The secret quality behind great collections

There are many reasons for collecting antiques. For some the financial appreciation of their collections is paramount. Others find the prestige value makes the search rewarding. But at the heart of every truly great collection lies an age-old quality, love. It's not a secret vice. Famous collectors have always been willing to admit their love for old objects.

Henry Francis du Pont purchased his first antique while still a student at Harvard. That initial piece spurred the love for antiques that led to 65 years of active collecting and the museum known as Winterthur. It's easy today to look at that museum, and others of its kind, and dismiss them as rich men's playthings. The simple truth is that they are not and never were just that.

One has only to stroll through the period rooms at Winterthur to appreciate the care and love that have gone into them. Something else is there too: work. It's no simple task to seek out, from across the country and sometimes even abroad, the correct period furniture and accessories to complement those rooms. Even assuming that one can afford to hire a competent staff to assist the collector in the search, there has to be some more compelling reason for the endeavor than to create a monument to one's existence.

That factor is love - love for the beauty, construction, and aesthetic characteristics of the object collected. Without it the collection soon becomes nothing more than an assortment of miscellaneous objects. Many museums feature such collections, haphazardly put together and assembled into a display by an anonymous curator. But add that secret ingredient, love, to the collection and see what a change takes place.

Du Pont's visit to the Shelburne, Vt., home of Mr. and Mrs. J. Watson Webb in 1923 planted the idea of an American museum of American objects. Mrs. Webb had been an inveterate collector herself and 23 years later became determined to open her own museum. That effort was to end in the great rambling collection of Americana-filled buildings known as the Shelburne Museum.

That there was adequate money behind her determination is obvious from a trip to the museum. A visitor has only to wander through a few of the buildings furnished with the personal selections of Electra Havemeyer Webb to realize she loved her collection, too. Money plus love always equals a great collection. The validation of that statement is borne out by a visit to the Webb Gallery, the last project of the Webbs before their deaths in 1960. There are larger and better-endowed museums in America, but for a truly balanced overview of American art, covering nearly 300 years, from the primitive to the sophisticated, the collection in that gallery is hard to beat.

The last decade has seen many collections emerge from private estates and make their way to the auction gallery. Some of these collections have done well, even to the point of exceeding the pre-sale estimates placed on them by the auction experts. Others have disappointed the estate executors. Pieces have had to be withdrawn by the auction staff because of serious flaws, such as major restoration or, in some cases, whole pieces proving to be fakes. Other pieces have barely made their low presale estimates.

Why? What separates the highly sought-after collection from the lesser one? In most cases the missing factor in the lesser collection is love. When the collector collects with his pocketbook and ignores his heart, he is heading for folly. Maybe it's because the money-conscious collector can't pass up the bargain, and the collector who loves his collection knows that with antiques there is rarely any such thing as a bargain. If a piece is truly good its price reaches a certain level; if it doesn't, there is often a good reason. That reason is sometimes elusive. It may be major repair, bad finish, or inferior design, but whatever it is, it lowers the value of the piece.

Sometimes the collector who collects with his heart will acquire a piece like that too. The collector is, after all, human. If the piece sells for less than he paid, he at least can find comfort in the enjoyment the piece brought while owned. Rarely will one find a collection completely composed of such pieces.

The collector who loves his collection is more apt to find financial reward than loss. Look what happened when Howard and Jean Lipman collected American folk art. The Lipmans have been longtime collectors, and Mrs. Lipman has written the major books on folk art. They sold their collection of folk art to the New York State Museum in 1950 and thought they'd give up collecting. Like most collectors, they found that decision didn't stick.

Their house in Connecticut began to fill with painted furniture and other choice pieces of American folk art. In the summer of 1981 the Museum of American Folk Art bought their collection for exactly $1 million. It only takes a few minutes perusal to realize the collection was assembled with money, taste, and that elusive quality, love. The Lipmans love folk art. They are rare examples of collectors who have seen that love rewarded during their lifetimes.

The late Col. Edgar Garbisch and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch had collected for decades prior to their deaths in 1979. Their collection was sold at auction on their Maryland estate by Sotheby Parke Bernet. The collection, which had brought the Garbischs so much enjoyment during their 50 years together, sold for the astounding sum of nearly $4 million. To be sure, there were some great pieces in the collection, among them a desk that brought $250,000, but there were also lesser pieces.

What surprised many were the examples of good, slightly above-average antiques bringing prices triple and quadruple the pre-sale estimates. Was it because of the auction fever an on-site auction is apt to bring, the excitement of acquiring a piece from a famous collection, or, more inexplicably, because the owners had collected and loved the objects and the bidders wanted to share that experience?

What does all this mean for today's collector? Should the connoisseur ignore the market reports, the price guides, and auction records? Many feel that's exactly what the collector should do, with reason.

All that mass of printed material can tell the reader only what a piece has sold for in the past. The guides can be judged and balanced to determine the value of an average piece. But of what use are they when that piece of spectacular form or finish, that piece that brings a heart-stopping pause to the viewer, that antique that not only draws the eye but demands the eye, comes on the market? From the experience of many collectors, those guides aren't worth a thing then - it's time to listen to the heart.

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