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Collecting Profile: J. Thomas Savage by Laura Layfer
by Laura Layfer

Tom Savage with two of his favorite Thomas Frye mezzotints, A Fashionable Lady and A Portrait of a Gentleman. Courtesy Winterthur, photo by Laszlo Bodo.

Are you curious to know what your art advisor may be buying when he/she is not buying for you? Ever wonder about the collections museum curators exhibit in their private homes? And -- just as important -- how do those working in a business that, more often than not compensates by feeding a passion rather than a profit, find ways to afford those treasures? Some of these secrets will be revealed in a new series, "Questions on the Quest," which puts the focus on leading figures in the field and their personal collecting quests.

Speaking at the Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum in 1949, then Curator of the American Wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Joseph Downs, remarked that "little of artistic merit was made south of Baltimore." Were Tom Savage present, he would have begged to differ.

A native-Virginian, Tom began his career in 1981 with a National Museum Act internship that swiftly transitioned into a permanent post as Curator and Director of Museums for Historic Charleston. Overseeing collections for national landmarks such as the Aiken-Rhett House, Tom also authored The Charleston Interior and co-curated the groundbreaking exhibition In Pursuit of Refinement: Charlestonians Abroad, 1740-1860 at the Gibbes Museum of Art. "Mr. Charleston," as he was dubbed, Tom soon became and remains a highly sought-after lecturer in the field of Southern decorative arts and architecture, frequently organizing and leading study trips and tours across America, England, Ireland, and beyond.

With his passion for travel, it was no surprise when this Southerner went North. In 1998, Tom headed to New York City to assume the role of Vice President and Director of Sotheby's Institute of Art for North and South America. A few years later, he took on his current position as Director of Museum Affairs for Winterthur Museum and Country Estate. Now in charge of collections, public programs, marketing and communications, this is a perfect fit for Tom, who, in the tradition of Winterthur's founder, Henry Francis du Pont, takes inspiration from the country houses of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe; is captivated by American history and craftsmanship; and always finds ways to share his extensive knowledge with others.

When it comes to managing his own private collection, Tom has created a focus that is both personal in his return to Southern roots, and practical with respect to budget. First, as a student, and later, a colleague at Sotheby's Institute, I came to know Tom well. With his office nearby, I quickly learned, among other things, the highs and lows of a collector's calling. I became familiar with the sound of delight or sigh of despair at the win or loss of an eBay-found treasure, along with the tormenting indecisiveness weighing on 'to buy' or 'not to buy.' Having peaked my interest back then, and now partly to blame for passing along the habit, it took some persuading, but Tom finally and graciously agreed to the informal Q & A exchange that follows. Here, he provides some deeper insights into the art of collecting.

Q: What was your first art-related purchase that signified
to you it was the beginning of a budding collection?
I don't think of myself as a "collector" in the classic sense of the term. More a "gatherer" of interesting things that amuse me. And because I collect on a limited budget, it makes the choices narrower but none the less interesting! I caught the bug as a child, going to auctions on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where I grew up. With summer lawn mowing money, I bought Chinese export porcelain by the age of nine. I went to Saint Andrew's School in Delaware at thirteen, fully aware of its proximity to Winterthur. While I would like to say it's an apocryphal story, I know better. On my first night at Saint Andrew's, when the masters went around calming all the homesick boys, I was found, happy as a lark, propped up in bed reading The Magazine Antiques. We took our SAT's in Wilmington -- they always coincided with the Delaware Antiques Show -- and my mother would drive up from Virginia with a friend and rescue me after the tests and take me to the show. Elinor Gordon and Charlotte and Edgar Sittig usually brought something in my price range -- a Chinese export tea bowl or other "small." These are still among my most treasured possessions.

A Chinese Export porcelain charger with the arms of Savage impaling Savage. Diam.: 15-1/2 in. Purchased at Christie's, New York, The Collection of Leo & Doris Hodroff, 24 January 2007. Copyright Christie's Images Ltd.
Q: What do you collect now?
Again "collect" sounds rather grand given my budget and I am a bit all over the map. British mezzotints are a particular passion of mine -- Thomas Frye's "Fanciful Heads" mezzotint portraits of 1760 and 1762 are an on-going collection. I have about ten and want all seventeen. Margaret Pritchard, my dear friend at Colonial Williamsburg, first turned me on to them. And they will be perfect for the rest home when you can only take a few things. It's a comforting thought that, as I am slipping away I will have all these attractive eighteenth-century people to chat with. And by then, they will probably talk back! Last year, in the Christie's sale of Leo Hodroff's collection of Chinese export porcelain, there was a charger with the arms of Savage impaling Savage. That was too good to pass up. My wonderful friend, Angela Howard, widow of armorial porcelain expert David Howard, secured it for me. I bought it for fun and, not to put on airs, I think it is amusing that these British grandees were intermarrying with their cousins just as my Savage ancestors were doing on the Eastern Shore in rural Virginia.

Q: Do you enjoy British objects as much as Americana?
The 1980 Attingham Summer School on the English Country House and Collections was a turning point for me as with so many others. Helena Hayward, then the leader of the course, was probably one of the most gifted teachers I have ever known. She cured many an "Americanist." You have to know the roots, the design sources, the inspirations from European craftsmanship, before you can interpret the American expression of wider design movements. I have collected simple eighteenth-century English furniture -- neat and plain style -- that looks like it could be Virginia and South Carolina but isn't. And I have remained loyal to British preservation causes. I have served on the board of the Royal Oak Foundation, the American affiliate of The National Trust for thirteen years. And I just went on the committee for Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill.

My greatest English find is a portrait of George II by Robert Edge Pine (1720-1788) that was owned by Ambassador David Bruce and his power-hostess wife Evangeline, and hung in their "set" at The Albany in London, decorated by John Fowler. My chum, miniature portrait dealer Elle Shushan, had it in her stand at the Winter Antiques Show my first January living in New York. I bought it opening night and made payments with an infrequency that only a friend would have tolerated. Margaret Pritchard later gave me the mezzotint based on Pine's painting.

Q: So you travel to Britain regularly?
A: Yes, most often now to lead tours of country houses. This has been a constant in my career, whether at Historic Charleston Foundation, Sotheby's Institute of Art, and now for Winterthur. My favorite activity is to introduce people to places and friends I enjoy. I led Winterthur's Collector's Circle -- our donors to the collections, for whom we offer complete concierge service -- on a tour in 2006 to see the most private houses in England and actually stay as the guests of country house owners. Last year we were in Sweden and this year it's private palaces of Rome.

I use travel as an investment in myself. I could have acquired many more objects with the money but wouldn't trade my travel experiences for anything. During Furniture History Society tours, I saw Franconia and Bavaria with Geoffrey Beard and Helena Hayward. I visited Swedish country houses with Peter Thornton. I traveled to Russia for almost two weeks of palaces with curators from around the world. These are experiences I will never forget. I now have a Thanksgiving tradition with Patrick Gallagher, Chairman of the board for the Royal Oak Foundation. We have taken on Rome, Berlin, Lisbon, Istanbul, and this year, we think it's Spain.

Q: You were known as "Mr. Charleston" for many years. Any great finds there?
Well, the finds there were for the collection I was curating and yes, we bought wonderful furniture, prints, paintings, metals -- all either made or owned in Charleston. I wish I could go back to 1981, the year I arrived at Historic Charleston Foundation, and know what I know now. Of course I was living on a beginning curator's salary then and it would have been a conflict of interest to collect Charleston decorative arts. I did buy a great deal of fiddle thread flatware marked by Charleston retailers and still pick up the odd piece now and then. The research all of us in the Southern "mafia" at MESDA, Colonial Williamsburg, and Charleston were doing on Southern decorative arts of course helped to create the market that keeps the best pieces out of reach for all but the well-heeled collector today.

Q: How does your day-to-day exposure affect your collecting?
I've had the best career opportunities imaginable, eighteen years in Charleston -- the most beautiful city in America; Sotheby's, where the sheer volume and quality of material in all categories was staggering and constantly passing through, and now Winterthur, America's treasure house. At Sotheby's, the temptations were daily. I bought some fun things in my price range, including four mad, huge Gothic Revival gilt bronze candlesticks in Christopher Hodsoll's London sale -- I was going through a Pugin period. Winterthur is very humbling. The quality of everything is superb. Just popping into the house for a ten minute break is instructive. And of course having daily interaction with an amazing team of experts in our curatorial, conservation, and education departments is a privilege in itself. It is easiest to collect outside the collecting areas of the museum. We have one of the model codes of ethics at Winterthur and all staff purchases must be approved and first offered to the collection.

Q: Any Advice for the New Collector?
There is great material and lots of fun to be had at every price point. It's an enormous privilege to collect for a great institution. But there's still opportunity for the vigilant collector with limited resources. You just have to know more than the next guy. I've bought great things on eBay -- early armorial creamware, mezzotints, and early brass: Cyber shopping is like anything else; there are trusted sellers and the chance to acquire when you know more than the next guy. Also get to know the great dealers, the great curators, and the great collectors. Whether you're collecting or not, your life will be enriched by the friendships. Ultimately, the relationships are what the fun of collecting is really all about.

Laura Layfer is a furniture and couture specialist at Christie's New York.

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