“I still believe in the hand of the artist”
Art Newspaper interview: Eugene Thaw, connoisseur, dealer, collector, and patron of the Morgan Library discusses his life and work
Eugene Victor Thaw, one of the most highly respected dealer-connoisseurs in the field of Old Master drawings and paintings, has presided over the New York firm that bears his name since 1950, advising many of the celebrated collectors of the latter twentieth century, and helping to develop the collections of America’s leading museums. His business acumen is complemented by a scholar’s command of art historical literature, and an eye that has earned him a well-deserved reputation as a connoisseur. That knowledge and discernment served Mr. Thaw in his co-authorship of the 4-volume catalogue raisonné of Jackson Pollock’s oeuvre, and in the creation of a 500-piece survey of American Indian art that Mr. Thaw donated last year to the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown, New York. But the greatest expression of his aesthetic sensibility is the renowned collection of Old Master drawings that he and his wife Clare have accumulated over the years. The 250 sheets represent some of the pinnacles of Western draughtsmanship since the Renaissance, with only the finest examples by masters from Altdorfer and Cranach to Rembrandt and Rubens, Mantegna and Fra Bartolommeo to Canaletto and the Tiepolos, and Claude and Watteau to David and Ingres. The collection is particularly rich in nineteenth-century works from England, Germany, and especially France, including superb examples by Delacroix, Gericault, Daumier, Degas, Redon, and Cézanne. The collection has been shown regularly by The Pierpont Morgan Library, to which Mr. Thaw and his wife have promised the entire trove. No wonder the collector, a trustee of the Library since 1988, is hailed as among the institution’s most generous and important benefactors. Currently on view at the Morgan are some 70 works acquired over the past nine years, and around 30 items previously included in earlier Thaw Collection shows at the Morgan. On the occasion of the exhibition, which continues through January 22, The Art Newspaper visited Mr. Thaw at the 500-acre estate near Cooperstown where he and his wife have summered until their recent move to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Jason Edward Kaufman: There have been a number of books of late trying to define what makes collectors tick. As one of the great dealers of the second half of the century, and a formidable collector as well, you are uniquely positioned to offer insight on the subject. Just what is collecting all about?
Eugene Victor Thaw: To me, the most important element of collecting is the hands-on experience of the work of art. With possession — either as a dealer who owns a piece temporarily, or as a collector who keeps it long-term — you can get to know an object in an entirely different way than you can from photographs, slides, or books. This experience flies in the face of everything that is happening in the current age, in which people are looking forward to museums with nothing in them except television monitors where you can dial the Louvre, or dial the Metropolitan, and get some kind of holograph. We seem to be satisfied with images of things, with multiples and reproductions. Even artists “make” things without using their hands. I still believe in the hand of the artist, and the only way to experience that is to experience an original. It’s like a live performance of music versus a recording. If you can’t detect the difference it’s hard to explain. But there is a difference.
The motivation comes from the need for aesthetic eye satisfaction and the need to order the resulting accumulations. People whose eye must be aesthetically satisfied begin to surround themselves with things that have that effect on them. That causes accumulation, and once you have several things that aesthetically please you, you have another problem of making some sort of order out of them. That becomes an intellectual process. All true collectors have this ordering drive, whether they’re collecting butterflies or shells or old master drawings. They want to have a group that reflects their own taste and judgment of what’s best.
There are psychologists who say that it’s compensating for an unhappy childhood or it’s bad toilet training, or one form or another of infantile deprivation. That kind of analysis doesn’t bring any kind of helpful insight to it. If you’re a collector, it’s one of the joys of life to assemble and order something that ends up having true meaning. It’s also one of the joys of life to share it and show it with others who have some glimmering of what you’re doing. There is an overall motivation in any project. One wants it to have an end, a final resting place. Some collectors are satisfied with a good auction catalogue after they’re dead. But one can ask for a higher meaning than that.
Your Old Master drawings are deservedly famous. What distinguishes your collecting from that of your contemporaries and predecessors?
One of the chief characteristics of collecting that applies to me is that of aesthetic response. Other collectors of Old Master drawings collect for identification. What turns them on is to find an anonymous drawing and identify it, even if it is not of any great aesthetic merit in itself. That’s not the issue that appeals to me. I don’t collect “the drawing for the left foot of the saint in the fresco of Saint Pancras by Giovanni da Fettucini.” I collect for the aesthetic impact of the sheet itself. So I tend to have more finished sheets, though not always — I have van Dycks and other pure working sketches. But it’s the aesthetic impact that turns me on, not the discovery. Maybe I’m missing something, but that’s what I like.
Are you still collecting Old Master drawings?
Do you collect paintings?
I had about ten small paintings that fit with the scale of the drawings, and which decorated my apartment and house. I’ve sold a few of them, but still have a Claude Lorrain sketch, an early Degas portrait of a girl, a Canaletto….But I can’t call myself a painting collector. It wasn’t anything I did with care and system, the way I feel one should function if one is seriously collecting.
Have prints been a collecting interest?
I used to deal in prints years ago, but I don’t collect them.
What else do you collect?
I have actually collected some Oriental objects [porcelain] and pottery to decorate my office and apartment, and I have a fairly large collection of an eighteenth-century French Faience called Moustiers, which was very famous in its day and is still highly collected. I like bronzes so I have a lot around the house, but I haven’t been systematic with them. Those are sub-collections that are around for enjoyment and, in a sense, furnishing.
Are there certain boundaries within which you’ve collected drawings?
Not really. I’m interested in the history of draughtsmanship from the fourteenth century to the mid twentieth century. I’m interested in the high points of Western draughtsmanship.
Have you intentionally avoided certain areas, such as Italian Baroque?
I never was turned on by the Counter-Reformation, either the paintings or the drawings. The Baroque artists were out of fashion when I was studying. I was in the Berensonian snobbery tradition of dismissing the Lanfrancos and Guido Renis, who were so famous in the early nineteenth century for their sentimental appeal. They became the curators’ favorites when the greater things were no longer available. I’ve come to see that Guido Reni, for example, is a very great artist. But they didn’t achieve a drawing style as distinctive and significant as other artists’ — like Giambattista Tiepolo, whose drawings are inimitable and dazzling. Or Rembrandt drawings, for that matter: with their sketchy shorthand they evoke emotional experiences tremendously insightful into the human condition. I need this from a Daumier, a Turner — some kind of emotional and aesthetic impact. And I get it also from Delacroix, Gericault, Redon — from many artists whom I’ve collected in depth. I have more than 10 Delacroixs, over 10 Cézannes, 15 Degas, five or six Gericaults, maybe 20 Tiepolos father and son, and at least eight Fragonards. I’m not doing a survey, but collecting multiple examples by those artists who I feel have been essential to my own understanding of draughtsmanship and of Western art.
What about Dutch drawings other than Rembrandt?
That’s a special field. For instance the George and Maida Abrams Collection is onlyDutch seventeenth-century drawings. There are a great number of what the French call petits maitreswho are wonderful artists, but not the peaks of draughtsmanship that I’m talking about. There certainly are others than Rembrandt — I would love to have a Cuyp landscape or an Avercamp “skaters” watercolor. I have bought some Flemish drawings: two Rubens, a couple of van Dycks, and a beautiful Goltzius figure drawing of The Five Senses. But I haven’t bought a lot of Mannerist drawings. Basically, the collection is what appeals to me, and having never been a dealer in the Dutch painters, it’s not a field I know very well.
Then there are lots of things I would like to have, but haven’t been able to get. I’ve never found a Durer drawing I could afford at a time I could afford it. I did get a great Altdorfer drawing which was in a way a substitute for Durer in that period in German art. And I have a few other sheets around that. But there are many things one would like to have that one just doesn’t get a chance for, no matter how carefully you keep in touch with the art market.
Have you sought a Holbein?
I bid on the one from Chatsworth, but how can you outbid the Getty?
So you’ve collected favorite artists in depth, and individual examples representative of certain important schools.
That’s right. And the other area is work by artists who are wonderful, but outside the mainstream of Western traditional collecting. Fairly early in the game I was able to get a wonderful Caspar David Friedrich gouache, and now I have a total of five by Friedrich. I was able to buy a Wilhelm von Kobell from Munich of people on horseback meeting a peasant, one of the “encounter pictures” which are little known masterpieces of Biedermeier painting. And I have Danish artists — Kobke and others — who are now talked of as participants in a “Golden Age.”
I was always looking to exercise my eye and knowledge on oddments of art history which are very important. For example, Alexander Cozens, who developed the system of drawing from blots and was the drawing master of Catherine the Great and William Beckford, as well as the father of John Robert Cozens. In a sense he was the source from whom all great English Romantic watercolor flows. I have wonderful sheets by Alexander Cozens, and always wanted a John Robert Cozens, and recently a great one turned up and we now have that. The Library had none, so it’s an important gap.
How did you develop such a close relationship with the Morgan Library?
As a drawing collector, very early on I was obviously attracted to the Library, and early on I offered them a Callot drawing as a gift. Fred Adams, who was director at the time, rejected it, saying, “We don’t take gifts from dealers.” So my first attempt to become friendly with the Library was summarily rejected, and I was rather crestfallen. Fred Adams is now a good friend and we joke about these things, but when Charles Ryskamp became director [he is now director of The Frick Collection], I began a series of donations from my collection which led to the 1975 exhibition of 115 drawings, the first catalogue of The Thaw Collection. It was a great success and put me in the firmament of serious collectors. And at that time I made a promise in the catalogue to give the Morgan my entire collection of drawings, which by opportunity and instinct is very strongly weighted in favor of the nineteenth century, their greatest need. Since then, there has been another show in 1985, and they have used my drawings in a number of exhibitions. I’ve pursued the transfer little by little, as for tax reasons it seemed beneficial.
Not long ago they needed to buy the building next door, The Morgan Mansion, because it was the only possible way they could ever expand. I gave them a substantial cash donation toward that purchase. Even though Charles Ryskamp had left by that time, and a new group was in charge of the board, they invited me to become a trustee. So the relationship has been a very happy one. Nothing that I’ve done in life has made me more proud or happier than supporting this great institution.
What is it about the Morgan that merits your undivided support?
Its collecting standards, its exhibiting standards, and its standards of scholarship are so far above the average. In a period of declining standards they have maintained the old ways of scholarship, and I believe in that.
We know the urgency to go in for blockbusters, with box office being the determining factor. The Library has vast collections in areas of basically scholarly interest, like illuminated manuscripts, illustrated books, and literature — not the stuff of public blockbusters. But they make wonderful exhibitions out of these things, some of which turn out to be highly popular, yet it’s always combined with a sense of quality and scholarship. Their catalogues are not flashy, but meticulous and informative.
How have other institutions compromised standards?
The politically correct has become so dominant in our universities and even in our journalism. The idea that nothing is true or false except the ethnic, gender, or sexual preference bias we personally bring to it, and that these are the only things that matter in a work of art, not what the artist conceived, but his or her ethnic background, or economic position, or parents’ religion — all of this nonsense has taken over the world of scholarship as it emanates from our universities, where we look for leadership in scholarship. And that is why politically neutral ground, like the Morgan Library becomes so valuable now, because there are so few enclaves where this kind of thing has not taken over.
But they suffer for it. Some of the great foundations which should be pouring money into an enterprise of this quality are uninterested because they’re not dealing with ethnic or sexual or political background issues. If the Morgan Library were to devote itself to inner-city slum art they probably would have an outpouring of foundation funds which, in our climate today, an exhibition on Shakespeare or the French Revolution or Holbein would not. It’s very odd. The Library lives on the money it raises each year, and it’s coming up against these problems becauseof the quality and purity of its scholarship and exhibitions.
As a trustee, do you feel the board has the reins of the character of the exhibitions produced there?
I wouldn’t say that.
Then whose fault is it that so many institutions are heading in another direction?
I think a lot of the people who get hired as the heads of these institutions think it’s smart to be very trendy and very contemporary and with-it. They sniff the breeze, wet their finger and hold it up and see which way the market or political trends want them to go. And that’s the wrong way to run a cultural institution, in my view. The public is so eager for quality that if you give them quality they will appreciate it and they’ll come. And in the long run that’s what will cause you to survive. Look at the trouble of a place like the Whitney that is so anxious to be cutting-edge. Look at the trouble of the Guggenheim that has conceived of itself as the museum of the twenty-first century. They may not make it to the twenty-first century at the rate they’re going. It goes on and on and on like that.
Have you acquired drawings specially for the Morgan?
Yes. I’m always thinking of the end result of where the collection is going, and after a point the activity of collecting often had the Morgan and its needs specifically in mind. Their curators and directors, both Charles Ryskamp and Charles Pierce, would recommend things to me, and I would ask the curatorial staff to research prospective purchases. For example, the Altdorfer was something the Library heard about and recommended to me. And while the Cranach was something I heard about, I got an enthusiastic endorsement from the Library before I bought it. Even if recommended highly I would not buy something I did not like. But their dispassionate ability to check something out is something a collector would be foolish not to take advantage of before committing large sums of money. And once they knew my whole collection was earmarked for them, I certainly didn’t feel I ought to do too much behind their back.
Does the Morgan collect twentieth-century art?
They would have to find another Eugene Thaw who covers modern art for them. I have a few Picassos, a few Matisses, a Klee, a couple of Pollocks, a Giacometti, a late-nineteenth-century Vuillard. But this period is so rich with great draughtsmen — with Kandinsky, the Cubists and Léger, and some of the American artists. They really should try and find someone to carry them more fully into the twentieth century.
Have you donated art to other institutions?
I’ve given many other things — a Corot painting to the Frick, for example — but not Old Master drawings.
Are you still dealing?
I still have a firm and I still own things in shares with other dealers. But I decided to stop selling pictures on my own because I really prefer not to dwell on how much a picture’s worth or going to be worth. I used to talk too much when I sold pictures — as you can probably tell from listening to me now. Unlike dealers such as Alexander Rosenberg, who never said a word — he just put the picture on the easel and you either bought it, or you didn’t — I was full of information and I loved to share it. But the business lost its charm.
When I started, collecting opportunities were there for everyone with a little money and any eye at all. You could go around New York to the small auction houses, like Kende Gallery — where there were a lot of fakes — and old Park Bernet before Sotheby’s, to antique shops and book sellers, smaller dealers and drawing shops like Walter Schatsky on 57th Street. And if you had a good eye you could find things that were right and worth a lot more than you paid for them. There was still the air of discovery in the market. We were impecunious and struggling, but it was a great deal of fun. Then at some point in the early 1980s — sometime around 1982 or 1983, if not a bit before — art turned completely into money, and then the fun went out of it.
What was it that swayed you towards the field in the first place?
I had this instinct about having things in my hands. At college I bought little things in antique shops and put them in my room. I remember in graduate school I bought a $10 print by the German minor master Heinrich Aldegrever, and ran to show it to my teachers. I was always on the lookout, but in a very juvenile and unsophisticated way. It took many years before I knew what I was doing.
I understand Janos Scholz was a mentor.
Janos was very helpful when I was a young art dealer with very little money and very little real knowledge of either connoisseurship or the art world. Though he had very little disposable funds throughout his life, he made marvelous finds going through portfolios of drawings in the days when there were shops where you could do that. He was able to tell by looking at the handwriting of a drawing whether it came from Bologna or Rome or Florence or Venice. Like Shaw’s Professor Higgins who could tell exactly where an accent came from, almost to the street — Janos could do that with drawings. I would go and look through his collection, and when I found drawings he would help me identify them. I had a pretty good eye and found some good things too, so he gave me some of his time, and that was a great help in the drawing field.
Where did you acquire stock when you first began?
I purchased my first Old Master drawing in 1951 upstairs from the Weyhe Book Shop on 61st Street and Lexington Avenue. They had a little gallery with boxes and boxes of drawings, and one whole box of Giambattista Tiepolo drawings — the single figures — from the Dan Fellows Platt Collection. They were $500 apiece and I bought one. A year or two later I bought a Rembrandt drawing for $3,500 from A. & R. Ball, refugees from Dresden, who had a whole box of famous Rembrandts from Frederick August, King of Saxony. I bought one of the least expensive because that’s all I could afford, a little frozen river landscape for $3,500, and they let me pay $300 a month for ten months. Soon after I bought my Seurat drawing from them for $11,000, a Seurat that would today bring a million.
The price structure was so different then. I had a friend working at the Curt Valentine Gallery on 57th Street, and they would let me have Morandi still life paintings on consignment for $300, which I would take and sell for $350. Today they bring $400,000 and $500,000 dollars. The gouache by Chagall on the back cover of one of the Skira books, with a man in a white suit leaping over houses, I sold to the Zacks collection in Toronto for $2,500. It would be two and a half million today, at least. The great Kandinsky Murnau landscape of 1909, a color plate in the Grohman book that eventually is going to The Museum of Modern Art — I bought it from a refugee in New York for $2,500 and for nearly a year I couldn’t sell it. I had to pay back the money that I borrowed from a relative of mine to buy it, so I sold it for cost to Richard Zeisler, who kept it in a closet for six months before he even put a frame on it, it was so unimportant to him. Now it’s one of the stars of his collection, worth umpteen millions of dollars. It just was a different world.
How did you get your business off the ground?
I started really at the bottom of the barrel, with nothing — $4,000 borrowed from my father. With a friend from college whom I had met in Europe we started The New Book Shop and Gallery at the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street. We had two floors: one was a book shop, and the upper was an art gallery. We had no money to buy anything, so we put up some younger artists’ work, but it was very slow going. After a year my partner left me because he wasn’t getting anywhere. Three years later I gave up the book shop, owing publishers all over the place money that took me six years to pay off, and moved uptown to Madison Avenue between 57th and 58th Street on the second floor. I got interested in German Expressionist art because it was very inexpensive at that time.
The first real money I ever made was $13,000 from the sale of a Nolde painting, an important oil from 1914, Red Evening Sky, to Donald Winston who gave it to The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I was married by that time, and my wife let me go to Germany for a week to go to the galleries, and with that $13,000 I brought back about $50,000 worth of art by paying small amounts and getting credit for the rest from the dealers who were hungry to sell anything in those days. The Kirchner estate was housed in a bombed-out ruin in Stuttgart, and I went down and picked out a huge Fauvish painting of about 1906 of two women in street dress, which is now in the Los Angeles County Museum. It was Kirchner’s wife and her sister, I think. I brought back the Houses at Night by Schmidt-Rottluff which is now in The Museum of Modern Art, a Fauve Heckel, and many good drawings and watercolors.
At the same time I was still trying to discover drawings. I found a Rembrandt drawing of a beggar leaning on a stick in a box at a collector’s house. I thought it was real and he said it wasn’t, so I bought it for $75. Fritz Lugt, who was still alive in Paris at that time, authenticated it for me and it’s now in a famous New York collection, accepted by all scholars. By that time I had no artists. I was a dealer selling what I could find using my eye on the secondary market. Then I moved uptown to East 78th Street where Ira Spanierman is now, a basement apartment with a street entrance. And then I became a private dealer, by appointment. I began to grow.
When did you get into Old Master paintings?
Not until quite late in my career because I didn’t have the money. I had one lucky break. A friend named Nat Hammer helped me get six predella panels from the St. Catherine of Siena altarpiece by Giovanni did Paolo from the Stoclet Collection in Brussels. I brought them to America and bought them half-share with Dr. Rudolph Heineman, who was the great private art dealer who created the Thyssen Collection with both the father, until his death, and the current Baron Thyssen. He marketed these pictures, which resulted in the first big piece of capital that I had. And through him I learned Old Master dealing like very few people ever learned it.
(It’s curious that from that start Giovanni di Paolo became sort of a house master for me, because counting those, I ended up having had twelve in my career. But I’ve sold many of the great Old Masters, a lot with Heineman and a lot since Heineman’s death.)
Who are some of the major collectors with whom you’ve done business?
Norton Simon became one of my great clients. I think I was as close to him, and sold as much to him, as any dealer. The Norton Simon Museum is filled with things that came from me.
Didn’t Duveen sell to Simon?
Simon bought the Duveen firm when it was nearly finished, at the very end, He bought the house, where Acquavella is now, and the contents, and the dregs of the firm, which had a few great pictures, one of the best of which he thought was a Rembrandt, but like so many has been demoted. He got his Fragonard out of that. Some tapestries. It was a buy-out of Duveen.
I have to tell you in all fairness that Simon was very concerned with the value of pictures. He’d call me on the telephone all the time questioning me, saying, but you said this six months ago, remembering everything you’d said, talking about values. But he really was comparing quality. It was his own way of working. He was a gadfly. He was constantly testing you, and probing for what you really thought and felt. He’d ask a dozen questions that he didn’t really care about the answer to in order to get the answer to the one that he really wanted. Simon was a very interesting man and a provocative man, and, in a way a tormented man.
I don’t know why. Because his mind was so quick and his grasp so extensive, that you could never really meet him on equal terms. He was always four steps ahead of you. You never really understood where his mind was going, what he was really reaching for. And he had a quirky, quixotic approach to all kinds of problems which was very interesting. He was tough to handle, but an interesting man.
Paul Mellon came to me a little later, and I sold an awful lot of pieces of very high quality to Paul Mellon. Paul Mellon would never bargain. He would either pay the price or he wouldn’t. But I’d sometimes have to tell him how embarrassed I was to ask the price that I had to ask, because that was the current price. I always wished I could sell it for less, but he understood. And if Paul Mellon didn’t buy a picture, because he thought the price was too high, you couldn’t come back to him a month later and say I’ve lowered the price. You just couldn’t.
How do you decide whether to keep a work or sell it?
I’ve been conscious as a dealer that I shouldn’t keep the best of everything, that I should let my clients and my museums have first crack, and I’ve most often done that. What always has astounded me is that many of my drawings I kept only after trying to get museums or clients to buy them. I’m often astounded at the lack of perception or willingness on the part of trustees, or whomever is responsible, for the failures of our public institutions to acquire as intelligently and assiduously as they should.
Which are some of your great drawings that have gone begging?
For instance, the great portrait I have by Fragonard of the Italian woman from Naples. That has been in every Fragonard show, featured as one of his outstanding works. I tried to sell it for a couple of years before I decided to keep it.
Has any museum been exceptionally good?
The Chicago Art Institute under Harold Joachim was a superb client. Whenever I showed him anything he understood immediately what it was, and how good or bad it was, and he knew when to act. He had to go out and beg for the money from Mrs. Regenstein, who teased him terribly but was a great patroness. And he had to get Mrs. Tiffany Blake when she was alive, who was also a wonderful source of support for Harold. But whenever the right drawing came along Harold knew, and immediately said, ‘We’re going to have it regardless of what it takes.’ And that kind of curator you seldom see anymore.
Did you sell the Art Institute any of the sheets in their drawing show at the Frick several years ago? For example the Chardin?
Yes, I sold them that Self-portrait of Chardin in memory of Harold Joachim. I wanted to keep that myself, and could well have afforded it, but I let the Art Institute have it at a very favorable price because I wanted them to have a memorial to Harold. Earlier they had acquired the portrait of Chardin’s wife, so this reunites the mate to it which was separated perhaps in the 18th century.
The Cleveland Museum when Sherman Lee was the director was one of my great clients. I did a good deal also with the National Gallery of Canada when Jean Boggs was director and Ronny Laskin was curator of paintings. I sold an important Poussin and the great Bernini bust of Urban VIII to them, and modern pictures like a great Dali from the Henry McIlhenny Collection, and a beautiful Delacroix.
Do other figures stand out in your memory?
Rudolph Heineman, whom I’ve already mentioned, is long dead now, but he was the eminence gris n the Old Masters field. Hardly anyone knew him directly, but he was in every great picture as a partner. He was based in New York, 907 Fifth Avenue. The bulk of the best pictures Heinie Thyssen inherited from his father all came through Heineman, and he wrote the first great catalogue of the Thyssen Collection. He worked closely with Agnews and with me, and with others. Mrs. Heineman is still alive and active, and a good friend of mine. She’s become a great patron of the National Gallery of Art and of the Morgan Library.
One of the great figures in my life is the restorer Mario Modestini, in whose studio I have sold many pictures just as he’s cleaning them. Charles and Jayne Wrightsman were with me as he started to clean the great Tiepolo, The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra, and we saw it was in mint condition — just the varnish coming off. I’ve sold many great pictures in the restorer’s studio. I was taught that technique by Heineman.
What were some of the greatest sales of your career?
It’s hard to remember just the high points. Selling the great Goya portrait of General Guy from the Marshall Field Collection to the Virginia Museum. Two great Zurbaráns to Norton Simon: the great still life which I did along with Stanley Moss, and the Birth of the Virgin, also from the Cortini-Bonacossi Collection. I sold the great Monet Boulevard des Capuchins , the picture that was a scandal in the first Impressionist show, to the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery; a Baldung Grien to the Metropolitan Museum; a great Interior of St. Peters by Panini to the Norton Simon Museum. I mentioned some of the German Expressionist things I had early in my career. I sold together with Acquavella to the Goulandrises the great Picasso of the picture that was the warm-up or follow-up to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the grand Danceuse of 1907. The National Gallery didn’t bite. I’ve sold great Cézannes to Berggruen, pictures to Thyssen….
There are new laws now regarding the international traffic of artworks. Are there greater obstacles now to selling?
Yes. There are real problems now with export, especially when countries like France change their rules in the middle of the game. Even if you export according to their official instructions they can change their mind at the last minute and keep the object. I have very friendly feelings toward Pierre Rosenberg at the Louvre. I think he’s a good man and I like him. But even he played me dirty one time and allowed me to buy a great painting by Delacroix in France with the promise that I would have export permission.
A verbal promise?
Yes, but a clear promise. Then when I paid the money for it, and it was already at the shipper, they called me at my hotel and said it can’t leave France, we’re buying it for the Louvre. The family that sold it didn’t want it to go to the Louvre, so they used me as a lead-in to get the picture, and it’s now one of the features of the Musée d’Orsay: the Lion Hunt sketch by Delacroix.
They do what they have to do to compete. They don’t have enormous state funds, so they acquire sometimes by unfair means. I don’t resent it because they’re protecting a national patrimony, and I’m not sure that some of those strictures are not necessary. But works of art are like books: they are creations of the human intellect and genius and should be allowed to freely travel.
There should be some understanding that it’s good even for French culture to have great French things in other countries. If we had a beautiful room of German Biedermeier painting at the Metropolitan Museum, how much greater for German culture and its understanding. We all know Goethe, Heinrich Heine, Schubert and Beethoven, but Friedrich and his contemporaries are almost unknown in America because none of their work has been allowed out. Works of art should be free to move to wherever whoever wants to treasure and study them — especially in an age when one can reach distant places so easily.
But a work of literature can be published elsewhere, and a musical composition played elsewhere. A painting is unique.
Still, if you have a hundred of the same thing…. Look at the antiquities sitting on shelves in Italian museum basements. They could go on long-term loans to furnish regional museums where they could be seen. Then there are the archaeologists who want to keep everything under their strict control and not let the public see anything. That’s not a good solution either. Neither is returning everything to the country of its origin — returning the Elgin Marbles, and the African art to the jungle, and whatever else may someday be demanded — because these things will then deteriorate and be lost. There is a better system than we have now for protecting artistic patrimony. The market is not the complete answer, although without being treasured, nothing would be saved.
How did you become interested in American Indian art? Did it have to do with your move to Santa Fe?
We really got attracted to the Southwest the time we spent over a week in New Mexico appraising the O’Keeffe estate. Having spent a winter here at the farm near Cooperstown [in Central New York State], we knew we needed a better climate, so we bought a house down there and began dividing the year between New York and Santa Fe. Now we spend the whole year there with a few weeks exceptions.
I had to have something to do. I needed an outlet for my energies, and my energies are, for the most part, collecting energies. The local galleries were filled with things that I don’t care about, and there were no Old Master drawings. But there wasAmerican Indian art. I had the luck to have a tutor, Ralph T. Coe, Jr. As director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Ted had organized the great “Sacred Circles” exhibition of American Indian art which travelled to the British Museum in 1976. I could try things out on Ted and learn with him. And it just snowballed!
By the time I had 300 pieces I was interested in an overall purpose and final resting place for them. Though Santa Fe needs a major Indian collection, they seem interested in nothing but their local Navajo and Pueblo material, and there’s a lot of politics involved in the museum world down there. So I looked for another answer, and my wife and I thought something like the Shelburne Museum in Vermont would be right. Then we realized that Cooperstown, with the Farmer’s Museum and Fennimore House across the street, would be ideal. My friend “Gib” Vincent discussed it with the Clark Foundation and Jane Clark, and other people active in the town, and they came up with the idea of building a wing for the collection adjoining Fennimore House. And of course I promised the whole collection. Then it became like my drawings: I had to make sure it was good enough. And I went on a binge to buy enough of American Indian art from all regions and periods to make it a well rounded collection. The strength of the collection is objects like Northwest Coast carvings, Eskimo masks — sculpture really. I do have a good group of Plains things, but I’m not interested in what Ted Coe calls the “bow-and-arrow” type of Indian art. With my European art perspective, I’m more interested in things that can be perceived as works of art than just moccasins or decorated war shirts.
Can the same aesthetic values be applied to collecting American Indian art and Old Master drawings?
I think connoisseurship is connoisseurship, whatever you direct it to. You can learn. You start looking, then it begins to make sense. If I wanted to look at the most rarefied type of Chinese porcelain, if I spent enough time and had someone to show me the characteristics to look for, I think one could find one’s way. It’s like learning to read a language.
What about the recent legislation that provides the framework for repatriation of American Indian artifacts from public collections that have received any Federal funds?
There’s been a lot of shouting, a lot of rhetoric, a lot of antagonism. I’ve yet to see the results that are really damaging to our great national collections of Indian art. If that happens, if they get decimated by this act, it will be a cultural tragedy, and it will be the American Indians themselves who lose because it will be their culture that will not be preserved as co-equal with the great achievements of the world’s peoples. They will shoot themselves in the foot for the sake of getting back at the White Man, and it’s a foolish notion.
Much more important would be to use the collections to train Indian curators to look at their own things in the same sense as curators look at Renaissance objects and the great treasures of Christendom. To deny people access to their achievements for the sake of saying, ‘It’s our own — you can’t understand it, you can never cross that border to understand what it means to us,’ is so parochial that it finally is meaningless.
Is the trade in American Indian objects very different from that in Western objects?
It is. The dealers from whom I buy are not Indians, but basically traders who keep very little in the way of records or photographs, and give almost no account of where something has come from. It will take another few years before they learn the techniques of what I would call responsible art dealing.
In what other activities are you involved?
With another trustee I run the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, which gives between $2.5-$3 million dollars per year to worthy and needy artists under the will of Lee Krasner. That is an important part of my life right now. Also, I have The Eugene and Clare Thaw Charitable Trust in Santa Fe, which supports groups, not individuals, in the arts, ecology, and animal rights. It has stongly supported a group that restores and maintains the old adobe churches in New Mexico which have been in sad disrepair.
I have friends with whom I still work, and am a member of several boards, including Artemis, though not a very active one. Also I support the Glimmerglass Opera here in Cooperstown. I read a lot, and I’m a contributing editor of The New Republic magazine for which I write occasional art pieces and book reviews. I like the out of doors, and I have a ranch with some horses where I like to get out and walk with my wife and our dogs.
Do you have any children?
One son who lives in Vermont, one grandchild.
Which three works of art from your collection would you take with you to the proverbial desert island?
I would take Rembrandt’s Descent from the Cross; a black-bordered Goya drawing called “She Leaves Everything to Providence;” and the great Cézanne still life of 1904-06 that usually hangs over my fireplace in New York. It’s one of the great watercolors of all time. It’s fresh, never faded at all. It will be in the exhibition.
And which not in your collection would you like to take along?
I would want to have a good Durer drawing. I’ve never had a chance at one that I thought was right enough or good enough. Which one, I don’t know. Maybe the one in the Lehman collection, the early self-portrait with the pillows. And I would take a van Gogh letter with a drawing in it. That would mean a lot to me. I have a great van Gogh reed pen drawing, but I didn’t put that on my list; it’s the van Gogh drawing that’s most like a Rembrandt, done at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer outside of Arles. And almost anything early by Degas, like one of his self-portraits.
Interview by Jason Edward Kaufman
Jason Edward Kaufman ©
This article appeared in The Art Newspaper, Oct. 1994, p. 24-25.
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