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My Debt to Eugene Thaw, the Late Dealer, Collector, Connoisseur, Scholar, Donor, Mentor

I’ve never met an art dealer as brilliant and multifaceted as Eugene V. Thaw, who died Jan. 3 at the age of 90. Selling works of highest quality, from old masters to modern, he advised the wealthiest and most discriminating collectors. But he generously took time, long ago, to share his insights with me as a young journalist trying to understand the mysterious ways of the artworld.

Eugene V. Thaw
Photo: Sari Goodfriend, the Morgan Library & Museum

With a connoisseur’s eye that encompassed a wide panorama of centuries and cultures, Gene collected eclectically, promising or gifting his wide-ranging holdings to several museums: His 18th-20th century European staircase models went to the Cooper-Hewitt; his Native American collection went to the Fenimore Art Museum; his small 19th-century plein-air oil sketches went to the Metropolitan Museum and the Morgan Library & Museum; his art of the ancient nomadic people of China and Mongolia went to the Met.

But arguably his greatest personal collection consisted of master drawings, some 400 of which went to the Morgan, where he was a trustee. More than 150 were installed, in consultation with Thaw, in a temporary exhibition—Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection, which closed yesterday at the Morgan and will open Feb. 3 at the Clark Art Institute, another institution with which he had close ties. There it will become, sadly, a memorial exhibition.

Andrea Mantegna, “Three Standing Saints,” ca. 1450-1455
Thaw Collection, Morgan Library & Museum

The Morgan has issued this tribute to its longtime friend and benefactor:

Gene was a vibrant, inspiring force at the Morgan for over 60 years, serving as a Trustee for three decades. Together with his beloved wife, Clare, Gene made transformative contributions, most notably for the Thaw Conservation Center, the Drawing Institute, the Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery, and the Eugene and Clare Thaw Curator of Drawings and Prints.

Gene had a passion for the art of drawing, acquiring over 400 extraordinary works, the finest such holdings in private hands. He freely shared his passion with others, ultimately giving the entire Thaw Collection to the Morgan, where it will be a public treasure forever preserved, interpreted, and celebrated.

Gene’s love for the Morgan was palpable, and he placed his own distinctive and indelible mark on the institution. In recognition, a decade ago the Trustees awarded Gene the Morgan Medal, bestowed for rare cultural munificence. We have lost a respected, cherished friend, and we profoundly honor Gene’s legacy at the Morgan.

Eugene Thaw with Colin Bailey, the Morgan’s director
Photo by Graham S. Haber

Thaw was an honorary trustee of the Met and co-author with Francis V. O’Connor (who died in November) of the four-volume Jackson Pollock catalogue raisonné. His gift through the Thaw Charitable Trust created the endowment for the director’s position at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in East Hampton, NY.

For my CultureGrrl tribute, here are some of the insights that Gene shared with me (as quoted in my book, The Complete Guide to Collecting Art):

Dealers often show their most favored works to their most favored customers, and the trick of art collecting, according to New York dealer Eugene Thaw, who sells works from old masters to moderns, is to get people to offer you their best. New collectors are at a serious disadvantage, in Thaw’s view, because they are often offered the leftovers—works that have proved of no interest to gallery regulars.

To overcome this disadvantage, Thaw suggests that the new collector pick a few firms with which he can become familiar and get a welcome when he comes, so that he can have easy access to their finds. The artworld, he said, is such a small place that “if a collector makes an intelligent first purchase and behaves properly, he will immediately become part of the establishment of collectors. Dealers are always looking for collectors worth bringing along.”

Thaw’s gallery, which rarely spends time with new collectors unless they are introduced by museum curators, scholars or other art professionals, is perhaps more exclusive than most….

Eugene Thaw commented that “a collector should tell me honestly what he’s looking for and what his limits are. He should not ask to look at a $2-million van Gogh [those were the days!] if what he’s really interested in is a $50,000 Picasso drawing. It is a maddening thing when a collector wants to see everything I’ve got and wastes my time.”

Thaw added that the amount of help he is willing to give collectors “depends on how much they respect and trust me and how much they are interested in the quality I stand for and the privilege of seeing great things. People who are arrogant or aloof don’t get the best of me.

And here’s what Gene told me about his method of negotiating with collectors who wanted to sell works through his gallery:

“I will not make an offer to a collector,” said Eugene Thaw. “He has to offer a work at a price. If I want to, I can then make a counter-offer. If the collector says, ‘I don’t know what to ask,’ and then I say, ‘I’ll offer $30,000,’ the collector will find an excuse to get out of my gallery and take the work to someone else to see if he can get $35,000. I will have lost it, but I will have established the value for it. If someone doesn’t know what to ask, I say, ‘Take it to someone else, see what they offer and let me know.'”

Eugene V. Thaw was canny, generously philanthropic and, to me, unfailingly candid in explaining a world about which I was eagerly trying to learn.

As a formidably knowledgeable art dealer/connoisseur/scholar, he was one-of-a-kind.

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