Gary Stass: A Remembrance

If you have regularly stood predawn at the front of a line at a tag sale in southern Connecticut; if you’ve attended any of the folk art exhibitions or antique shows in Manhattan over the last 40 years; if you are the proprietor of an out-of-the-way antique shop in, say Florida, California, Ohio, Illinois (your state name here), and you were approached by a polite and sweet man bearing a stack of photographs showing the kind of folk art objects he was seeking ... then you have probably met and been seduced by Gary Stass. The man got around.

He knew how to dig like an archaeologist, research like a museum professional and he knew how to say thank you in old-school ways that today — delivered by anyone else — would seem corny (candy and flowers, when appropriate). In the 1970s, I was working for the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center (AARFAC). I was only a few months into the job when I had, as it turned out, a typical friendly cold-call from Gary Stass.

He and his wife Nancy (a true Sherlock/Watson team) were on a trip down the Eastern shore of Maryland and Virginia and wanted to introduce themselves. On that trip they had just found a wonderful carved walking stick of a woman wearing a Quaker bonnet; of course, I tried to pry it out of them for the museum. Well, it’s still in their impressive collection but, even better, it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, a friendship full of tips and adventures cued by Gary and Nancy. Some of these leads culminated in the acquisition of museum-quality objects and others simply led to one of those comically oddball characters that could seem to survive only in the antiques field.

When at AARFAC, Gary and Nancy set up a meeting (and hand-off) for me at an airport in Indianapolis with a father and son who had found one of the masterpieces of Anna Pottery, the now well-known and complex stoneware snake jug with monkey-in-coattails figural stopper. Even more recently, Colonial Williamsburg has benefited from Gary’s alert and persistent ability to track a lead pointing to the identification of the artist behind one of the most important visual documents in African American cultural history, The Old Plantation watercolor.

Shortly after meeting Gary and Nancy they introduced me to Shupp’s Grove antiques market in Pennsylvania at an exciting time when just about anything could turn up. I saw the “early bird/worm” principle at work. On the other end of the food chain, they were right in the thick of perhaps the most burgeoning time in commercial exposure for American folk art while they were living in Manhattan in the 1970s.

Galleries and shops opened by Joel and Kate Kopp, Gerald Kornblau, Gary Cole, George Schoellkopf, Allan Daniel, Jim Kronen, Tom Woodard / Blanche Greenstein and Jolie Kelter / Michael Malce were shaping collecting tastes in the field and they all knew the Stasses. It was a happenin’ time. When visiting New York early on, Gary and Nancy set up visits for viewing the private collections of Bert Hemphill, Bert and Helaine Feldelman and Barry Cohen, all good friends of the Stasses. The generous connection with Barry Cohen led to an important exhibition at AARFAC of his encyclopedic collection of American decorated stoneware.

When staying with Gary and Nancy in their Manhattan apartment, I learned that their so-called guest bedroom was really a crammed, packed store room for mini-collections and overflow; I have always slept on a mat on their living room floor, even after they moved to a condo in New Canaan shortly before their sweet baby Kyle arrived on the scene. I was always so jealous of her because she saw the realization of an actual bed with legs. More annoyingly, she also had an accumulation of some of the rarest figural fabric penwipes by the time she was 2!

After becoming an antiques dealer in the 1980s, Gary and Nancy became good customers but likewise continued to be a wonderful source for acquisitions and shared adventure. We had some great late night show-and-tells. When Gary knew a friend was heading out to some particular part of the country he would get out his famous 3-by-5-inch card index of contacts with “must-see” itinerary stops. When Mary Benisek and I became a team in the late 1980s, Gary and Nancy welcomed her with open arms; Mary’s favorite Stass hunt story involved them sending us off with a hot tip — while we were ostensibly attending a Rose Bowl game in California — leading to one of the classic full-length portraits of a “Girl in a Pink Dress with Cat” by Samuel Miller. I don’t remember much about that game; what I do remember is packing and shipping home a folk art masterpiece in the parking lot of the local FedEx.

We were so lucky to have benefited from a long friendship with this generous, energetic, thoughtful and passionate man/collector/antiques sleuth.

Gary Stass succumbed to complications from Parkinson’s disease on June 18 after a prolonged period of decline after a fall. He was tuned in to Antiques and the Arts Weekly until the end.

—Don Walters

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