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Personality of the year Eugene v. Thaw: a distinguished dealer as well as a major collector, Eugene V. Thaw has immeasurably enriched the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, with his gifts. Louise Nicholson visits him at home.


'I don't give interviews. I'm a remote personality. I'm not easily accessible', says Eugene Thaw, sitting straight-backed on a chair in his book-lined living room, legs crossed, dressed in tidy tweed jacket and brown trousers, high-altitude sun burning down outside. The previous day was his 81st birthday. 21 years ago he forsook New York to make his home in the desert lands of Santa Fe in New Mexico. Back in the city where he attended Columbia University, then rose to be a notable dealer in drawings and paintings, a major collector and connoisseur, and an extraordinary philanthropist to the arts, he has been described in art circles as 'like the Wizard of Oz, a legendary person we never see.'

Since the late 1960s, Mr Thaw has quietly built up a relationship with the Morgan Library that began with gifts of his drawings by first Watteau and then Fragonard. The drip-feed gifting soon took on its own energy and pace. He systematically enriched the 19th-century holdings, and began the 20th-century collection. Four exhibitions of his drawings have been held. Most of the exhibits have gone into the collection: with other gifts, he has given several hundred--even the Library is a little vague about the precise number.

Mr Thaw's commitment to the Morgan has not been restricted to drawings. When in 1988 it wanted to buy Morgan's brownstone house next to the original library building, he helped. 'I gave a substantial sum and a drawing by Mantegna. So they put me on the board', he grins, eyes twinkling through his large, square-lens spectacles. Then, as part of the Library's make-over and expansion by Renzo Piano, completed in 2006, he gave the exquisite renaissance-inspired cube-shaped Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery, named for his wife. He has now given, with an endowment, the Library's Thaw Conservation Center, a cutting-edge concept that marries up top-quality paper conservation with research, training and teaching, all core interests for Mr Thaw. The Morgan will also receive 'all they want' of his extensive art library.


Next month, the fifth exhibition of his drawings opens at the Morgan. 'That's the last!', he exclaims. 'The prices in the art world have gotten so insane.' Cara Denison, Curator of Drawings and Prints at the Morgan, who has worked there since 1969, doubts it. 'He says "this is the last thing", and along comes another piece. He picks these things himself, loves the finding. He'll call and tell us what he's thinking of buying, asking for our support but he's already made up his mind. It's wonderful, wonderful! There's nobody like him.'

Their relationship is ideally symbiotic. 'His taste and ours are similar', says Mrs Denison. 'Gene is a passionate collector. He has superb taste and a real feeling, he's terribly emotional about it, feels it very deeply when he buys something. You don't see that very much in a collector nowadays. He's totally involved, so he finds links to another field and starts collecting that.' Indeed, Mr Thaw's collections range from Native American art to oil sketches--which feature in the forthcoming exhibition (Fig. 3)--and Merovingian metalwork. He has also smoothed the path for other gifts to the Library, such as items from the Pierre Matisse Gallery and Janos Scholz's collection of drawings. Mrs Denison sums up Mr Thaw's 40-year involvement with her department: 'We already had a fine holding but now it's twice as good, if that's possible.'

In his 1997 collection of essays, Reflections of an Independent Mind, Mr Thaw considers the true collector: 'Collecting, in short, is an intellectual activity in the course of which one makes deliberate choices.... Collecting is not only a matter of imposing order on groups of related things. It is also an attempt to arrive at a deeper understanding of them.' He also acknowledges the thrill of the chase: 'This is not to deny that there is an emotional or obsessional or manic element in some bouts of collecting, especially when competition is keen and the amounts of money at stake are large.'

Now, in his Santa Fe living room, Mr Thaw puts his theories into the context of his own collecting. 'I seem to have collected in several different areas. When I moved here I had to collect something, so I bought Native American. I like to learn and the best way is to handle the pieces, buy it, risk your money on it. Once I know them well I can give them away because I feel I still possess them. I know every line and colour.' A specific purpose directs his selection. 'I want them to illuminate the field in some way. I have given single objects--I've just given a great marble by Houdon to the Frick--but usually I make a group and then find a suitable home.' He pauses. 'Collecting is making some sort of truth.'

The collector, surely deeply rooted, did not emerge until Mr Thaw's dealing became successful. 'As a boy, I collected coins but in a desultory way. Once I started having a little bit of success and things were passing through my hands, my wife said "why don't we keep some?" And drawings were what we could afford.' He also began to keep things he could not sell 'because I thought they were great. Museums are often not quick enough, and people are too slow or stupid. So I have some of the best of their kind.' This is how he acquired Fragonard's celebrated portrait of a girl in Naples. 'It came to me from a New York collector. I offered it to the National Gallery and the Met. Finally I decided to keep it. It is one of the great masterpieces.'

He takes down from the nearby shelves the catalogue of the Morgan's show of their best 100 drawings. '28 are mine, which is pretty good.' He roams through it, pausing at particular favourites. 'There is my Van Gogh, this is my Gauguin watercolour, probably done after he did the Pushkin painting. This is my Daumier, found in a small auction in Paris; it was part of his great final exhibition.'

In the 1960s and 70s, New York was good hunting ground for someone with an eye. One of the first drawings he bought to keep was at a little gallery called Weyhe. 'You could go upstairs and they had boxes of drawings, wonderful things. There were Giambattista Tiepolos for $500 and I bought a few of those. It gives you an idea of what could be found here at that time.'

On another occasion he stretched to buy his first Rembrandt. 'There were a couple of German dealers, A. and R. Ball, who had a suite behind MOMA, in the Dorset Hotel. One day I went there. They had a whole boxful of drawings from the Friedrich August of Saxony collection, his stamp was in the corner of every drawing. I bought a little Rembrandt. I bought it for $3,000. They let me pay it off at $300 a month for 10 months. It was the early sixties, I suppose.'




He takes down a different Morgan Library catalogue, and shows me the image on the cover, a different Rembrandt. 'Then I graduated. This came from Chatsworth.' Incredibly, it had already spent time in Santa Fe, when it was owned by Michael Currier, Paul Mellon's nephew. 'I paid about $4m for that, the most I have ever paid for a drawing. Now, you can't do that every day!' Which leads us in several ways to Pierpont Morgan. 'He's the greatest American collector', Mr Thaw says firmly, brooking no debate. 'His holdings were vast. He bought it all very fast over just a dozen years. He had so many different fields.' Mr Thaw pauses, then elaborates on his admiration. 'He had a lot of things wrong with him, he was a man of his time, but he had the force of personality, was a brilliant banker, a man who controlled what he was doing. And I think he had an eye. He made the first comprehensive collection of drawings from the renaissance to the 18th century.'

Mr Thaw learnt from the Morgan Library's collection. 'Their exhibitions were exemplary, their catalogues well done.' He smiles wryly as he recounts his first attempt to give them a drawing, in the 1960s: 'It was a Jacques Callot, they turned it down, saying "we don't take gifts from dealers".' Later, once on the board, he could make his own contributions as connoisseur. 'Every art museum that I've known has its dark side where some of the board members who are in business say it should up the entrance fee or sell off pieces. I try to keep them in line, not to treat the collection as an asset, not to go the Disney route, not make the museum a substitute for a shopping mall.' The Morgan trustees were better than most, he says, 'but there are always one or two who want to stress the bottom line. I tried to keep them focused on connoisseurship.'

Mr Thaw talks on, seamlessly yet deliberately, every few minutes taking down another catalogue to make his conversation visual. He delights in sharing his finds--another quality he considers important for a collector. He shows me a proof of the catalogue cover of next year's exhibition, a Jackson Pollock (Fig. 2), and then struggles to take down the heavy four-volume catalogue raisonne of Pollock's work that he wrote with Francis O'Connor. Then he places a small facsimile before me. 'There was a bad moment when something got returned, I thought I'd become a failure. Leigh Block phoned, a very famous collector whom I hardly knew, calling from a street phone booth. "Can I come round, Thaw? I understand you like drawings." He arrived with an attache case and took out this small object and put it on the table. I nearly died. It was Cezanne's sketchbook that he'd carried around in his pocket from 1875 to 1885. He said, 'You know, Thaw, we don't bring this out any more at home because someone spilt coffee on it. Would you be interested?' I shut the door and vowed I wouldn't open it until I owned the book. And I bought it.' He smiles at the still-vivid memory. 'I felt good again. This was in the late seventies. I kept it for some time. Then I gave it to the Morgan, of course.'


William M. Griswold, Director of the Morgan Library, has known Thaw for many years. 'At the Morgan he has had a truly transformative effect. He's committed not just to the collection but to scholars, students and the general public. His gifts have changed the tenor of the collection. He's a born collector and, importantly, a born dealer. He's passionate about art, passionate about philanthropy. He's inspirational. And he concludes: 'He's been a godsend to the arts.'

Portrait by Lanola Stone
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Title Annotation:THE APOLLO AWARDS
Author:Nicholson, Louise
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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