Published: March 7, 2023
Over the course of a few days, from April 19 to 22, Sotheby’s New York will conduct a series of seven dedicated live auctions spanning American fine and decorative arts, Chinese export works of art, design, jewelry and luxury accessories from the collection of Erving and Joyce Wolf in “The Wolf Family Collection: The Spirit of America.” We jumped at the opportunity to speak with their son, Mathew Wolf, when we asked him for some insights into his parents’ collection.
What were some of the first pieces your parents collected?
My family is from the West. My father, Erving, was from Cheyenne, Wyo. While my mother Joyce was visiting her cousin in Denver in 1951, she was introduced to my father and proposed to him three days later. Seventeen days after they met, they were married in Brooklyn, N.Y., and would remain happily so for 66 years. My parents began their lives together in Cheyenne where they had three children, and my dad began exploring for oil and gas in the Rocky Mountains. Ten years later, in 1960, we moved from Cheyenne to Denver, the center of the oil and gas business in the Rockies. That move south put the Navajo reservation, in the Four Corners area, within driving distance. There, they would discover their shared passion to collect beautiful objects. Throughout the 1960s, they would collect Navajo jewelry, weavings and pottery. Over the next 50 years they would assemble what is widely considered to be the most important collection of American art, sculpture, furniture, decorative arts and Twentieth Century design ever to come to auction.
What was it about American artistry, design and craftsmanship that so appealed to your parents?
Navajo craftsmanship played a significant role in the foundation of The Wolf Family Collection. It showed my parents that America had its own talented people. With the exception to my father’s love for the finest Chinese export porcelain, I don’t think it ever occurred to either of them to look further than our shores for beautiful things to collect. They also felt that America provided them with the opportunity to go from Cheyenne to New York City’s Fifth Avenue, and they chose to honor that spirit of America through its amazing artisans.
Was collecting a family pastime? Do you have memories you would be willing to share of one or two of your parent’s acquisitions, and what was it about those pieces that resonated so much with your parents?
In 1971, with my father’s continued success, my family moved from Denver to New York City. My parents bought an apartment across the street from Sotheby Parke Bernet, or what today we know simply as Sotheby’s, then on Madison Avenue, and their world of collecting erupted! My mother became interested in early American furniture and decorative arts and would build what is widely considered one of the most important private collections. The collection includes the McMichael-Tilghman Family “Acme of Perfection” Chippendale mahogany tea table attributed to the Garvin Carver in 1755, and a copper and enamel tray with a hyacinth bean, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1900. It is considered the finest piece of enamel work found in Tiffany’s personal collection. Around the same time, my father became interested in American sculpture from the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. That collection grew to more than 125 works, including “Winged Victory” and “Diana,” both by Augustus St Gaudens, “The Indian Warrior” by A. Phimster Proctor and more than 15 works by Paul Manship, including “The Indian Hunter with Dog.” In the early 1970s, my father also began collecting Chinese export porcelain from the mid-1600s to the mid-1700s. He was proudest of his famille noire garniture, previously owned by J.P. Morgan, and both Duveen and Rockefeller brothers. Erving and Joy shared a love of Hudson River School paintings and American Impressionist watercolors from such artists as Cropsey, Kensett, Demuth, Homer, Chase, Cassatt and Prendergast, to mention a few. They also shared an appreciation for the exceptional signed jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels, Harry Winston, Bulgari, Tiffany and other great jewelers. My older brother, Daniel, an avid collector in his own right, is responsible for the outstanding collection of Twentieth Century Design, including works by Frank Lloyd Wright and Greene & Greene.
I started to recognize that my parents were serious collectors when I was 13, just after we moved to New York City. For decades, paintings, sculpture, jewelry, drawings, silver and furniture were constantly being added to the collection. When the volume finally slowed down, the quality only increased. I never asked my parents if they had a favorite piece because I am pretty sure they found something exceptional in each piece they purchased.
Do you have a favorite piece in the sale?
I really don’t. There are more than 1,500 items in the collection. I am fascinated by different ones at different times. One day, I will be taken by Homer’s “Oranges on a Branch” and the next, a Van Cleef & Arpels brooch of a rose. Every day, something new catches my eye even though it has been there for decades!
This is a museum-worthy collection. Have you given/do you plan to give any pieces from the collection to any museums? Which ones and why?
My parents were longtime supporters of many institutions and museums, perhaps most notably, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where their names adorn a gallery within the American Wing. Over the years, they donated many works of art to the Met’s collection, as well as the Denver Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art.
Can you elaborate on which are some of the highlights of the sale, and what makes them so unique or special?
That is a good question, but I can’t answer it. One lesson this collection has taught me is that my highlights are not others. When I wonder what my parents were thinking when they bought an object, inevitably someone will tell me it’s their favorite piece of all. My parents had exquisite taste, so everything is beautiful in its own way and made by the most talented and skilled artisans at the time.
Will the family keep any pieces? What makes them so unique and special?
Over the years, I have acquired a few pieces of sculpture and paintings from the collection, but not that much. As pieces have been in the collection for as long as 50 years, I feel strongly that this is the time for pieces to find a new owner who will cherish them for the next 50 years.
[Editor’s note: All catalogs for the Wolf Family Collections auctions will be available online, at www.sothebys.com, beginning April 3.]
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