Ralph T. Coe, Collector of American Indian Art (1929-2010)

Ralph T. “Ted” Coe, the former director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and an important collector and scholar of American Indian art, died at his home in Santa Fe on 14 September.

Ralph T. “Ted” Coe, the former director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and an important collector and scholar of American Indian art, died at his home in Santa Fe on 14 September. He was  81 and had been in declining health for several years.

Ralph T. Coe

Mr. Coe studied the history and connoisseurship of European painting, but American Indian art became his passion. He collected for more than half a century, making expeditions to tribal lands throughout North America to learn about native cultures and their artifacts. He donated and loaned a number of things to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where for several years selections have been on display in the Rockefeller Wing.

Mr. Coe was born in Cleveland where he grew up in a family heavily involved in the art world. His father filled their house with one of the earliest and finest Midwest collections of French nineteenth-century and modern painting, including canvasses by Cézanne, Monet, Matisse, Modigliani, Renoir, and Courbet. (Mr. Coe’s sister became a researcher at the Cleveland Museum of Art where she met her husband, a curator of medieval art who became the chairman, now emeritus, of the Metropolitan’s medieval department and the Cloisters; in addition to his sister and her husband, he is survived by a niece and two nephews.) He graduated from Oberlin, then studied western art history at Yale where he became a teaching assistant to the legendary scholar John Pope Hennessy, who invited him to train for a year at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. After a brief stint at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, in 1959, Mr. Coe became curator of paintings and sculpture at the Nelson-Atkins Gallery in Kansas City where he later served as director (1977-82).

Northwest Coast, Transformation Mask, 1820-30, gift of Ted Coe to the Metropolitan Museum.

Mr. Coe’s interest in American Indian art began in 1956 when Richard Brilliant, a fellow graduate student at Yale, suggested he read a book on the subject by Miguel Covarrubias. Soon afterwards he bought his first piece, a totem-pole model he spotted in the Manhattan shop of Julius Carlebach. Eventually he accumulated more than 1,000 objects spanning North America from 3,000 BC to nearly the present day — totem-pole models, masks, moccasins, leather shirts, tobacco pipes, baskets, pottery, textiles, and other items. About 200 objects were shown by the Metropolitan in the 2003 exhibition “The Responsive Eye: Ralph T. Coe and the Collecting of American Indian art.”

His scholarship of Indian material was extraordinary for its time, and resulted in his curating two landmark exhibitions: “Sacred Circles: Two Thousand Years of North American Indian Art” was shown at the Hayward Gallery as part of the American bicentennial in 1976 and in Kansas City the following year; “Lost and Found Traditions: Native American Art, 1965-1985,” an unprecedented examination of contemporary Indian work, toured museums across the U.S. a decade later. Both exhibitions heightened aesthetic appreciation of American Indian art.

Haida peoples (British Columbia), Totem Pole Models, 1875–1900 wood & various materials, height around 19 to 27 inches, from Coe collection.

Mr. Coe’s advice was often sought by collectors, such as Eugene V. Thaw, the old masters dealer and great patron of the Morgan Library and other museums, who told me in 2002 that when he began spending time in Santa Fe, Mr. Coe helped usher him into the field of Indian art. Mr. Thaw – like Mr. Coe, an expert in the European tradition — amassed a superb collection of Native American items that he later gave to the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown. Mr. Coe also advised Marion and Henry Bloch of Kansas City in assembling their substantial collection of Impressionist paintings, now a promised gift to the Nelson-Atkins. According to Mr. Bloch, ““He picked out every piece of art we ever bought.”

When I interviewed Mr. Coe in 2003 he told me that his collecting was guided by intellectual and aesthetic considerations. “My family tradition is that there has to be a real stimulation from the senses and the mind,” he said.

He did a great deal of fieldwork, traveling to Indian reservations in the U.S. and Canada. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, on behalf of the American Federation of Arts, he crisscrossed North America acquiring contemporary works for the “Native Traditions” show, some 400 of which are today in the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History. Afterwards, he drove a Chevrolet Blazer on round trips from Santa Fe to the Arctic, keeping cash in a slit in the ceiling for use when good trading opportunities arose. They often did.

Kiowa peoples (Oklahoma), Pair of Moccasins, late 19th c., tanned skin, dye, glass beads, from Coe collection at Metropolitan.

“I went to Pow Wows where they have trading tables with contemporary things and sometimes older material. Sometimes I’d just show up, or I was invited. In dealing with Indians, money talks. I was very lucky. Indians did more for me than I ever did for them,” he told me in 2003. “Part of the pleasure of working close to a culture that needed more recognition in the art world is gone. Collecting is much more market-driven today,” he observed.

“You could hardly call it a market when I started collecting in the late ‘50s,” he continued. “It had a different aura about it. Now it’s become upscale and professionalized by dealers in America and Canada. It’s become much more hard-edged and aggressive. I miss the old days. It was much more informal than it is today. I had warm relationships with traders and makers in Canada, continent-wide from the Southwest to Maine. Collecting was a participatory thing. I ended up going out into the field and camping with Indians. One dealer called me ‘the last of the campfire boys.’”

This piece is adapted from my interview published in The Art Newspaper in 2003.

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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