Two wholly unrelated events in the realm of the visual arts marked this winter season. Impossible not to have noticed one—the sale of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi for nearly half a billion dollars. The oily, slug-like features of the Pantocrator even found their way onto T-shirts, a sure sign of success in the one process elevated to an art form by our consumer society: branding.

The other event, in sharp counterpoint to the da Vinci media circus, was the death of Eugene Victor Thaw. Though hardly front-page news, it nonetheless elicited universal sadness and reflection in those who were fortunate to have known and worked with him. A comprehensive New York Times obituary detailed how the ninety-year-old Thaw, from modest beginnings, became one of the last century’s greatest art dealers and collectors. How he might have judged the Salvator Mundi phenomenon is unrecorded, though his aversion to chasing “names” was well known: an attitude evident from the astonishing diversity, in value and significance, of the material he sold or collected.

Thaw’s aversion to chasing “names” was well known.

Though not a scholar himself, Thaw thoroughly understood the value of academic art history in resolving issues of attribution, provenance, and iconography. He maintained a close personal and working relationship with most leading specialists but, ultimately, his decisions remained true to his remarkably perceptive instinct or “eye”: that god-given gift of intuition that needs to be nurtured, cultivated, and continually tested vis-à-vis the art object itself. That Thaw could use this precious tool in judging material as diverse as Renaissance drawings, Impressionist paintings, and Native American artifacts—just to mention a few of his collecting interests—epitomizes the very ideal of connoisseurship.

The cornerstone of Thaw’s legacy as a collector will remain the spectacular group of more than four hundred drawings bequeathed to the Morgan Library over the years on behalf of himself and his wife, Clare Eddy Thaw. Roughly half of that number have recently been exhibited there together and published in a handsome scholarly catalogue. Not surprisingly, a number of the Thaw sheets are deemed superior to the museum’s other holdings in the field, and the group, as a whole, is considered the institution’s single most important accession since its founding.

Unlike most long-active dealers and collectors, Thaw rarely carped about the scarcity of first-class material compared to “the good old days”; he simply sought out items he knew to be masterworks in different, less frequented, fields. Even without the essential academic credentials, Thaw might well have pursued a successful career as a museum professional, continuing a long American tradition that included Hartford’s legendary “Chick” Austin, Cleveland’s Sherman Lee, Toledo’s Otto Wittmann, and, happily, New York’s own Philippe de Montebello. But buying and selling art—as pedestrian as that sounds—was the activity that enabled him to generate the profits to buy more and, consequently, collect more.

His timing could not have been better. In 1961, the Metropolitan’s purchase at Sotheby’s of the ex-Erickson Rembrandt (Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, 1653) was the clarion call that proclaimed the start of the post-war bull market for art. It would now be possible to reckon value in the millions, rather than in the thousands, of dollars. (The Rembrandt fetched $2.3 million—today, that number would require at least two more zeros.) And Thaw was there for the entire run, witnessing—and generally greatly benefitting from—the continuing upward spiral.

He participated in the concluding chapter of another, more complex multi-million-dollar saga that had begun in the 1930s. It was in those relatively lean years that the American dime-store entrepreneurs—the brothers Samuel and Rush Kress—took advantage of a buyer’s market to amass a gigantic hoard of European paintings and works of art. The fortunate agent for most of those purchases was an enterprising Italian count, Alessandro Contini Bonacossi. Contini Bonacossi shrewdly sank the handsome profits of his transactions with the Kresses into Florence real estate and into creating his collection.

Whereas the vast Kress holdings were destined to become a munificent gift to the nation, the Contini Bonacossi estate remained mired in family disputes and tax issues long after the count’s death in 1955. When a handful of Contini Bonacossi paintings were finally granted export permission ten years later, Thaw contrived to secure, as an agent for its sale, the most sought-after of the lot: the utterly magical and unique Sill Life with Lemons, Oranges, and a Rose (1633) by Francisco de Zurbarán. Not only did Thaw arrange to put this masterpiece on his easel, he also knew exactly who should be given a privileged first crack at it: the rough-edged California industrialist and financier Norton Simon. At that time, Simon was beginning to flex his muscles as the world’s most aggressively acquisitive collector not only of European art but of Hindu sculpture as well.

By the early 1970s, Simon was well on his way, in both fields, gathering the superb body of works that, at first, had no permanent home. Many were parceled out on loan to a variety of museums while others languished in storage. For years there was much speculation about the eventual disposition of the Simon holdings. Finally, the long wait paid off for the collector: true to form, Simon saw an opportunity and seized it. He was able to “buy” (at a huge discount, of course) an entire museum for himself. As it happened, the worthies of Pasadena responsible for their small local museum had, over the years, recklessly saddled the institution with debt by commissioning a new building. Simon smartly stepped in, cleared up the red ink, and cleared out the worthies. He now had a container—albeit not particularly handsome or practical—to house his collection; the makings of a museum where he would be in total control and that would bear his name. After Simon had successfully completed this unprecedented undertaking, his compulsion to collect progressively waned and finally ceased. He would turn up at “his” museum unannounced for a wheelchair tour of the galleries, also invariably checking at the book shop for the statistics on postcard sales. This was, for him, a sure sign of what the star attractions were. The Zurbarán Still Life, Simon’s favorite painting, was, reassuringly, always number one.

In the process of collection- and museum-building, Simon hardly made life easy for the art world professionals who were his principal correspondents and collaborators. His was decidedly notthe suave, slightly detached, and graceful style of collecting in the European tradition of the past. It was obvious that he did not consider art to be merely a life-enhancing ornament. Simon was, first and foremost, a consummate businessman and used all the tricks of the marketplace to drive home his best deals. These were not only purchases but included sales, exchanges, half-share partnerships, and any manner of clever arrangement that would assure him the upper hand. He was an incredibly quick study and a voracious gatherer of information, seeking advice from every quarter. Thaw was very much part of Simon’s “advisory universe” and was continually consulted. The only problem was that Simon would invariably compare, correlate, and combine the information he most recently received with the vast store of data already squirreled away in his computer-like memory. Typically, advice was forever sought but was rarely followed. Not surprisingly, Thaw was deeply offended and irritated that his suggestions should be questioned and—worse—compared to those which Simon continually solicited from virtually every other operator in the field. Thaw saw this as a lack of trust. Even more upsetting was Simon’s willingness to sell items, some even obtained from Thaw, simply to “confirm” the value of his other, similar holdings—a tactic suited more to a shopkeeper than a great collector. Indeed, it can fairly be said that, of the two, Thaw the dealer was the idealistic “romantic,” and Simon the collector the cynical “realist.” Despite the fact that the two played relentlessly competitive games on opposite sides of the net, and never became friends, Thaw and Simon had unbounded respect for each other and remained in cordial contact even long after their business dealings had ceased.

Thaw was masterful at describing whatever he was showing.

Thaw would certainly have described himself as a “private dealer” despite the wide recognition his name enjoyed. In pursuing this business model, he was, in a sense, adapting to a radical transformation of the post-war art market that saw the progressive decline and eventual demise of celebrated and historic firms such as Agnews, Wildenstein, Knoedler, Colnaghi, and French & Co. It would no longer be possible for them to maintain their palatial premises or—more importantly—to renew their inventories with material of sufficient quality. Equally significant was the meteoric ascendancy of the London and New York auction rooms. Peter Wilson of Sotheby’s understood, more clearly than anyone, the huge potential of the public sale. By dint of brilliant marketing, lavish cataloguing, and continued diversification, auctions ceased to be principally a wholesale source for dealers but were progressively transformed, much more profitably for the firms, into sophisticated retail operations.

A visit to Thaw’s premises was a required ritual for anyone seriously involved in the visual arts from the mid-1960s onwards. During these decades he occupied several venues, none of which could be described as a “gallery.” The last two were residential apartments on Park Avenue where the visitor would be greeted in the conventionally—yet elegantly—appointed living room or library. Only the object of the client’s interest would be displayed, enhancing the item’s singularity. This was consistent with Thaw’s belief that what he called the “gestalt first impression” was of capital importance in how works of art are perceived and, ultimately, judged. Thaw was masterful at describing whatever he was showing, always enriching his presentations with illuminating observations about an item’s aesthetic appeal yet never foregoing the carefully researched details of its historical significance. These were, typically, intense one-on-one sessions that unfolded in hushed privacy. Needless to say, the recent proliferation of the art fair was an incomprehensible phenomenon to Thaw. Its evident success in selling material even at the highest level of value and importance appeared to negate many of the traditional conventions—discretion, exclusivity, and prudence—that, seemingly forever, had guided the way art was bought and sold.

Unfortunately, Thaw has left a very sparse written record of the principles that guided his aesthetic as well as cultural endeavors. What we know of these survive chiefly in the recollections of colleagues, collaborators, and friends, his impressive catalogue raisonné of Jackson Pollock—and in these pages, where he published essays on eight different occasions in The New Criterion starting with the very first issue in September 1982. Rare additions are the twelve interviews Thaw gave in 2006–10 to the writer Steven M. L. Aronson, which were published in Architectural Digest, and to James McElhinney for the Archives of American Art Project. They provide a revealing personal perspective on the subject of connoisseurship at a time when this concept of intuitive critical perception is rapidly losing its credentials. Phrases such as “end of an era” or “last of the scholarly dealers” might, unfortunately, turn out to be all too true.

The disappearance of a revered voice such as Thaw’s has left an inevitable sense of melancholy and regret, particularly against the backdrop of the Salvator Mundi kermesse and the mindless hyperbole it unleashed; or the grotesque spectacle of tens of thousands of visitors standing in line for a recent Modigliani exhibition in Genoa that turned out to be replete with blatant fakes, where, again, the attraction of the “name” proved irresistible and subverted any serious critical evaluation. It’s a fair bet that none of those duds would have passed muster had they been submitted to the scrutiny of one Eugene Victor Thaw.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 6, on page 78
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