He is the most famous collector in America right now, as the buyer of the ``Helga collection'' - the 240 pictures that Andrew Wyeth did of his blond model, Helga Testorf, over a 15-year period. His name is Leonard E.B. Andrews, and no one, he says, ever heard of him as a collector before that March morning the Wyeths invited him to see ``a large private collection'' in Wyeth's Chadds Ford, Pa., gristmill studio. That was the morning in 1986 Mr. Andrews bought the entire Helga collection for a reported $10 million. ``When I bought them, you know, I didn't ask anybody about it. I didn't bring any curator to have them checked. I didn't do anything like that. I just bought them right there on the spot. It was my own judgment call.''
What Newsweek called ``Wyeth's Stunning Secret'' caused a firestorm in the press when the news finally broke about the Helga collection, hidden from the world and Wyeth's own wife for years. Both Time and Newsweek ran Helga cover stories the same week.
Last Sunday, the controversial collection went public at the National Gallery of Art under the banner ``American Drawings and Watercolors of the 20th Century.'' The gallery has already had 10,000 requests for tickets through Ticketron for the show, which twins 125 drawings and watercolors of Wyeth's neighbor Helga with 80 drawings and watercolors from the Whitney Museum of Art in New York.
Andrews knows what he likes in art and doesn't care what the professional art establishment thinks about it. He knows that Andrew Wyeth has been called everything by critics - from one of the two greatest American painters of the 20th century (with Edward Hopper) to a mere illustrator.
``A number of these critics that are negative to Wyeth,'' he says, ``took that position years ago, and it's my impression that they have been justifying their position ever since without ever looking at his new works. I find it absolutely astounding they could criticize Wyeth and not even have seen the Helga series.''
This mystery man who owns the mystery collection is a silver-haired multimillionaire born in Nacogdoches, Texas, a self-made man who amassed his fortune by pioneering litigation and bankruptcy reporting in a 29-magazine empire. Last month he sold Andrews Publications Inc. and Andrews Communications (trade publications) to devote most of his time to his arts projects.
His focus will be on overseeing the Helga collection, which he describes as a national treasure, and on what he hopes will become another national treasure: the National Arts Program (NAP) he founded.
That program is an annual showcase designed to encourage indigenous American artistic talent yet untapped. Andrews began it as a pilot project at the Philadelphia Civic Center in 1985. In '86 it opened in Atlanta; Hartford, Conn.; and San Antonio, Texas. Fourteen cities are to be included this year, and 20 additional cities in '88. Initially, firemen, policemen, and other municipal employees are encouraged to enter, along with the general public. Cash prizes ranging from $100 to $300 are awarded to winners. The NAP has also awarded nearly 500 scholarships at local art schools.
The three categories of entries - amateur, intermediate, and professional - are professionally judged. Andrews, as a Daddy Warbucks to America's unsung artists, hopes to expand the NAP so that it reaches 75 percent of the United States population by 1990.
Andrews, interviewed in his midtown office just before the National Gallery show opened, talked about the art of collecting. He said he had already acquired six Wyeths for his 18th-century stone farmhouse in Newtown Square, Pa., when his neighbor ``Andy'' Wyeth called about the Helgas. Andrews said he also had what he describes as a minor collection of 18th- and 19th-century English paintings, particularly sporting paintings, as well as some Dutch and French paintings and a bit of sculpture.
``I live in a rather small farmhouse, and, you know, there's a limit to what you can hang up,'' he said. ``When I brought five Helga paintings home, I had to take my English sporting paintings down and put up my Helgas.'' Among the Helgas that went up were ``Crown of Flowers,'' ``Sunshield,'' and ``White Dress,'' but there just wasn't enough room for the creamy odalisque ``Black Velvet,'' which he calls ``captivating.''
And the first time he saw Wyeth's Helga collection? ``I was just overwhelmed with it as a body of work. And as I looked at it, it occurred to me - and I'm absolutely convinced of it - that it is indeed a national treasure. And my first reaction was ... I wanted the American people to see it. I wanted to get it and keep it together and let the American public see it.''
But that's not all Andrews had in mind. He also envisioned using the Helga collection as a gorgeous stalking horse to publicize and fund his pet project, the National Arts Program. He explained, ``I also thought that in buying [the collection] it would bring some attention to the National Arts Program.'' He hastily added, ``But I bought it for the work itself.'' Andrews points out that, at the time he bought the Helga collection, no one knew it would reap such publicity. He said of the publicity: ``The National Arts Program is going to be a great benefactor of this. See, I'm divorced, and I don't have any children, and I don't have any brothers and sisters, so founding this National Arts Program is my thing.''
Since Andrews also bought the copyright for the Helga collection, the benefits are more than publicity. He is charging each museum on the national tour $25,000 to exhibit the collection and plowing all the revenues back into his arts program.
After leaving the National Gallery Sept. 27, the Helga collection goes on tour to Boston, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Detroit. There were rumors that the Metropolitan Museum had turned it down because it doesn't consider Wyeth a major painter. Andrews says the Met couldn't have turned it down, because it was never offered to them. Following the tour, a decision will be made about foreign requests for the exhibit.
In addition to revenue from the tour, Andrews plans to give NAP all his royalties from the handsome Helga collection catalog published by Harry N. Abrams. It is the first art book ever to be chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection. The catalog with a text by John Wilmerding, deputy director of the National Gallery, was already in its fifth printing at 500,000 copies before the show opened. Andrews said he will also fold copyright profits from museum posters and cards into the National Arts Program. But there will be no rank commercialization, no Helga tea towels, paintings on trucks or T shirts, he says emphatically.
This mild-mannered Texan with the aqua eyes is no urban cowboy. Alhough he grew up in Dallas during the Great Depression, he never owned a pair of cowboy boots until last year. His father was an insurance executive; his mother, an artist and sculptor, inspired his populist views on art. Andrews says he hustled up money even as a kid, carrying two paper routes, delivering laundry, working in a gas station and a grocery store, before going on to Southern Methodist University and serving in World War II as well as the Korean War.
Andrews wants not just professional artists but undiscovered artists to benefit from his NAP. ``It gives them a chance to express themselves and their talents and gives them confidence in themselves. That's what I'm trying to do - give people confidence in themselves.'' He hopes that NAP will become a major national program involving local communities and eventually corporate funding, with a budget of several million dollars annually. He's already plotting a museum for it.