The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum
By R. Scudder Smith
NEW YORK CITY — “If it stands on its own, can defend itself, and it sings to you, buy it,” Ralph Esmerian said recently while tipped back in his office chair and talking about his collection of American folk art. This collection, which includes many of the icons of the folk art world, will now be “singing” in public as 432 objects join the collection of the American Folk Art Museum.
“It was about ten years ago when I decided my collection should go to the museum, and the time is right as the doors to an exciting, new museum building open at 45 West 53rd Street,” he said.
Just as this new home for the American Folk Art Museum can be called exciting, so can the path that led Ralph Esmerian to its door. He was born in Paris, grew up in New York, and when he was in his early 20s moved to Greece to teach theater and literature. During his childhood he collected sparingly, picking up on the stuff kids take to in those early years, and did not really get down to serious things until his stay in Greece. There he bought and studied pieces of Greek pottery, fascinated not only by the shape of the object but by the design as well. But of even greater importance, these objects had been made by ordinary people for use in their daily lives.
The pottery collection remained behind when Ralph returned to the United State in 1964, and he was well primed to continue down the collecting trail. A trip to a gallery on 57th Street to buy a birthday present for his friend June Ewing was successful, resulting in the purchase of a colorful coverlet. Before leaving the gallery, however, Ralph’s pottery instincts became stirred at the sight of a small redware plate, slip decorated, Southeastern Pennsylvania, by an unknown artist. And while the plate was small in size, just under 5 inches in diameter, it soon became the foundation for a collection that was built one treasure at a time over a period of close to 40 years.
“I can thank my father for teaching me to measure quality as he taught me the gemstone business, setting up a scale of good versus bad,” Ralph said, adding, “I can easily relate to colors as it is all in a day’s work handling precious stones.” He is involved in the jewelry design process as well as providing stone on a wholesale level.
“Some special requests can take up to three years to fill,” he said. Of late, there has been a shift as the firm expanded into jewelry dating from the 1920s and the Victorian era, a direction that now constitutes over half of its business. Having been in the merchant field all of his business life, he became accustomed to prices governed by quality, a standard that helped guide him in his folk art collecting.
“It was the first ten to 15 years of collecting that were the most satisfying,” Ralph said, recalling those once a month trips to Pennsylvania to seek out more pottery and other things. “I really hated Frakturs when I first started and could only see pottery,” he mentioned. His love for Frakturs started in 1966 with his first purchase and resulted in a fine collection numbering “I guess about seventy-five.” Sixty were among the rdf_Descriptions gifted to the museum.
Those buying trips gave him the opportunity to gain rapport and respect from many of the dealers, including Jack Lamb and Joe Kindig, Jr. “Joe helped refine my sight, although he was really a furniture dealer and not a believer in folk art,” Ralph said. He added that some of the dealers did not know why he really wanted some of the things and would bring them back to New York, speaking as if they were being sent to a foreign country.
The auction business proved, over time, to be a valuable source for building the collection and he credits Sotheby’s and Nancy Druckman, head of its Folk Art Department, with bringing folk art into focus through the sale of some notable collections while achiev-ing high and often record prices. Important sales included the collections of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, George Horace Lorimer, Helen Janssen Wetzel, Bernard Barenholtz, Ste-wart Gregory, Austin and Jill Fine and Don and Faye Walters, among others. Today Ralph feels that the best folk art to come to auction is found at many of the “country” firms, such as Northeast Auctions and Skinner.
“The cost of selling at auction is very high in New York and the galleries are looking for pieces that are going to bring in big dollars, such as some of the Old Master and Impressionistic works. Folk art does not carry such a steep price tag,” he said.
And while Ralph Esmerian finds “auctions boring,” he has acquired over half his collection with paddle in hand. His reasons for not enjoying the auction scene include the emphasis that is too often placed on the price paid, and not on the merits of the objects. “It all creates attention because we live in a dollar sign world.” He added, “I like to buy something and get it home without fanfare.”
Dealers have supplied many of the objects in the Esmerian Collection and Ralph has worked with a good number of them over the years.
“Today I feel that David Wheatcroft is about the best dealer of folk art for he not only has top of the line objects, but has the right attitude toward what he sells.”
In the past the name of Jerry Kornblau came to mind first, a dealer who was “always looking for the home run and would sometimes take years to come up with a great piece.” It was Jerry who discovered the Tin Man in the shop window of the West End Sheet Metal and Roofing Works in Long Island City. This object attracted a great deal of attention standing in his booth at The Winter Antiques Show where Ralph first saw it and commented, “It is ugly and has no warmth.”
Ten years later, as tastes change, Jerry again owned the Tin Man and this time Ralph bought it. “I am very fond of him now,” he said of the figure that stood in a corner of his office before it left for the museum.
Ralph gave a smile as he recalled another Jerry Kornblau experience, one involving a store manikin, circa 1920. After purchasing the figure, he agreed to have Jerry deliver it and in due time it arrived, carefully wrapped in layers of bubble packing and blankets. In removing the packing materials, Jerry broke off the head of the manikin and, as Ralph remembers, “saw a sale fade away.” Not the case, the figure was repaired and to this day stands in the guest room in all her glory.
Restoration and fine tuning an object are not strangers to Ralph Esmerian, yet nothing is done to a piece that will challenge the original intent of the artist. He firmly believes that the visual impact of a bright watercolor is impaired by the dark frame containing it.
“A watercolor needs room to breathe and often there is little if any proof that the frame is original to the piece,” he said. In the case of some of his works by Jacob Maentel, John Bickel and Caterina Bickel and Maria Rex Zimmerman and Peter Zimmerman for instance, the husband and wife have been reframed together. “This was always a thorn in the side of Mary Allis and she scolded me all the time for it,” Ralph said.
“I remember a time when folk art commanded little respect in some of the New York museums and not only was the Whitney getting rid of many of its things, but the Met indicated that if we had a building we could have most of its collection,” Ralph said. That was the early 1980s, a time when the Museum of American Folk Art (now called the American Folk Art Museum) was working to make a name for itself in New York. He came on board as a trustee in 1973 and immediately became the treasurer, a post he held until 1977 when he moved on to be president and chairman of the board. From 1999 to the present he remains chairman.
Unlike other institutions, Ralph set his sights on building a permanent folk art collection and expanding the physical layout of the museum to hold it. He felt great things should be acquired and proved his intentions through the purchase of “Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog,” a fine oil on canvas by Ammi Phillips. The owner of this picture, working through a dealer, wanted it to go to a museum and first on the list was Williamsburg, followed by The National Gallery.
“We were fourth in line,” Ralph remembers, and “had to wait two months for the other institutions to sign off on it.” It was one of the works picked by Jean Lipman and Alice Winchester for “The Flowering of American Folk Art” at the Whitney and “would be a great boost to the museum if we acquired it,” Ralph added. This picture has been assigned a permanent place in the new museum, in full view at the back of the museum near the staircase leading to the second floor.
So while the girl in red dress commands attention on the ground level, the Ralph Esmerian Collection brings “American Radiance” to light on the third and fourth floors. “This will be the only time that the entire gift will be shown together,” said Stacy Hollander, senior curator and director of exhibitions who was responsible for making the selections for the museum from the entire Esmerian collection.
“It was exciting,” she said, “to be able to go there and take what we needed for the museum.” There was no limit on the number of things she could take. She selected enough redware pottery to cram the shelves of a Lancaster County open cupboard, 14 watercolors by Jacob Maentel, enough Frakturs to easily fill a large wall, a fine selection of canes, many wood carvings, a life-size Dapper Dan, and a number of weathervanes, including the Statue of Liberty, now permanently installed with other vanes on a towering wall.
So where does this leave Ralph Esmerian’s apartment?
“It is lots more open, most of the walls are bare, but there is still plenty of furniture left that I have bought over the years from Joe Kindig,” Ralph said. He added that “some things were not worth taking for the museum as it would only duplicate what is already in the collection, and I am not for doubles.”
He also indicated that now is the time to open up some closets and bring out a few different things. In addition, when some of the objects are not on exhibit, they will not go into museum storage but will come home, either to the office or the apartment, until such time as the museum will again put them on display.
Really, Ralph Esmerian is not lacking things to decorate his walls. His collecting interests have led to Disney cels and storyboards, watercolor scene of New York City dating from the late Nineteenth Century, and a recent interest in photographs. And is he going to hop in the car and go off antiquing again?
“Probably not, as I seem to wear out easily these days and have plenty to keep me busy at the office.” He loves his work and is at it six days a week, using Saturday to play “catch-up,” is a passionate Yankee fan, makes museums his hobby, and enjoys the energy that is New York.
“At the end of the day I really enjoy going home,” he said, but generally eats out on his way there. “I am a poor cook and lean towards Japanese food,” he added. There was a time when he would walk more than 30 blocks between work and home, but that stopped about ten years ago.
“I have been spoiled according to my own taste,” he said recently, and what a way to be spoiled. And there is no better proof than to view “American Radiance” at the new facility of the American Folk Art Museum after the official ribbon-cutting on December 11. Second to a first-hand look at the show is a copy of the catalog, a whopping 571 pages showing each object in full color, complete with a detailed description at the back of the book.
“It is lavish, well done, and heavy,” Ralph Esmerian said of the Abrams publication -and it is certain to find its way into the hands of every collector of American folk art. For truly it documents one of the finest collections, objects that beautifully link us to past generations through a gathering of everyday things that have “sung” to its collector, Ralph Esmerian.