was the daughter of the then-Prime Minister and went on to become the first female Foreign Minister herself. She kept in close touch with Ella, her “American Mother” over the years.

Ella and Dolf amassed a collection of contemporary American and European art, living in a stone house in a Philadelphia suburb surrounded with works by Piet Mondrian, Cy Twombly, Agnes Martin, Gerhard Richter, M.C. Escher, George Rickey among others, some of which she subsequently donated to museums, including Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The family were passionate sailors, a long standing Dutch tradition, and purchased a sailboat on the Chesapeake Bay. Ella continued to skipper solo until her mid-80’s, after Dolf’s death in 1985.

Thanks to Ella’s work, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is now recognized as having the highest quality and most extensive holdings of Delft ceramics in the United States. She served on Boards of Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art, the Fabric Workshop, and after retirement, on the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Acquisition Committees for Decorative Arts and also for Modern and Contemporary Art.

Ella is survived by three daughters: Ida, Martina, and Aletta. She also leaves behind six grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren, and numerous nephews and nieces both in the Netherlands and in America.

Timothy Rub, The George D. Widener Director and director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art adds: “Ella’s tenure, spanning 56 years, as the curator in charge of our collection of Dutch ceramics was one of the longest in the museum’s history,” noted Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “It was also a match made in heaven. With a characteristically Dutch combination of politeness and persistence, she was a forceful advocate for the ongoing display and continued development of our holdings in this field and succeeded in doing both. With Ella’s passing we have lost a great scholar and a dear friend.”

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