A new collector once asked my father, Murray Frum, how to discern fakes in tribal art. My father warned him, “ Beware of anything that seems pretty. If it’s immediately accessible to you, that means it was probably made for you – or somebody like you.” Tribal peoples, my father explained, lived among gods and spirits of frightening, unpredictable power. The art those peoples created was meant to summon that power – or to propitiate it. Either way, the measure of that art was its force, not its decorative appeal.
Midway through his collecting career – when his interests still focused on African art – a dealer offered my father a handsome Oceanic piece. He declined. “I don’t collect Oceanic art,” he said. “You will,” the dealer replied. And of course, in time, he did. My father’s collecting was a work of eye, heart, and mind. Whenever he entered a new field, he habitually began with an impulsive purchase. “I can’t get interested until I’ve taken a position,” he said.
The impulse carried him only so far. Then out would come the books. He would compare the object he had just acquired to every counterpart in museums and private collections worldwide, always ensuring himself that he possessed the very best of its kind in the world – or, at least, the very best in private hands.
The volumes would be piled three and four high, sometimes on the octagonal dining room table that served as the central meeting place of my family’s life; sometimes on the library table that rested atop a carved and painted South Seas house post; sometimes – when the chase grew very intense – in columns rising from the library floor. My father learned the life story of seemingly every major Oceanic object in the world: where it had originated, who had removed it, where it had travelled. If the new arrival failed to meet his now-educated standards, he would ruthlessly trade it away or sell at a loss. But if – as happened more often – his first hunch was validated by his research, then the object would begin a new career. My father would position it in his house … then reposition it … then reposition again. My father delighted in bold juxtapositions: a Fang reliquary figure rested upon a Louis Quatorze ormolu desk; an Andrea della Robbia terracotta angel atop an Art Deco sideboard. The vivid Uli figure in this catalogue ended up in the dining room, glaring at my father’s guests. I wondered sometimes what the New Ireland sculptor would have thought of the strange feasting rituals of the remote snowy land where his handiwork found a home.
My father lived in the same house from 1961 until his death in 2013. It would be more accurate to say: “He lived at the same address” than “in the same house,” for the house changed as ceaselessly as the collection. The quest for more and greater beauty, for the next great prize, never ended.
So long as my mother Barbara lived, she was the Nora to my father’s Nick Charles, an enthusiastic fellow-detective following the clues of their quarry of the moment. My late mother brought to their collecting the same insistence on fact – and the same incisive penetration of falsehood – that made her one of Canada’s most legendary television journalists. In 1992, at age 54, my mother succumbed to the cancer she had bravely battled for 19 years. My father remarried, and the health and vitality of his second wife, Nancy Lockhart, enabled the two of them to travel to the exotic lands from which came so much of the art that inspired him.
I happened to be with my father when he bought his very first Oceanic objects at the legendary James Hooper auction in 1979 in London: a pair of forks used in cannibal rituals. I still retain them, as a memento of him. Almost all of the rest of that Oceanic collection is gathered here, in this catalogue and sale. That is as my father intended. My Father donated generously to the Art Gallery of Ontario, including the magnificent gallery of African art that bears his name. Yet he liked above all to see great art in private hands.
Murray relished auctions: the buzz of the room, the tension of competition, all leading to the collector’s decision to throw his hand into the air – and hold it there. This auction, so brilliantly curated by Sotheby’s, will be a final and supreme tribute to Murray’s collecting achievement. He would be so pleased to know that the pieces he cherished in his lifetime will pass after him to a new generation of passionate connoisseurs, who will see what he saw, and what he loved.