Theory of the Golden Thread

International art dealers Joel Fletcher and John Copenhaver built a business on serendipitous connections.

John Copenhaver and Joel Fletcher at the Cafe Sevigne in Paris.

The careers of international art dealers Joel Fletcher and John Copenhaver are a study in the zen of spontaneity and following a “golden thread” of serendipitous connections. Their mutual open-to-what-may-come attitudes and gift for detail sets them apart from other fine-art dealers. The golden threads they have followed have yielded treasures in the form of rare art as well as meaningful personal relationships. Even their meeting and partnership speak to this way of being.

Fletcher gets his soft-spoken Southern charm from his Louisiana upbringing. After graduating from Tulane, he lived in Paris and worked for the Council on International Educational Exchange and the study abroad programs of City University of New York before embarking on a 40-year career as an art dealer. 

Copenhaver is a Virginia native with degrees from Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Tech. An artist who studied at the Art Students’ League of New York, he was an art educator for 18 years before meeting Fletcher.

The two met when Fletcher was a guest lecturer to an American art study group at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. There were 40 people in attendance, but Copenhaver says of Fletcher, “For me, it was as if no one else was in the room.” When it was time for the audience to ask questions, Copenhaver raised his hand and, instead of inquiring about the subject matter, asked, “Do you have plans for lunch?” In fact, Fletcher did have plans, but the two soon scheduled a dinner at Fletcher’s home and, as Copenhaver puts it, “I went for dinner and never left.”

Fletcher/Copenhaver Fine Art was born in 1993. Fletcher, a published author and historian with an encyclopedic mind who remembers things in detail, is the facts guy. Copenhaver is the numbers and logistics guru, so he attends to the daily details of running the business. Together, they specialize in American and European modern figural art of the 19th through 21st centuries. They have spent nearly three decades traveling all over the United States and Europe following a “golden thread” of meticulous research, chance connections, and coincidences to discover artists and introduce their work to collectors.

On one such trip, the duo was visiting a friend in London and decided to go to Greenwich for lunch. Along the way, they stopped at an antiques shop. “The shop was just a charming mess, as many of those English places are, with stuff everywhere,” says Copenhaver. Among the 19th-century furniture and trinkets of all eras, they noticed some wonderful drawings of World War II soldiers signed “Derek Fowler.” Fletcher, who is always interested in the story of things, asked the proprietor for information. He didn’t have any, but thought Fowler’s widow might still be alive.

Drawing by Fowler In Bed Writing a Letter. Framed at RG du Cadres Gault.

Back in London, the two scoured the phone book, found Mrs. Fowler’s number, and called her.“Within an hour we were sitting in her living room,” says Copenhaver. Mrs. Fowler opened trunk after dust-laden trunk, none of which looked like they had been touched for at least 50 years, and revealed a trove of exquisite original drawings. Like snapshots of personal moments from one of the most significant events of the 20th century, the drawings depict soldiers lounging on bunks, writing letters, and passing time while they were being transported from London to Burma. 

“He was there first-hand recording his experience from the sensitivity of the artist’s point of view, yet with the professionalism of an officer,” says Copenhaver. “There are so many levels of importance to this collection that relate to significant aspects of that century that a serious collector of the period would want. And we have the provenance directly back to the source which is, of course, what you always want and rarely get.”

Fletcher and Copenhaver believe in doing deep research for every piece in their inventory, so they exchanged information about Fowler with the Imperial War Museum in London and photocopied several of their newly acquired pieces to add to the museum’s Fowler archive. Later, when they sold pieces from the collection, they included detailed information about Fowler with each drawing. “We supply the information that we would want to have as collectors ourselves,” says Fletcher.

Fletcher/Copenhaver acquired another collection with a direct provenance when Fletcher became friends with the son of Moses Soyer, who was one of the most important American figurative artists of the 20th century. Fletcher met David Soyer at an antiques show in the Hamptons; over the years, David began offering Fletcher and Copenhaver artwork from his father’s estate. “We introduced Soyer’s work to a new generation of collectors,” says Copenhaver.

Artists’ Union by Moses Soyer.

The pair were so known for their connection to Soyer and their meticulous research that they were invited to co-curate two exhibitions of his work, in 1996 and 2001. In 2018, they donated eight drawings from the collection to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. “The museum has in their permanent collection a self-portrait by Moses,” says Fletcher. “We donated a number of drawings that include self-portraits and relate to the work that the museum already had.”

Their peers at antique shows have often commented that there is an undefinable “extra something” about what Fletcher and Copenhaver have to offer. “We always feel that if we accept an invitation to be part of a show, part of that agreement is to make sure the patrons who come in have a positive experience of being treated like guests in a home,” says Copenhaver. They consciously create an environment where people can feel relaxed and explore, while reassuring buyers that each purchase is the best it can be.

In addition, says Fletcher, “we pay a great deal of attention to presentation. All the works on paper are matted with acid-free material. We use Museum Glass™ or sometimes Conservation Clear Glass™ to protect them from the harmful effects of light.”

John Copenhaver choosing frames with Caroline de Courbeville in Paris.

Many are also beautifully presented in custom frames from RG Les Cadres Gault, a French firm that has framed art for most of the great artists working in France for over a century. For the last 15 years Fletcher/Copenhaver has worked with them, becoming friendly with Caroline de Courbeville, who manages the gallery in Paris. “We’ve developed such a lovely relationship with Caroline that we can just send her a photograph and the dimensions of the piece we want framed, and she sends us pictures of several frames she thinks appropriate. We choose one, and then two weeks later the frame arrives at our door,” says Fletcher. The owner of the business, Frédéric Richard, once invited them to the village of Ecuisses in Burgundy where the atelier is located and the frames are made. Copenhaver was even invited to create a frame himself under Richard’s expert instruction.

After decades of traveling to purchase and exhibit art, the partners have retired to their home in Fredericksburg, where they continue to curate their collection online. “It’s exciting and fulfilling for us to share the art that we found by following the golden thread,” says Copenhaver. 

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