Wendell Garrett Receives the ADA Award of Merit
Nearly 350 people packed into the ballroom of the 33rd Street Armory on April 17 to attend a dinner honoring Wendell Garrett, this year’s recipient of the Antique Dealers’ Association of America’s (ADA) Award of Merit.
“Good evening and welcome. Tonight we honor an outstanding scholar and statesman of the antiques world,” said ADA Vice President Arthur Liverant as the lights dimmed and the cutlery settled.
“We are also celebrating the 20th anniversary of the ADA. Join me in toasting an organization that stands for honesty, integrity and ethical conduct,” added ADA President Skip Chalfant, with a bow to his colleagues.
Editor-at-large of The Magazine Antiques and a consultant to Sotheby’s, Garrett is the third recipient of the award, previously presented to dealers Albert Sack and Elinor Gordon. In the series of affectionate presentations that followed, the well-known author, editor and speaker was lauded as a man of warmth, erudition, generosity and good will.
“Many of us have stories about Wendell. I have two. My first dates to 1969 when I was an undergraduate in Winston-Salem, N.C.,” began Broke Jobe of Winterthur. “I hadn’t a clue what I was going to do with my life. That changed one night when I heard Wendell lecture on Wallace Nutting. I’ve been a fan of Wendell’s for the past 34 years.
“My second story occurred when I was a graduate student at Winterthur writing my thesis on Eighteenth Century Boston furniture,” said Jobe, describing how Antiques’ editor offered him his research notes.
“Wendell is one of the most generous, sharing, open people I know. Winterthur is honored to count him as one of its own,” concluded Jobe, a fellow graduate of the museum’s master’s degree program in early American culture.
“Several days ago, when I was thinking of what to say tonight, I called Tom Savage, director of Sotheby’s Institute of Art,” said Sotheby’s Vice Chairman William W. Stahl, Jr, who read excerpts from a series of moving tributes to Garrett by his students.
“It is an honor to call Wendell a teacher and a friend. He is a living national treasure and the finest piece of Americana I have ever known,” finished Stahl.
“When most people were focused on silk and silver, Wendell was talking about the birth rate being in decline in the Age of Enlightenment,” said Penny M. Hunt, executive director of the Decorative Arts Trust, a nonprofit organization of which Garrett is honorary chairman.
Describing Garrett’s popularity as a lecturer, Hunt recalled, “Wendell was the connection between the academy and the people. He was on the front line, face to face with his audiences. He took his message across the country. Everyone liked to have Wendell as a houseguest. Rooms have probably been closed off and plaques mounted that say ‘Wendell Garrett slept here.'”
Following remarks by Dorit Strauss of the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies and designer Ralph Harvard, Metropolitan Museum of Art Curator Carrie Rebora Barratt read a letter from American Wing Chairman Morrison H. Heckscher, who hailed Garrett as an “author, editor, raconteur and master of the apt quote.”
“Civility and gentility are too rare today,” penned Heckscher, citing Garrett’s fine qualities. “For wise counsel and friendship, thank you.”
“Twenty years ago I was a private collector,” began Alfred C. Harrison, owner of The North Point Gallery in San Francisco, describing the happenstance exchange that transformed his life.
“I discovered that a famous painting thought to be by Albert Bierstadt was actually by John Key. I wrote an article and sent it to the famous editor of The Magazine Antiques in New York. I was unknown and owned 15 paintings by John Key, but I quickly got back a surprising reply.”
“This is very interesting. Let’s pursue it,” Wendell wrote Harrison.
Continued the art dealer, “It didn’t help that the painting in question was for sale and that its owners threatened to sue if my piece was printed. Wendell subjected the article to a rigorous scholarly review, at the conclusion of which he said to me, ‘Damn the torpedoes. Let’s publish it.'” “Bierstadt’s Bombardment of Ft Sumter Reattributed” appeared in The Magazine Antiques in February 1986, marking the beginning of Harrison’s long friendship with the editor.
“Wendell Garrett has been a mentor for me for 28 years. It has been an incredible process,” said Allison Ledes. In her insightful, witty address, Antiques’ editor described Garrett’s unexpected journey from his boyhood in southern California – “a place where if the word ‘old’ is uttered, everyone shouts Botox” – to Winterthur, Harvard and, finally, Manhattan, Garrett’s home for the past three decades.
“In various twists and turns, he has devoted much time to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In a way, they are bookends to his accomplished career,” remarked Ledes, noting her mentor’s love of books, his boundless interest in craft technique, his gift for public speaking and what she called his “bonhomie.”
“Wendell is the most ‘clubable’ of men, to use a favorite expression of his. He has always given unstintingly of his time,” said Ledes. She concluded, “We are all fortunate that the printed word remains.”
The last to speak, Garrett accepted the award with characteristic grace and thoughtfulness. “In honoring me with this award, I celebrate curators, collectors and dealers,” he said. “I salute the members of the ADA with the words of Daniel Webster, ‘We may praise what we cannot equal.'” Said Garrett, “Dealing is a noble calling and a risky business. There is no safety net to save one from one’s mistakes. In that it may be likened to matrimony.”