Collecting Antiques Starts With A Good Era

Collecting-Antiques“I WAS GRABBING THINGS FROM MY cradle,” says Mitchell (Micky) Wolfson Jr., his way of acknowledging that the urge to collect came first, the rationale behind his astounding collection second. The result of this half-century of grabbing–and an $84 million inheritance–is the stunning Wolfsonian museum in Miami Beach, which houses most of the 100,000 items Wolfson has combed the globe to acquire and which has been welcomed enthusiastically by the art and museum worlds. “It’s an incredibly rich resource,” says Derek Ostergard of the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts in Manhattan. And Dodge Thompson, the National Gallery’s longtime chief of exhibitions, calls it “a valuable and cutting-edge museum.”

What makes Wolfson’s collection unique is his singular taste and interests. He has never coveted the name-brand paintings and sculptures that often adorn the homes of collectors of his background and wealth. In describing what he does not like–or what his museum is not–the term “self-conscious” comes up frequently. For him, fine art is produced when a man or woman sets out to create something beautiful or significant. Wolfson prefers objects that were created to serve a utilitarian purpose, but that “unselfconsciously” say a great deal about the society and climate from which they came. Beauty or ugliness is not the point. Instead, he looks for anthropological eloquence.

A standout example of Wolfson’s singular eye is a Carlo Bugatti table, made of pearwood, mahogany, ebony, zinc, vellum and copper wire, that looks like an arthritic spider with a taste for cheap jewelry. Bristling with spokes and finials, the table appears to be moving toward you. Few today would consider it anything but hideous, but no one can deny that it’s there, and that at least some people at one time (Italy in 1918) found it stunning.

The collection is rigidly limited to the years 1885 to 1945, a period of explosive creativity in art and design, and the range is staggering. A quick sampling would include a priceless Mackintosh cabinet; one of Thomas Edison’s first electric turbines; a woman’s leg made of aluminum that warms to press hosiery; an Italian board game of the late Thirties that depicts the invasion of Ethiopia; a 1930s salesman’s presentation book of glass, foil and plastic; and a 1933 World’s Fair souvenir showing a chamber pot and a toilet to illustrate 100 years of progress.

Although Wolfson can theorize with the best of them about the intellectual vision behind all this, he admits he has an innate instinct to acquire objects. As a boy, he had a collection of 5,000 keys, most of them pilfered from hotels and ocean-liner cabins. He was 13 when he made his first serious acquisition, a $5 second edition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, illustrated with Paul-Gustave Dore engravings, which he found while perusing bookstalls along the Seine’s Left Bank. The book thrilled him so much that he wanted to repeat the experience–again and again. Since coming into his father’s Wometco (a Florida movie-theater and media conglomerate) fortune in the 1980s, Wolfson has been traveling the world like an obsessed Flying Dutchman, searching not for redemption but for articles that “speak to him.” His close friend, the late writer John Malcolm Brinnin, said Wolfson’s life has been “an endless stroll through the world’s marches aux puces.”

So great is his collecting mania that for a while his family, staff and accountants worried that it would undo him financially. (Indeed, in the mid-1990s, rumors circulated that he was on the verge of bankruptcy, which he denies.) On his trips, more often than not, he is accompanied by an entourage–three or four of his many friends, doughty troupers who don’t mind being pulled through galleries, antiques stores and the houses of private collectors. These search parties forage such familiar terrain as Portugal and Bavaria, but just as often they work unlikely spots–Winnipeg, Iceland or the island of Quemoy.

His tagalongs must be prepared to skip meals, even rest stops, when his acquisitive blood is up. But Wolfson–a handsome, natty and happily overweight bachelor of 60–wins acquiescence with his exuberant charm and the contagion of his hunt lust. His interest in people is almost as avid and eclectic as his interest in objects. New acquaintances, at first overwhelmed by his curiosity and attention, invariably end up with feelings of warmth and admiration for him. But popularity is not his goal; Wolfson is primarily a collector, haunted by the specter of a one-of-a-kind soup tureen, foot warmer, cigar cutter or tea caddy–preferably of electrifying eccentricity–languishing unloved in a cupboard in Rio, an attic in Bratislava or a storehouse in El Paso.

Seeing Wolfson in high collecting mode is a study in unstoppable determination. For him, the minutes spent in a dealer’s showroom are a pro forma necessity that must be endured until he can talk his way into the proprietor’s living quarters, where he knows the personal treasures are kept. Once in the inner sanctum, Wolfson invariably spots an object he must have, and the battle of wills begins. Money is never the issue in a genial you-have-I-want fight to the finish.

On a trip to Santa Fe, a friend accompanied him to visit the widow of a prominent artist who was selling some of her husband’s collection. After examining the items the woman presented, Wolfson started moving around the house. “Now what do you keep in here?” he asked jovially, his hand on the door of a cupboard. “Come on now, I know you’re holding out on me. What are you hiding in this drawer? May I open it?” Overwhelmed by these effusions, the woman, like most of his bemused victims, stood paralyzed while Wolfson rummaged through her cabinets. Often this determination nets a treasure, but occasionally the result is an embarrassing encounter with underwear. Still, veterans who have seen his relentless foraging agree that he has an uncanny ability to sense the proximity of hidden gold.

After some years of search-and-acquire travel, so many packing crates began arriving on the docks of Miami that Wolfson had to rent, then buy, a storage building in which to stash it all. “It was always in my mind that one day everything I collected would be put before the public. I never bought this stuff for myself. I never had any sense of ownership. I was merely the seeker, the finder, the custodian.” As the idea of a museum came more into focus, Wolfson hired art historians and curators to make sense of his collection. “With my acquisitions I gave them an alphabet,” he says. “They formed it into a language.” The scholars, in turn, were amazed by the alphabet he laid before them. Encompassing the decorative and propaganda arts of 1885-1945, it was, they agreed, an accumulation of remarkable vision and cohesiveness. Not that Wolfson intended it as such; he readily admits he didn’t have an overall motive or design in mind when he bought the things. The term “unselfconscious” thus applies to the entire collection as well as to the individual items in it.

In no sense, however, did Wolfson fall hostage to his scholars. They put forth theory; Wolfson told them whether or not they got it right. The Wolfsonian rationale, hammered out, goes like this: every man-made object says something about the society and culture from which it came. From the objects we learn about the culture, not just its aesthetics but its values, its vision, even its morality. “We learn who we were,” he says, “and, to an extent, who we are.”

If this philosophy sounds like it narrows down the number of items that qualify for acquisition, it doesn’t. Wolfson can be maddeningly elusive when asked why he bought one object or another. “Any item made by a human” he recently said, “tells a story.” To be sure, for Wolfson, some objects are far more culturally eloquent than others. Still, predicting what he will like is a near impossibility. Dealers from Hong Kong to Dusseldorf have studied Wolfson for years but rarely know what will excite him. It is not unusual for him to be unmoved by a showroom full of rarities, only to be thrilled by an insignificant side chair in a back room. “I am never surprised when an item delights me” he says. “I am only surprised when I find it”

Wolfson’s taste, naturally, can shift with mood, concerns of the moment, maybe even atmospheric conditions. If many of the items he has acquired seem markedly eccentric, that is because Wolfson doubted anyone else would want such oddities–making them all the more in need of rescue. Only occasionally are his choices guided by his collection’s balance. For instance, the museum is short on Bauhaus design, but it will remain that way because Wolfson dislikes Bauhaus. At the same time, there are areas in which the Wolfsonian is particularly strong: British Arts and Crafts, political propaganda (including WPA, Communist and Nazi), anything to do with world’s fairs and expos (from architects’ drawings to souvenir ashtrays), transportation (especially ocean liners and trains).

Fortunately for everyone, Wolfson’s caprices have resulted in a collection that has come to be regarded as very important by the art community. That his items have also increased greatly in value is a source of pride. “I rarely paid a lot for anything; it was all nickel and dime. But the values have risen tenfold–no, twentyfold. “As have his out-of-pocket maintenance costs. He had always intended to turn over the Wolfsonian to be administered–read: subsidized –by a larger institution. That goal was achieved in 1997, when Wolfson donated the museum and its contents to Florida International University. The gift was conservatively assessed at $75 million, making him the nation’s seventh largest philanthropist that year. Wolfson still calls the shots, and FIU is glad to pick up the operating costs.

Not all of Wolfson’s purchases have ended up so well. In 1986, he bought an ersatz Renaissance castle (built between 1897 and 1906) that sits on a hill overlooking Genoa. To the Genoese, it is an eyesore. To Wolfson, it is the architectural equivalent of the Bugatti table. The crumbling pile was never used by him as a residence; he bought it as just one more eccentric whimsy that only he could love. He acquired “things” to fill the castle; these items are on display elsewhere in Genoa while the castle is being renovated. In 1997 he asked the city to take over his holdings. To his chagrin, the city fathers wanted the collection, but not the building. The result has been a comedic paso doble that recently ended happily when the city agreed to administer the collection for three years, and possibly for good. As for the ungainly Castello Mackenzie –its fate has yet to be determined.

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