Jeweled Delights of Judith Leiber Purses Always on Display at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia

The Jeweled Delights of Judith Leiber Always on Display at the Taubman Museum of Art

When I walked into the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke I certainly wasn't expecting to see the tiny jeweled minaudieres of Judith Leiber, yet I soon discovered that the museum holds one of the largest collection of these elegant mini purses in the country.

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The current exhibit "Earthly Delights" will be on display until Fall, 2018, but if you miss it, don't despair, the next exhibit promises to be equally spectacular -- an exhibit of Leiber's stunning animal purses. Moreover, Earthly Delights won't be going back into storage -- the Taubman is creating a travel exhibit open to museums across the country.

The Story of Leiber purses

These diminutive delights intrigue but their story is even more unusual. Designer Judith Leiber was born in 1921 into the Peto family -- a Jewish family in Hungary -- and followed her passion to become a trained handbag maker in Budapest. Barely escaping the Holocaust, Judith married an American soldier, Gerson Leiber (who became an expressionist painter), moved to the USA and came to work for designer Nettie Rosenstein.

The concept had been popular since the name minaudiere was invented and patented by Van Cleef & Arpels in the 1930s. Set with gems they were preciously expensive. Their popularity surged again in the 1950s after the privation of the war years had faded. But Leiber brought a sense of flamboyance and whimsy to the design of these small handbags with everything from miniature asparagus and eggplants to teddy bears and penguins as well as other objects not usually associated with handbags -- all decorated with rhinestones and crystals. When Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected President Mamie Eisenhower included one of Leiber's purses as part of her ensemble for the inauguration. From there, Leiber and her designs took off as fashion-lovers across the country sought her out. She began making more of what became her signature item -- small decorative handbags.

Rosalie Shaftman, Leiber Purses, and the Taubman Museum of Art

While some bought and cherished their minaudieres, its rare that someone serious collected these expensive confections. The price would be quite daunting. Most museums curate time-limited shows based on the purses gathered from other sources. Others have a small number in their collection.

But Roanoke native Rosalie Shaftman loved these handbags and pillboxes and started collecting them in the early 1970s. She ultimately donated more than 130 Leiber handbags and pillboxes to the Taubman Museum of Art. Two of the handbags were even custom made by Leiber for Rosalie Shaftman to celebrate Roanoke and its history.

"I started collecting the purses because I thought they were beautiful," Rosalie Shaftman told The Roanoke Times in 1997 before her death in 2011. At that time, her collection numbered about 50.

Now at over 130 pieces, the collection at the Taubman Museum of Art is one of the largest repositories of Judith Leiber bags in the United States -- and when you visit the Taubman, you'll always find some of these gemstone jewels on display.

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Neala McCarten

Photo courtesy of the Taubman Museum of Art

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