Published: January 1, 2002
As Beauty Does:
By Laura Beach
WINTERTHUR, DEL. – Since the early 1970s, when the world first became aware that a pair of Norfolk, Va., collectors were assembling antique American furniture in a spectacular way, the name Kaufman has appeared in more footnotes than anyone can remember. Whether embedded in catalog entries or exhibition monographs, affixed to promising new research or a scholar’s magnum opus, the name has signified unsurpassed excellence in a variety of endeavors.
That excellence will be formally acknowledged on January 16, when Winterthur Museum, Gardens and Library presents the Henry Francis du Pont Award for Decorative Arts and Architecture to Linda H. Kaufman and the late George M. Kaufman, collectors and philanthropists, at a dinner at Sotheby’s. Mrs Kaufman will accept the prize on behalf of her husband, who passed away on November 1, having learned last March that he was to be honored.
The Kaufmans are only the tenth recipients of the Du Pont Award, established in 1984. The prize is bestowed only when a committee headed by Morrison H. Heckscher, chairman of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, believes it is truly deserved. Past recipients include two editors, Alice Winchester and Wendell Garrett; educators and museum builders Frank Horton, Clement Conger and Abbott Lowell Cummings; the dealers Harold, Albert and Robert Sack; and the private collectors Bert and Nina Fletcher Little, Ralph Carpenter, and Pamela Cunningham Copeland.
Friends and colleagues recall George Kaufman as a man of great passion and immoderate ambition.
“He did everything in the biggest and best way possible, and delighted in the finest that life has to offer. I’ll never forget the almost all-night sessions we had looking at objects under consideration. We had a very good time,” Heckscher remembers. Kaufman’s passions were ecumenical, ranging from the perfect rose to his own homemade brownies.
“He savored everything,” says Wendy A. Cooper, Winterthur’s senior furniture curator, a longtime friend and “kindred spirit” who will present the award. “He loved life, beauty, the chase and the quest.”
George Mansbach Kaufman was born May 6, 1932, in Norfolk, the son of a prominent local attorney who built up one of the area’s most successful practices. The future collector attended private school near Philadelphia before studying at the University of Virginia, where he earned a master’s degree in business administration in 1959.
After a brief stint on Wall Street and work at a local bank, George Kaufman formed a small brokerage firm, Kaufman Brothers Co., Inc, with his brother, Charles, Jr. Before long, he struck out on his own, as a developer of apartment buildings in Virginia and neighboring North Carolina. By 1972, Kaufman had converted an Atlanta apartment complex into an all-suite hotel, an innovation that, expanded into the Guest Quarters group, made him wealthy.
In 1958, Kaufman married Linda Hofheimer, a Norfolk native who had grown up with fine antique furniture and ceramics, acquired by her parents from New York dealers such as Ginsburg & Levy and Israel Sack, Inc. The Hofheimers’ exquisite collection of Worcester porcelain, 360 pieces in all, is now installed in two dedicated galleries at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk.
Visit to I. Sack
Before long, the newlyweds were collecting, too. In an engaging article published in The Magazine Antiques in 1986, Kaufman puts the date of his rebirth as a collector to May 1958, when he wandered into Israel Sack, Inc, to escape the rain.
“By the time the skies had cleared, I owned a flat-topped Massachusetts high chest of drawers of about 1750, and we were on our way – although we didn’t know it at the time.”
George and Linda set about creating a beautiful home. “They made all their buying decisions together, and they cared about having the very best,” says Cooper. “They lived with things and appreciated them. Their home was never a museum,” recalls New York dealer Bernard Levy.
Far from New York and its great public collections and galleries, they educated themselves about antiques by poring over books and catalogs.
“They understood the importance of a good library,” says Cooper, who believes the couple’s own thirst for knowledge had everything to do with their unstinting support of scholarly publishing projects in the years to come.
Their support has continued. Most recently, the Kaufmans agreed to underwrite the cost of publishing the book that will accompany “An American Vision: Henry du Pont’s Winterthur Museum,” the show opening at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., on May 5, as part of Winterthur’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
“Their major activity as collectors began more or less in the American Wing around 1969 or 1970,” says Morrison Heckscher. “I saw a great deal of them. There was this enormous enthusiasm, constant trips to New York, all very exciting.”
This vigorous phase culminated in 1986, when the Kaufman collection was unveiled at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. At the time, New York dealer Harold Sack, whose firm had sold 70 of the 101 pieces on view, told the Washington Post that his clients were among “that small group of collectors who started in the 1960s in a relatively modest manner and achieved a great collection.” The common denominator of these collectors, he said, was an “an appreciation of the work of the craftsman as an artist. They approach the study of furniture as one of aesthetics, and bring it to the level of fine arts.”
Though the couple bought many pieces with impressive pedigrees, Kaufman was only incidentally interested in provenance.
“It is sufficient for me that an object is American and that I like its design and the skill with which it was made. In all candor, I’d rather have an American antique desk that appeals to me because of its proportions, craftsmanship and overall beauty than an ugly desk used by George Washington,” he wrote.
“Their taste was our taste,” Albert Sack recently observed. “The concept is very clear as I look back on it. My father always sought out the genius of the American craftsman. Ordinary people and ordinary antiques were all right, but they didn’t interest him. The common theme of the Kaufman collection was excellence. The range was great and the results were incredible.”
Through the 1970s and into the 1980s, the Kaufmans made one important acquisition after the next. In 1973, they purchased, from Israel Sack, Inc, a remarkable Boston gaming table whose checkerboard top slides open to reveal a backgammon board. In 1974, they formed a partnership with Colonial Williamsburg, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and another private collector to buy a set of five hairy-paw foot chairs at Sotheby’s. And in 1975 they acquired, from Bernard & S. Dean Levy a Philadelphia desk-and-bookcase of such virtuosity that even the experts were for a time mystified by it.
Bernard Levy delights in retelling the story of the secretary’s capture. In 1971, The Magazine Antiques published Robert C. Smith’s article, “Finial Busts on Eighteenth Century Philadelphia Furniture.” Subsequently, the author received a photograph of such a bust from a California family. He referred the photograph to Levy, who inquired if there was perhaps more to see. Indeed there was. Dealer and scholar flew to California, where they found the bookcase in a hallway of the family home and the desk in the adjacent living room.
“Years later, the owners got in touch. They wanted to sell, but only to a museum,” Levy remembers. Meanwhile, a museum client was skeptical that such a high-style rdf_Description could be American. Levy’s English colleagues, on the other hand, found the work provincial. After curators got a first-hand look, they concluded that not only was the desk-and-bookcase American, it was the most elaborate and ambitious piece to be derived from Thomas Chippendale’s Director, made in Philadelphia between 1755 and 1765. Still, when no institution could come up with the funds, the Kaufmans quickly seized the opportunity, purchasing the piece in 1975.
That same year, the Kaufmans bought two rare examples of Boston japanned furniture, a flattop high chest of drawers attributed to John Scottow and a dressing table, the only known American William and Mary example of the form. The circa 1700-1730 pieces had been acquired by Nathan Liverant & Son of Colchester, Conn., from descendants of the Cogswell-Dixon family of Massachusetts.
Zeke Liverant offered them to his friend Albert Sack. Recalled George Kaufman, “Linda and I immediately flew to New York City. By the time we arrived, two major Eastern museums were trying to raise funds to buy them. I asked Harold Sack to give me 24 hours to make up my mind; we purchased them the following day.” Years afterwards, Israel Sack, Inc, bought the high chest back for more than $1 million, more than ten times what the collectors had paid for it, reselling it to the Virginia Museum of Art.
The Kaufmans purchased a Classical lyre-based card table from Garrison, N.Y., dealer Ronald DeSilva in 1977. The following year they bought, from Joe Kindig III, a flamboyant Boston Masonic chair of circa 1765-90 that had been on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When Berry Tracy, the late curator of the American Wing, told the Kaufmans that he wanted the chair to stay at the Met, the Kaufmans “agreed to buy the chair and lend it to the museum with the understanding that we would someday donate it outright.” The gift was made final just this past year. In 1980, on a visit to Kindig’s York, Penn., shop, the Kaufmans acquired a Philadelphia card table, the mate to one at Colonial Williamsburg; a Philadelphia high chest of drawers and matching dressing table; a hairy paw-foot pole screen; and a Philadelphia tea table.
In 1980, the Kaufmans met J. Michael Flanigan, now a private dealer in American furniture in Baltimore, Md. He became the couple’s curator – “chief cook and bottle washer,” as he modestly puts it -in 1984, remaining in the position for three years.
“It was the most incredible experience working for these two connoisseurs,” says Flanigan, whose admiration and affection is undimmed by the years. “People would ask me, ‘What are they buying?’ I would always say, ‘the best.’ That’s a high standard to maintain. When you get to 150 objects, the 151st has to be as good as the others, as well as something you don’t already have.”
National Gallery Debut
“The Kaufmans’ commitment to making their collection available was unique,” continues Flanigan, who for much of his time was engaged in cataloging objects in anticipation of the 1986-87 National Gallery exhibition. He produced a book, American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection, which includes essays by Cooper, Heckscher and Gregory R. Weidman.
The show was installed by the late Gill Ravenel and Mark Leithauser, National Gallery designers who were renowned for “The Treasure Houses of Britain,” a sumptuous loan show of objects from England’s National Trust, mounted in 1985 at the height of Charles and Diana-inspired Anglophilia in the United States.
Like “Treasure Houses,” “American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection” was, for the National Gallery, a rare foray into the decorative arts and the museum’s first exhibition of furniture from a single owner. Then director J. Carter Brown argued persuasively that the Kaufman stash represented “one of the largest and most refined collections of early American furniture in private hands.”
Writing for the Washington Post, Sarah Booth Conroy described “American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection,” which opened in October 1986 and continued through April 1987, as a departure from the “lush period settings” of “Treasure Houses.” The designers, she noted, “rightly have chosen to show the furniture with dramatic but austere architectural technique: a few arches, some borders, a bit of molding.”
Organized chronologically and geographically into the Colonial, Federal and Empire periods, dramatically lit furniture was shown on platforms of staggered height as “domestic-scale sculpture” or “movable architecture.” The point, as the Post’s antiques columnist Heidi Berry observed, was to “show each piece as a work of art, and, at the same time, evoke a room setting that one can almost imagine living in.” Berry said of the Kaufmans, “The results of their discerning taste and relentless pursuit of quality are abundantly clear…”
“We were absolutely astounded by attendance, and we sold so many books that we had to reprint them,” Flanigan recalls. At the Kaufmans’ insistence, copies were mailed to “all the major institutions that had libraries. We got the most amazing thank you letters. Again, it was like George to want to make the collection available in every way.”
The Kaufmans collected at a slower pace after 1986. Their stunning home was full to bursting, few gaps in their assemblage remained to be filled, and prices at auction had escalated dramatically by the close of the decade, discouraging even the most aggressive buyers. The couple became more interested in late Classical design, a taste first stimulated by Berry Tracy and invigorated by Wendy Cooper, whose landmark show, “Classical Taste In America,” opened at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1993.
The couple’s many purchases included a handsome Baltimore painted window bench, circa 1820-40, acquired from Milly McGehee and Stiles Colwill in 1989 and included in Cooper’s exhibit. The Kaufmans also developed a keen eye for Southern furniture, relying on the advice of the late John Bivins, Jr, a furniture scholar formerly associated with the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., where the couple had been actively involved.
“We’ve sold them several really landmark pieces of American Neoclassical furniture,” acknowledges Stuart Feld, president of Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York. “One is a Boston pier table made for Nathan Appleton. Another is a Quervelle center table, the mate to one at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Both pieces have extraordinary specimen marble tops. Years ago we sold them something that was a modest acquisition, but, in typical Kaufman fashion, it was the best of the best. The Kaufmans really had a wonderful sense of scale, design and proportion that led them to buy beautiful things.”
The elegant ensemble was completed with Dutch landscape paintings, and American and French watercolors.
“Over the years, George also had a keen interest in brass,” adds Cooper. That interest was almost certainly encouraged by their friend Charles Montgomery, a passionate advocate for base-metals artifacts of all kinds and Yale University’s charismatic professor of American decorative arts through most of the 1970s.
“George was a founding chairman of the Friends of American Arts at Yale, a position he held for about five years,” Yale curator David Barquist relates. “He was very much interested in supporting scholarship, and Yale was a place where that was an immediate part of what was going on. The Kaufmans were lenders to exhibitions here, including ‘Toward Independence’ in 1976 and ‘The Work of Many Hands’ in 1982. They partially funded American Tables and Looking Glasses in the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University, which we published in 1992.”
The Kaufmans repeated their patronage at institutions around the country, awarding grants in support of exhibitions and publications and arranging loans of objects through the Kaufman Americana Foundation, established by the couple in 1977.
Their gifts have been especially thoughtful, often answering a specific need or presented with a particular person in mind. After Montgomery died in 1978, for instance, the Kaufmans gave Yale an important American iron and brass candleholder in their mentor’s name. In 2001, for Yale’s Tercentennial, they gave the art gallery a marble-topped New York pier table with gilt mounts fashioned as Robinson Crusoe and Friday.
At the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, says MESDA vice president Paula Locklair, the Kaufmans underwrote a year’s worth of research in England for staff member Brad Rauschenberg, who is completing the major set of books on Charleston furniture that he began with John Bivins, who had been MESDA’s director of publications. The couple also gave the museum objects, including a Portsmouth, Va., area side table and a cabinet-on-chest from Charleston.
Perhaps no institution has benefited more handsomely than the Chrysler Museum of Art, where Linda Kaufman has been a trustee since 1975.
“She has chaired our collections committee, is a founder of our collectors’ group, and has endowed a flower fund to beautify our building. She is a never-ending source of extraordinarily creative ideas,” says museum director William Hennessey.
Moreover, for the past decade a representative assortment of American furniture from the Kaufman collection has been on loan to the museum, whose holdings in that area are otherwise spotty, leading to unconfirmed speculation that the Chrysler Museum might one day be the collection’s permanent home.
Meanwhile, much of the couple’s legacy has already been bestowed in the form of books and exhibitions. “George didn’t wait until the next generation,” says Flanigan. “He made the funds and his collection available during his lifetime.”
Among other projects, the Kaufmans helped fund “American Rococo, 1750-1775: Elegance in Ornament,” co-curated by Morrison Heckscher and Leslie Greene Bowman for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1992. The Kaufmans also underwrote the Met’s Eighteenth Century American furniture catalog, published in 1985, and gave two galleries in their name.
“I can’t think of anyone who was more clearly focused on the need for scholarship,” says Heckscher, recalling that the Kaufmans even set up a fund at Winterthur to help students buy books.
George Kaufman’s life was far from untroubled. His real estate concerns were especially hard hit in the recession of the early 1990s. The collector rebounded from his financial difficulties but his health suffered. He underwent a heart transplant in 1995. Two years later, the couple endowed the Kaufman Center for Heart Failure at the Cleveland Clinic with a multimillion dollar gift. It was generous gesture in a life filled with them.
To the end, George Kaufman’s enthusiasm for antiques was boundless. Days before he died, the couple invited friends touring Norfolk with the Decorative Arts Trust to visit them at home. Says Flanigan, “George and Linda were devoted to quality, to scholarship, and to making beautiful objects available to the public. They deserve this award.” Adds Cooper, “Over the past quarter century I’ve witnessed the rewards of George’s and Linda’s striving for perfection, not just in collecting American furniture, but in every aspect of their lives.”
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