Published: October 5, 2004
Rudolf G. Wunderlich, a preeminent dealer in American art for more than 50 years, died peacefully on September 22 in Fountain Valley, Calif., at the age of 83. “Rudy” Wunderlich, the leading expert in Western art, had been president of Kennedy Galleries from 1951 until 1983, and president of Mongerson-Wunderlich from 1985 until his retirement in 1998.
Rudolf Wunderlich was a founding member of the Art Dealers Association of America, one of the inaugural exhibitors of the Winter Antiques Show, and was on the original Art Advisory Panel of the Internal Revenue Service. As Stuart Feld, president of Hirschl & Adler Galleries noted, “It is truly an end of an era.”
Rudy Wunderlich also pursued a lifelong interest in collecting stamps. During his youth, Rudy invested his money in a stamp collection of airmails. He first exhibited in the late 1930s and won a “silver tray.” This first collection was sold in 1948, but he again picked up collecting in the early 1960s. This time he specialized in an area little known at the time – essays and proofs. These were the original banknote designs and color proofs submitted to the post office.
He was known as “King of US Proofs and Essays” and exhibited his stamps widely and won numerous prizes including gold awards at Sipex, 1966; Interphil, 1976; Capex, 1979; Tokyo, 1981; and the Grand Award at Aripex, 1982. He served on the board of the Philatelic Foundation. His primary dealers were Robert Siegel in New York and the Weil Brothers in New Orleans, who were legends in their own right.
If there was ever anyone destined to become an art dealer it was Rudy Wunderlich. His grandfather, Hermann Wunderlich, formerly head of the print department at Knoedler & Co., opened Hermann Wunderlich & Co. in 1874. The gallery initially specialized in fine Old Master prints by Dürer and Rembrandt, along with many others. Quickly the business evolved with the addition of several contemporary printmakers including Seymour Haden and James McNeill Whistler.
Upon Hermann’s death in 1893, his partner Edward G. Kennedy took over running the gallery and subsequently changed the name of the company to Kennedy & Company. Upon Edward Kennedy’s retirement in 1918, Herman (Jr) ran the company for the next 30-plus years through the Great Depression, and the Second World War, dealing primarily in American prints.
Born in Tarrytown, N.Y., in 1920, Rudy began working in the family art gallery during the summer of 1936. Upon graduation from Hackley School in Tarrytown, in 1938, Rudy trained at the General Motors Corporation, and during the Second World War, he was employed at GM’s Eastern Aircraft Division in Tarrytown where he became head of the drafting department, working on aircraft wings for the Grumman Avenger torpedo bombers.
By the late 1940s Rudy Wunderlich proceeded into the family art business, and upon his father’s death in 1951, became president of Kennedy Galleries at the age of 31. During the next decade he transformed Kennedy Galleries from a leading print gallery to the premier gallery for America art.
His closest client was Thomas Gilcrease, who amassed a fortune in the oil business and began collecting art. By the 1950s Gilcrease was building the foremost collection of Western art with Rudy Wunderlich as his close friend and advisor. As Kennedy Galleries began to stock Western paintings and bronzes, clients from Texas began dropping in, including Ima Hogg from Houston.
By the mid 1950s Rudy Wunderlich was acquiring a reputation as a specialist in Western art, and as a result he brokered the collection of more than 300 George Catlin paintings from the Museum of Natural History to the National Gallery of Art. The Amon Carter Museum was a regular client.
In the early 1960s Jacqueline Kennedy, as First Lady, asked for his advice and help in building a collection of original American paintings for the White House. The White House, through Clem Conger, became major clients. Mr and Mrs Rudy Wunderlich were invited to the state dinner at the White House on November 24, 1963 – the day President John Kennedy was buried.
Wunderlich advised many of the foremost collectors of his day including Harold Hochshield, who was forming a collection for a new museum in the Adirondacks, the Adirondack Museum. Wunderlich was one of the original board members of the museum. Rudolf Wunderlich had married into the Brandreth family who owned a large tract of land in the central Adirondacks, and thus he acquired a special interest in its art. As a result, many of A.F. Tait’s best work went through the gallery.
Industrialists, such as Jack Warner of Gulf State Paper Corporation and Temple Smith, were always welcome and purchased aggressively from Rudy Wunderlich. John D. Rockefeller III was a steady client and formed an early and formidable collection of Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century American art that eventually was given to the H. M. De Young Collection in San Francisco.
Rudy’s son Gerold Wunderlich remembered, “John R. would call the house frequently, and my youngest brother, who was then about 5 or 6, answered the phone, came back to the dinning table and when asked who was on the phone, answered, ‘Oh, it’s only that Mr Rockefeller again.'”
But it was Western art where Rudy made his mark, and as a result his clients included Philip Anschutz, the oilman from Denver, Harrison Eiteljorg of Indianapolis and later Ross Perot, a young entrepreneur from Dallas, and Bill Foxley, who formed the Museum of Western Art.
By the mid 1960s the gallery handled virtually all facets of American art from Eighteenth Century portraiture to the Hudson River School, American Impressionism and folk art. Kennedy Galleries continued to pursue Nineteenth Century prints, including Audubon’s, Currier & Ives, botanical illustrations and a vast selection of Americana. It also continued to specialize in Twentieth Century fine prints from Whistler to Hopper and others; Old Master prints were also a specialty.
Yet it was Frederic Remington’s sculptures where Rudy Wunderlich’s expertise blossomed. He realized there was an inconsistency in the castings of Remington’s sculptures that came into the gallery, with little or no research to fall back upon.
Some castings of Remington’s “Bronco Buster” were smaller than others, and because of Rudy’s engineering training at General Motors he realized that metals have a shrinkage factor. In other words, when a metal is cast, it shrinks slightly as it cools. Specifically, bronze shrinks approximately a quarter-inch to the foot; thus if a two-foot bronze such as Remington’s “Bronco Buster” were cast from another bronze, it would be approximately a half inch smaller than the original casting. Armed with this information, Rudy Wunderlich carefully made base tracings on every Remington bronze he came across and became the acknowledged authority on them.
By the 1970s he was the leading authority in Western Americana – the art of Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell and the other artists who portrayed the early Western frontier. The Buffalo Bill Museum awarded him a medal for his accomplishments in 1974, and not to be outdone, the National Cowboy Hall of Fame presented him with a gold medal a couple years later. He was instrumentally involved with the New-York Historical Society as well.
In 1985, he moved to Chicago and became president of Mongerson-Wunderlich Galleries until his retirement in 1998. In his later years he spent much of his time on appraising artwork for museums and private collections. By his own estimate he appraised more than $200 million in art annually. His particular emphasis was Western Americana – and in this capacity he advised and appraised virtually every major public and private collection in the field including the Amon Carter Museum, The Cowboy Hall of Fame, The Buffalo Bill Museum, the Gene Autry Museum, the Frederic Remington Museum, The Rockwell Museum, The Sid Richardson Collection and the R.W. Norton Museum.
In his introduction to the premier issue (1959) of The Kennedy Quarterly, he commented, “With the development of interest in our native culture and heritage, we were amongst the first art dealers to specialize in the important field of ‘Americana.'” Rudy was in the right place at the right time. While he had a good inventory to work from, he also had the interest and developed the knowledge to become one of the great art dealers of his generation.
He is survived by his wife Susan and his sister Roberta Chamberlain. He is also survived by his children, Gerold, Theodore and John; his stepchildren, Tyler Mongerson, Tina Smith and Lindsey Mongerson, nine grandchildren and two great grandchildren. A memorial service is planned for the end of October. For information, contact Gerold Wunderlich at Gerald Peters Gallery, 914-954-1905.
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