A Thrilling Obsession

Art collector Jane Joel Knox describes her early forays into collecting local art, visits to New York City and London galleries, overseas research, and the “terrifying” process of bidding at the premier auction houses.

How one becomes an art collector is not easily explained. For me, it always seemed inevitable. I’m not an artist, and I don’t have a formal art history background, but I’ve always been someone with a great appreciation for art. I have always loved museums and galleries and, most important, have always been powerfully drawn to pictures and colors and all the beauty a mere human can produce by his hand.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when I was a stay-at-home mom, I used to stretch my meager resources to invest in local art. I bought works from the Virginia Museum Loan/Own enterprise (among them a painting by Nancy Camden—she later became Nancy Witt), from Arts in the Park (a striking Paul Germain) and from the Hand Workshop, now the Visual Art Center (a Judy Bumgardner). I collected from the Virginia Beach Boardwalk Art Show, acquiring a painting by Sandra Walker, who later became a British resident and soon after was invited into the prestigious British Watercolor Society. At the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, I bought a Charlotte C. Clark print of a narcissus plant on an Oriental rug. These purchases are still valued and in my collection.

Still, I was ambitious and wanted a bigger, more important collection. The question was, how? It’s no secret: You need money to collect art. My big break came in the 1980s at, of all places, a craps table in Atlantic City. My late husband, Irving Joel, was an avid craps player—and a good one. I had watched him play many times and was obliged to observe his techniques since he was superstitious and made me stay at his side whenever he was winning. Knowing his formula, I decided on one occasion to play on my own. I made an amazing 21 passes in a row—a phenomenally lucky streak that a gutsier dice player might have parlayed into buying the entire casino! It was a heady experience, especially when the men at the table cheered me on, yelling, “I believe in women!” Despite all the money I won, I knew I could never repeat that performance and swore never to gamble again.

We went on to New York City the next day, and I spent my winnings in what I would now call a “commercial” gallery—a place that dealt mainly in prints and copies, with very few original artworks. I bought two pieces, one of which, an Erte, hangs in the powder room of my house. The second is a very unusual bas-relief in an entirely Lucite frame. It hangs at a home at the beach. They are not the quality I later learned to seek, but I was thrilled to buy them.

My husband died in 1994, and my interest in art expanded to fill the void. This is when I became more discriminating. I began to travel frequently to look at art, I subscribed to Sotheby’s and Christie’s catalogs, and I began to research paintings and artists. Studying works of art in which museums had invested was, and still is, an amazing educational experience—and in this way I started to become what the art world calls “a serious collector.”

In 1996, on a visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, I became fascinated by one painting in particular, The Quartet, whose artist was unknown to me. I wrote down all the particulars from the signage. The artist was William Turner Dannat, and he was powerful! Hours later, and only a few blocks away, serendipity struck: I happened into a gallery that had a small oil sketch by that same artist, titled Le Contrabandier Aragonais. I wanted to buy it—and, still anguishing about the price, I left New York. Days later, Dannat still on my mind, I called the gallery owner. I asked him if the little painting was worth what he was asking, and would he buy it back at that price? “Of course,” he said. “It’s a masterpiece.” What did I think that he would say?

I bought the painting and afterward did a massive amount of research on Dannat. I learned about a little town outside Paris, named Blérancourt, which has a small museum housing the life-size oil of the Dannat sketch I owned. Within months of learning about Blérancourt, I visited the town and the museum to see the finished painting. It was in storage, but an employee pulled it out for me. It was magnificent, very refined, and I could see why it had won a bronze medal in the Paris Salon of 1883. The French government had bought the piece directly from the Salon for the Luxembourg Museum of live artists. Seeing the piece completed the Dannat circle for me.

I have made many trips in the U.S. and abroad to research art and to collect art. They are fascinating and deeply enriching. On a trip to London in 1997, I became acquainted with and captivated by the work of Wilfrid de Glehn, a British national of Estonian descent, an Impressionist who painted landscapes, portraits and nudes. Messums Gallery, on Cork Street in London, had bought the entire estate of de Glehn paintings from the family and had so many good de Glehns that I found it very frustrating to settle on one. They were also at a higher price level than I was accustomed to. I selected The Barn, West Sussex, a beautiful, sunny picture of the interior of a barn, and asked a friend to coach me on the bargaining process. The gallery director and I then had our negotiation. He agreed to my price and reluctantly agreed to pay the shipping, which is a significant expense for a painting going overseas.

At a later date, the same gallery sent me a picture of another de Glehn. It was a knockout Impressionist picture of a woman thought to be Jane de Glehn, wife of the artist. But there was no formal identification, only a letter from a very elderly family member. I wasn’t convinced, and I had to know who the subject was before I invested in the painting. Looking through various catalogs of de Glehn family paintings, I discovered a picture of Jane de Glehn wearing a ring with a green stone—almost certainly the same ring she was wearing in the picture for sale. I bought the work.

Art collections often have themes. They are typically centered on one artist, or group of artists, or a period of time. Some experts advised that I should have an in-depth collection of only one painter. Others suggested that I collect paintings from a specific genre or time period. However, none of those ideas appealed to me. I did not want to be restricted; rather, I wanted to be free to select whatever works appealed most strongly to me, no matter what they were.

Any work of art, before I consider buying it, must tug strongly on my emotions. It must make me want to look at it—from all angles. That was, and remains, my basic standard for purchase. It’s not my only criterion, to be sure, but the most important. I also look for paintings that have good composition, beautiful light and unmuddy colors, and that are in good condition. There’s no way to determine all the above without seeing the painting in person. This is the most important criterion of all.

Ironically, many of the paintings I’ve purchased over the last 20 or so years have a common thread. The paintings themselves differ greatly in style, but most are by American artists who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and trained in great European institutions—German and French ateliers—with great Masters. That, then, is the orientation of my collection.

In the first five years of collecting on a large scale, I bought 11 paintings—yet only a few came from the same auction house or dealer. Most were acquired in different ways. I purchased one painting at a phone-in auction, two at live bidding auctions, and the rest from New York dealers in the East 70s—all different. Five of the artists were born within five years of each other—1848 to 1853.

As those who have done so know, phone-in bidding and live auction bidding are remarkable. Phone bidding is initiated at the auction house; you fill out a pink slip and state the lot number of your choice, then state how much you’re willing to spend. There is a high/low estimate for each painting. The low is usually the seller’s reserve, which is the lowest amount the owner of the painting will accept. An associate of the auction house calls you close to the auction day and tells you about what time your bid will come up. You tell your friends not to call on that day. When the bidding begins, the associate tunes you in to it—and you must let her know at every raise whether you’re with her or not. It is absolutely spine tingling—especially when she says over the phone, “Congratulations for your new painting!” It is also a very odd sensation to buy, from a remote location, a very valuable piece of art.

A live auction is much different—much more terrifying, frankly. The first time I bid live, in person, was in New York in 2000. In a Sotheby’s catalog, I’d seen a picture of Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s painting named Polish Exile. It featured a heroic figure whose desperation was complete. I was keen to acquire it, even though it was not in good condition. The canvas was abraded and riddled with craquelure. My feeling for the heroism of the subject was so strong that I overlooked the serious condition issues. My thought was, whatever the problem, I’ll fix it. I also felt that the painting’s condition might work in my favor. Museums have their own conservation departments and buy paintings with serious craquelure sometimes, but it is also an issue that might dissuade a museum from making the buy.

In any case, I was fixated on Exile and chose to sit way up front at that auction. The auctioneer didn’t know my face, and I wanted to be sure he saw me. When the number came up, there was a flurry of early action, then nearly all of the early bidders withdrew, leaving only me and a rival somewhere behind me. As is common with live bidding, I went over my limit. I kept thinking, “Only one more bid, and it will be mine.” Finally, it was mine—my bid number recorded. I left the room, my heart palpitating.

Previously, under different circumstances, I had attended a live auction in one of the auction house’s secondary locations, where paintings by second-tier artists are sold, usually an unimpressive building near the main auction house. Very few people were there. I came only to bid on a self portrait of Frederick MacMonnies, a very well known sculptor (Horse Tamers at Prospect Park, Brooklyn) who happened to be tired of the rigors and time investment of sculpture and decided to do some painting as a relief. I knew all about him. That was my good luck. I bought the portrait for a price so low it surprised me. I was the only bidder.

Perhaps because auctions are stressful, I’ve bought most of my paintings from galleries on New York City’s Upper East Side—located in the 70s, to be specific. I like these galleries because they display their art beautifully and in top condition. The frames are also accurate for the time period. They also amass a lot of research about their paintings and the artists, which is advantageous. The galleries also often have transparencies (fine color facsimiles) of paintings that you can take home and study, to help you decide whether or not to buy the painting you’ve admired. Sometimes, you can make an offer lower than the price. Sometimes, it isn’t accepted. I think they give good advice. I once considered a floral painting by Adelheid Dietrich but was concerned about the stiffness of her flowers. Gallery owner Vance Jordan said to me, “If you’re looking for more relaxed flowers, choose another artist. Northern German artists don’t paint relaxed flowers.” Who knew?

I rarely buy impulsively—and yet careful scrutiny never mitigates the feeling of anguish that overcomes me every time I choose to buy. The exception occurred in 2001, when I received a catalog from Spanierman Galleries in New York. It had a picture of Summer Twilight, a Barbizon-style painting by William Morris Hunt that captured me immediately. The picture is this: On a gloriously beautiful late-summer afternoon, four young boys splash and soak in the Charles River. Theirs is an attitude of gaiety and abandon—surely the result of being released from a hard day of work. (Child labor was common in Boston in 1877.) Excited, I immediately arranged a flight to New York City to see it in person. I was so afraid that someone would beat me to it. The Hunt painting didn’t disappoint me. I paid full price for it, didn’t even ask for the usual 10 percent discount that most galleries give. They didn’t offer it to me, either.

I now own about 60 paintings that daily bring great beauty to my life. I have made plans to give many of my favorites to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Two will be exhibited in the new American wing. A third, Femme à l’atelier, by Alfred Stevens, will be exhibited in the Mellon Gallery. Others will premier in the 75th anniversary exhibition. Others are promised gifts. I will do research to find good fits for the rest of them and already feel good about the fact that they will be cared for and that my family and I can visit them.

Nowadays, since I own a lot of paintings, I look at works for sale more critically than ever. That only makes sense. It’s possible (but unlikely) that I may get turned on by contemporary art—not abstract or non-representational art, but just good work by living artists, preferably local. This is how I see myself continuing to collect. I can’t quit. It’s an obsession!

To learn more about a few of Knox’s paintings, click here.

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum