Published: August 6, 2019
By Laura Beach, Editor-At-Large, Photos by Greg Smith, Editor
TORRINGTON, CONN. – Can a maximalist become a minimalist, even a little? When Peter Tillou told us he was thinking of downsizing, we knew it was time for a visit. This professional collector, who has been selling out of his home in Litchfield for 54 years, is one of the last, best examples of the great American dealer of the postwar era. At 83 he still exudes the exuberance, knowledge and flair that first earned him recognition in the late 1950s. It is a commonplace to say that dealers err when they try to live like the client, but what about the clients who wanted to live like Peter Tillou?
In the age of the specialist, Tillou remains an enlightened generalist. As he puts it, “Another avenue, another love affair.” For a catalog he prepared for his 39 Duke Street gallery in the fashionable London neighborhood of St James, he explained, “We propose to offer an interesting variety of rare and distinguished works of art” united by their “high level of quality and beauty.” Certain “intuitive criteria” govern his choices. Quality, rarity, condition and beauty are, of course, a must. Beyond that, an object or work of art must arouse his emotion.
Tillou’s magpie tastes resonate with the eclectic impulses of the current era, a time when exhibitors at leading shows are encouraged to mix-and-match, to refrain from anything smacking of intellectual pedantry. As he told Antiques and Fine Art in 2008, “I developed strong feelings at an early age – which I still hold – that in an ideal environment, no works of art would be signed, and each work would be judged solely on its own quality and merit.”
One suspects that the profusion that typifies Tillou’s approach to display has in it an element of showmanship, an art in which he excels. A story he tells about the late folk art collector Austin Fine is revealing. “Austin was a tenacious buyer when he saw something he liked. If it was a personal thing in your house, he would never quit asking. If I knew he was coming I would hide something from the gallery on the third floor of my house, where the great collection was. He’d pick out exactly what I’d put there for him. After some back and forth, I’d say ‘done.’ Well, of course I’d taken it up there for him to get excited. It was always for sale. Later in life, I said, ‘Austin, we were doing a big deal and I was helping you.’ He said, ‘Peter, we’re getting older and the house is full. Have we not had fun?’ There were lots like him who were that passionate.”
A good place to see the Tillou philosophy at work – or better, at play – is at his private bank in Torrington, a 12-minute drive from his house. The building’s disciplined Neoclassical exterior in no way suggests Tillou’s symphonic arrangement inside. Look closely, however, and the interior is a biographical reader on the dealer himself.
Around 2000, Tillou acquired and restored the offices of the Torrington branch of the Hartford National Bank and Trust Company, a successor to Connecticut’s first chartered bank, founded in 1792. According to the Torrington Historical Society, local contractors Mascetti and Holley constructed the brick and marble edifice in 1917. The bank’s first owners may have traded in certificates of deposit, but Tillou invests in the belief that objects make history tangible and beauty is essential to human well-being.
“It took years and a couple of master craftsmen to restore the bank. By the time we finished in 2002, I had decided that what I bought to be my private sanctum would instead be my workplace,” Tillou says of the by-appointment showroom. “It has five wonderful vaults and I can hang 6- or 10-foot-high paintings here. We stripped out all the old offices but saved the original footprint. I bought period lighting, some of it from banks of roughly the same date, from architectural salvage dealers. I don’t remember how long it took me to fill up the bank.” Inventory from Tillou’s now closed New York and London galleries, as well as Americana, Native American and Western art from his Sun Valley, Idaho, residence, now sold, accelerated the process.
A recent tour of the bank offered a chance to contemplate the arc of Tillou’s long career, underway by the time he was a teen and in high gear when he graduated in 1957 from Ohio Wesleyan University, where the budding art connoisseur, classic car collector, sportsman, golfer and man about town was known to be “famously unconventional.”
A full suit of armor and an antique shotgun suspended from a carved mantel speak to Tillou’s prominence in the field of antique arms, which he exhibited at his first antiques show in 1949. His interest in Americana generally and antique arms especially contributed to his close friendship with the York, Penn., dealer Joe Kindig Jr, from whom he bought at an early age, what he describes as “a famous Annapolis highboy,” now at Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. Tillou says the best piece of American furniture in the bank now may be his documented Duncan Phyfe dining table. Possibly from Charleston, S.C., a Federal desk and bookcase with glazed double doors is another contender.
Early American glass in seductive shades of cobalt, emerald, teal and amber glow on a windowsill. Glass was a love Tillou shared in common with Garth Oberlander, a fellow graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University who invited the college-age wunderkind to work with him at his newly formed auction house, Garth’s. It was in Ohio that Tillou began assembling an important collection of early Midwestern glass. He took a two-page advertisement in The Magazine Antiques in October 1963 to advertise the 200-piece collection, the sale of which helped finance the purchase of his first house in Litchfield in 1965. The bank also yields Venetian glass, English wine bottles and Toby jugs. Early German stoneware? “I’ve been selling it for years. For its age and history, it’s a great thing.”
Many people associate Tillou with folk art. To look at Nineteenth-Century Folk Painting: Our Spirited National Heritage and Where Liberty Dwells: 19th-Century Art by the American People, catalogs to the traveling show of Tillou’s collection that circulated among seven museums between 1973 and 1977, is to understand the dealer’s substantial influence on taste and the market for primitive portraiture in that decade and beyond. “I was right there in the beginning,” acknowledges the dealer, who purchased his first Ammi Phillips canvas for $50 while still in college and has owned dozens of examples by the artist.
Perhaps no one shaped Tillou’s interests more than his mother, painter Virginia Tillou (1906-1995), who instilled in her son a deep respect for the creative life. The dealer showed his appreciation by investing in the careers of the émigré Russian artist Nicolai Vasilieff (1887-1970) and the self-taught painter Winfred Rembert (b 1945). Scattered throughout the bank are examples of both painters’ work.
“Oh, that’s the greatest. It’s a Mason touring car. It’s the best, rarest car I’ve ever known and I’m going to offer it for sale. I’ve handled 40 or 50 vintage cars over the years,” he says, producing a framed 1950s snapshot of himself in a 1932 Packard convertible with his fraternity brothers. The showroom also houses a green Bentley and a Hudson race car.
Tillou loves rugs. During the years he participated in the Winter Show he made a habit of buying them from fellow exhibitor Peter Pap. He explains, “We had a tradition where I would scoot down to his booth and pick out a favorite to add to my collection. Some rugs went down on my floors, others I put away. I never sold any. Pap also came to the house and provided the carpets that have graced my large rooms.”
“I’ll show you the Chinese room,” says the dealer, leading the way to the mezzanine, where dozens of figures and vessels in clay and bronze fill shelves and cover a table. Tillou, who favors Tang and Han dynasty pottery and Warring States bronzes, remembers the brief window when tomb treasures were both plentiful and legal in the international marketplace. “I bought every good jug and wine flask I could find. My best horses are back at the house.”
The tour ends in the directors’ room, near a jumble of American currency price guides. Antique coins were Tillou’s first love. He began trading them as a boy and remains partial to them today.
Is there anything Tillou likes but did not buy? Well, yes. “I like books. I also like Japanese art. I tried it for a while but it was too complicated,” he says. What would he buy if he were starting over? American Modernist paintings, he thinks, though scarcity of great material has made being a dealer less fun.
“My bank has mostly been off-limits. Now I am thinking of retiring and selling some of the contents. I have two grandchildren who will be in college for four years,” Tillou, sounding much like other parents, says as we leave. He plans to send a portion of the bank’s contents to auction this fall. In its broad outlines, the sale will resemble his last auction in 2010, when Christie’s offered “A Cabinet of Curiosities: Selections from the Peter Tillou Collections.” The exotic miscellany of Old Master paintings, European furniture, tribal art, art glass, fossils and minerals realized $1.3 million on 225 lots offered.
Another 200-lot sale would barely scratch the surface of what this acquisitor, avowed and unrepentant, owns. Great American folk paintings and Old Master pictures, American and English furniture, Native American beadwork, glass, antique swords and firearms, and more fill the Litchfield house. On a recent visit, two canvases – an arresting Thomas Chambers landscape and a portrait the dealer attributes to Ralph Earl – leaned casually against a center-hall wall, an invitation to join Peter Tillou in his gallop through history.
As Tillou the boy told his father, “It’s the hunt, Dad. That’s what counts.”
March 15, 2016
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