[intro]And Some of His Peers Don’t Like It At All[/intro]
ADA1900, a New York-based non-profit foundation dedicated to advancing appreciation of American decorative arts, especially the Arts & Crafts and Prairie School movements and their attendant pottery, raises yet again the issue of museum exhibitions hyping the value of a collection prior to its sale. In this case, the cited collection belongs to Stephen Gray, a long-time buyer and seller in the categories that engage the foundation. Actually Gray’s well-known and well-regarded collection has often been publicized (The Magazine Antiques, for example), and undoubtedly has been in the crosshairs of more than one museum and auction house.
The relationship between museums and collectors is complicated and sometimes fraught. Museums want to exhibit the best works, which frequently reside in private collections; collectors are eager for the imprimatur guaranteed by a museum exhibition. Museums seldom knowingly exhibit property soon to hit the market, to avoid the unavoidable appearance of either complicity or naiveté. Ultimately, though, timing is everything: how soon is the sale after the exhibition? In the case of Gray’s collection, the property is being sold by Sotheby’s on December 17 and was offered by Toomey-Treadway in Chicago on December 6 – less than a year after a catalogued exhibition at the Wadsworth Athenaeum (October 11, 2008-January 4, 2009).
[Good luck trying to get a sense of which lots were Stephen Gray’s in this list of results from Treadway]
Sotheby’s’ catalog makes much of the Wadsworth exhibition: “His collection was recently celebrated in the exhibition, At Home with Gustav Stickley: American Arts & Crafts from the Stephen Gray Collection, at the Wadsworth Athenaeum to whom he has gifted a significant portion of his collection. The majority of works presented here were exhibited in this venue.”
From the Wadsworth’s point of view, it was win-win. A nifty exhibition and some gifts which probably enhance their holdings. From Gray’s perspective, it was win-win. Excellent exposure and a museum validation of a number of items. Is it a win for the auction buyers who may rely on the importance of that Wadsworth catalog?
It probably should be noted that ADA1900 also has a fine collection of (and continues to collect) objects in the same category. Their website statement: “We actively acquire museum-quality furniture, lighting, ceramics, metalwork and glass by American makers in our period of interest, with the goal of placing them within museum collections” and cites 13 well-known museums to which they have contributed property.
The e-mail blast on this subject from the foundation principals, Joseph Cunningham and Bruce Barnes, says: “In connection with the exhibition The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs, which is organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Chipstone Foundation and ADA1900 Foundation, we made a formal commitment that all of the objects exhibited in the show from our personal collection would eventually go to museums.”