A Collector Who Can Let Go of His Treasures
By JASON EDWARD KAUFMAN
THE ground-floor Park Avenue duplex where the art dealer, connoisseur, collector and philanthropist Eugene Victor Thaw and his wife, Clare, have lived for 25 years could be mistaken for a small museum.
The office is ringed by framed drawings by Picasso, Matisse and Giacometti as well as a drip painting by Jackson Pollock. Drawings by Gericault, Daumier and Delacroix crowd the library walls. Oil sketches of 19th-century European landscapes adorn the living room, and watercolors of neoclassical interiors fill a parlor. Tabletops display antique models of fantastic staircases carved in wood by European craftsmen seeking admission to carpenters’ guilds.
Then there’s the second floor: a hallway lined with Tiepolos, Guardis and Piranesis, a glass case filled with brightly colored French Renaissance ceramics, a room devoted to Redon, and a great salon with shelves of medieval and Renaissance decorative arts as well as another hoard of choice drawings by Rembrandt, Goya, Degas and Delacroix.
“This house is filled with the remains of my life,” Mr. Thaw said.
He has come a long way since 1950, when he opened the New Book Store and Gallery in two floors above the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street. Today, at 75, he is widely considered to be among the world’s greatest collectors of European master drawings, not to mention one of the most respected art dealers in the field.
In recent years, Mr. Thaw has turned his connoisseur’s eye on American Indian art and Eurasian antiquities, amassing peerless collections that he and his wife have given to public institutions. Right now, there is not one exhibition of their gifts in Manhattan museums but two: “The Thaw Collection: Master Drawings and Oil Sketches,” at the Morgan Library, and “Nomadic Art of the Eastern Eurasian Steppes,” at the Metropolitan Museum. In his duplex, showing a visitor around, he apologized for the spaces left by the works that had been shipped off to the Morgan.
What drives Mr. Thaw’s diverse and passionate collecting, he says, is a combination of aesthetic pleasure, the desire to possess the objects and “the need to order the resulting accumulations.”
“This is how I learn about things,” he said. “Just looking at books, illustrations or cases in a museum does not get to my inner being or to my mind the way holding an object and finally even owning it does. 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.” He grants that his collecting is “a little bit obsessional,” but he considers it a rational endeavor nonetheless.
“That’s the way I get close to objects,” he said, “and then, after I’ve owned them and learned about them, I don’t need them anymore. They’re with me and I can give them away.”
Give them away he has, to the Frick, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and others. Since retiring, Mr. Thaw has made philanthropy something of a second career. The Thaw Charitable Trust, established in 1981, is endowed largely from the sale of a van Gogh painting, “The Flowering Garden,” a decade ago. In 2000-1, the trust gave $7 million to support the arts and $1.7 million for the environment and animal rights.
Mr. Thaw was born and reared in New York, in Washington Heights, where he attended P.S. 187. The only child of a high school teacher and an oil heating engineer, he studied classics at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., escaping now and then to admire the Phillips Collection and the National Gallery in Washington. After doing graduate work in art history at Columbia University, he borrowed $4,000 from his father and opened the gallery in Midtown, giving shows to Joan Mitchell and the influential American Abstract Artists Group. After he and his assistant, Clare Eddy, were married, they rented a summer house in East Hampton from the dealers Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend.
“De Kooning used to bicycle over and have dinner,” Mr. Thaw said. Their circle included the artists Alfonso Osorio, Frederick Kiesler, James Brooks, Ibram Lassaw, Adolph Gottlieb and the photographer Hans Namuth. Their closest friend was Pollock’s widow, the painter Lee Krasner, who made Mr. Thaw her agent in distributing Pollock’s remaining works. When she died in 1984, he became the co-executor of her estate and established the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, which gives grants to artists around the world.
Mr. Thaw later moved his gallery to Madison Avenue between 57th and 58th Streets and showed German Expressionist paintings obtained at favorable prices in postwar Germany. As his fortunes improved, he decided to become a private dealer, renting a street-level apartment on East 78th Street, where he began to handle old masters under the tutelage of Rudolph Heinemann, an older dealer he credits as his mentor. Soon Mr. Thaw was selling to major museums and leading private collectors, including Norton Simon, whose museum in Pasadena, Calif., contains scores of works from Mr. Thaw, and Paul Mellon, the benefactor of the National Gallery and Yale University.
A founding member and past president of the Art Dealers Association of America, Mr. Thaw retired from active dealing a decade ago but remains an insider’s insider. Colleagues say the secrets to his success are the breadth of his knowledge and his trained eye, but Mr. Thaw says he owes his prosperity to collaboration with other dealers. With Agnew’s and the London-based consortium Artemis, and with the Manhattan dealers William Acquavella and Stephen Hahn, he would purchase paintings he couldn’t afford on his own, then find a buyer among the combined client lists and split the profits. The practice is called “buying in shares.”
“You never had to worry about contracts and lawyers,” Mr. Acquavella said. “It was a handshake agreement, and it was as solid as a contract.”
Through his network, Mr. Thaw had an inside track in amassing his own private collection of master drawings, which he and his wife promised to the Morgan in 1975. The collection of more than 350 works includes multiple examples of nearly all the greatest artists since the 15th century — and not just routine pictures but masterworks. How good is good? William Griswold, former curator of old-master drawings at the Morgan and currently associate director of the Getty Museum, says the Thaws’ is arguably the finest collection of old-master and 19th-century drawings in private hands.
Mr. Thaw said he was especially intrigued by works on paper because they allow the viewer to “observe the workings of an artist’s mind more vividly” than in many highly finished paintings. And, of course, they are more affordable than works in other media. At least they used to be. In 1951, Mr. Thaw paid only $500 for his first drawing, a figure by Tiepolo. A few years later he purchased a Rembrandt landscape for $3,500 and paid it off in installments. Flash forward to January 2000: to acquire the Rembrandt pen-and-ink landscape in the Morgan show, Mr. Thaw spent a cool $3.74 million.
“I knew the library needed a great Rembrandt landscape, and this was the last great one in private hands,” he explained.
Mr. Thaw says his drawings are “by some measure, my life’s work,” but his collecting has ranged far afield. In the late 1980’s, he and his wife decided to retire to Santa Fe, N.M. With nary a drawing in sight, he quickly found an alternative pursuit: American Indian art.
“I had the luck to have a tutor,” he said, referring to Ralph T. Coe Jr., former director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo., and a noted collector of tribal arts. By 1991, Mr. Thaw had assembled 250 works, now in a new wing of the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., where they used to own a country house. Mr. Thaw continued to expand the gift, which has grown to more than 800 objects of such quality that Mr. Coe judges it “the finest collection of American Indian art amassed privately in this generation.”
Mr. Thaw immediately began another collection, focusing on antique metalwork from the Eurasian steppes. In the last six years he has gathered some 200 weapons, vessels, ornaments and other pieces, most made more than 2,000 years ago in present-day northern China and Mongolia. This summer he gave the group to the Metropolitan, which recently made him an honorary trustee.
Mr. Thaw is still going strong. After a 1994 exhibition of his drawings at the Morgan, he concluded, “I had a lot of empty nails to fill in the apartment.” Early 19th-century European landscape oil sketches on paper caught his eye, and he went after them with characteristic intensity. Now he has about 100, which he plans to give to the Morgan and the Met.
Whatever his other connections, Mr. Thaw remains most closely affiliated with the Morgan, where he has been a trustee since 1988. “Gene’s generosity has been so great that he must be regarded as the single greatest patron of this institution since the death of its founders,” said the Morgan’s director, Charles Pierce. In addition to the master drawings, the Thaws donated $10 million to build and endow the Thaw Conservation Center for works on paper, which opened this year in February. Moreover, his friendship with Heinemann led the dealer’s widow to leave a cache of Tiepolos to the Morgan. And as co-executor of the estate of Henri Matisse’s son Pierre, Mr. Thaw was instrumental in the library’s receiving the Pierre Matisse Gallery archive, a trove of illustrated letters by Giacometti, Chagall, Matisse, Miro, Balthus and others.
Nevertheless, Mr. Thaw said, “The Morgan did more for me than I did for the Morgan.”
“As a collector,” he said, “I feel my legacy will be to bring the things my wife and I have collected and enjoyed into the public domain. Whereas some collectors feel their ultimate achievement would be a record-breaking sale at Sotheby’s, I believe one can ask for a higher meaning than that.”
The Thaw Collection: Master Drawings and Oil Sketches
Morgan Library, through Jan. 19.
Nomadic Art of the Eastern Eurasian Steppes
Metropolitan Museum, through Jan. 5.
Jason Edward Kaufman //
This article appeared in The New York Times, November 24, 2002, Section 2, Arts and Leisure Desk, p. 42.