Published: December 17, 2002
By Carol Sims
KINGSTON, N.Y. — Bill Austin Pearson died of pneumonia on Thanksgiving Day at the age of 82 after a goodbye champagne party in his ICU, surrounded by family. He was clear headed and aware of his loved ones, a fitting end to a life lived to the fullest. Margaret Pearson, his wife of 21 years, survives him as do his four daughters, Mia, Enrica, Sarah Luck and Cody Pearson.
Born in Chicago in 1920, Mr Pearson gained fame as a race-winning jockey, and for winning the top prize on the television show The $64,000 Question, a feat he repeated on The $64,000 Challenge. Mr Pearson also had winning ways with the ladies, and was married six times. His 1958 autobiography Don’t Look Back describes his carpe diem approach to life.
In 1996 Art and Antiques magazine named Mr Pearson one of the top 100 collectors in America. Mr Pearson started collecting quilts in the early 1940s when he was recuperating from a racing injury, but he also collected in several other categories of American folk art. His latest passion was collecting World War I photography and anonymous “trench art” from the soldiers of the Great War.
“He was always interested in anonymous art — the majesty, beauty and essence of a piece,” said Margaret Pearson. “He never wanted to collect in competition with his clients of pre-Columbian art — that was one of the reasons he collected folk art.” Mr Pearson became a well-known and influential expert on primitive art. He opened Bill Pearson Fine and Primitive Art on Union Street in San Francisco in 1957. The gallery also had a location in La Jolla, Calif. His interest in pre-Columbian art began in the 1940s when he was living in Mexico and riding as a jockey for the President of Mexico.
In a 1984 catalog introduction by David A. Schorsch for a private exhibition entitled “The Billy Pearson Collection of American Folk Art” Mr Schorsch wrote, “One of his greatest discoveries was the portrait of Anna Gould Crane and Granddaughter Jennette by Sheldon Peck, which he acquired from a direct descendant of the sitters. Today that work is regarded as Peck’s masterpiece, and an icon of American folk art, having been included in a succession of major folk art exhibitions and reference books, including The Flowering of American Folk Art, Small Folk, Young America and Five Star Folk Art.”
Mr Schorsch wrote about Mr Pearson’s collecting style: “Billy Pearson confronted the newly emerging field of American folk art with an intuitive eye and unwavering gut instinct. Names were never of interest to him. First and foremost it was the character and spirit of the objects that attracted him.”
That “intuitive eye” has been validated many times, by museum curators such as Joyce Corbett who curated a 1999 exhibition at the Mingei International Museum of Folk Art in San Diego that displayed Mr Pearson’s painted Hungarian dowry chests, and by the marketplace. In 1998 Skinner Inc set a world record when it sold the Edward Burdett-carved whale’s tooth for $60,250, part of the sale of Billy Pearson’s scrimshaw collection.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm