Collector Henry Buhl.

NEW YORK - It all began with a photograph of Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands made by her future husband, Alfred Stieglitz, in 1919.

Henry Buhl had collected art here and there over the years but not with any particular goal or through-line in mind. “I collected little, little things, nothing over $2,000,” Buhl says one warm morning in his sprawling SoHo loft, which doubles as his home and foundation headquarters. Then one day a friend called with a tip: A woman named Doris Bry wanted to sell the only gelatin-silver print of Stieglitz’s close-up of O’Keeffe sewing, titled Georgia O’Keeffe—Hands with Thimble. Shot from above, the image depicted her strong but graceful hands against black fabric, a thimble on her right middle finger, a needle clasped between left forefinger and thumb.

“I had never studied art,” Buhl says. “I didn’t know anything about art. I said, ‘How much is it going to be?’ She said she didn’t know. But it was going to be expensive.”

The only hitch was that Bry, a former associate of O’Keeffe’s, wanted to make a deal before a more valuable palladium print of the same image was to be auctioned, with an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. Buhl went to see Bry’s photo and came away thinking, “It’s beautiful, a lovely image.”

He bought it for $75,000 on 6 October 1993 – he remembers the date. Two days later, the palladium version went for $398,500. Buhl’s purchase was a fortuitous investment, but it proved to be so much more. He had discovered not a period or a school of art or even the work of a particular culture to collect. Instead, it was a subject matter that suddenly thrilled him: human hands.

Alfred Stieglitz’s Georgia O’Keeffe– Hands with Thimble (estimate $800,000–1,200,000), was the piece that started Buhl’s collection. © 2012 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Over the course of the next fourteen years, Buhl acquired some 1,100 photographs in which hands – or their gestures – were a central motif. Even more than the staggering pace of his acquisitions, the quality catapulted him into the realm of world-class collectors seemingly overnight. There are vintage pictures, such as William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1840 image of handwriting, and contemporary ones, including Gabriel Orozco’s 1991 diptych of hands squeezing clay and then displaying the impressions left in the clay by the fingers; black-and-white and colour photos; surrealist and street photography; Polaroids and daguerreotypes; hands praying and hands involved in more erotic activities. Everyone from Man Ray, Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank to Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman, Lucas Samaras, Shirin Neshat and Andreas Gursky is represented, but so are emerging artists and those whose names never found their way into the canon. “Our object was to do the history of photography through the subject of hands,” Buhl explains.

So richly realised was his vision that the Guggenheim Museum in New York gave the trove a show in 2004. The exhibition subsequently travelled around the world, with stops in Bilbao, St Petersburg and Moscow. Now, to fund his philanthropy – Buhl’s other passion – he is selling a large portion of his collection at Sotheby’s on 12 and 13 December (page 120-123). Proceeds will go to the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless (ACE), which he founded a year before he began the collection, to provide job training and other support services to homeless men and women. The day I met him he was wearing a red polo shirt with the ACE logo.

Back in the early 1990s he was not yet a connoisseur, but he did know a thing or two about photography. “I started as a wedding photographer, completely by accident, self-taught,” he recalls. After an earlier successful career in finance, he had stumbled onto photography in 1980, when he brought his new camera to a friend’s wedding for fun and the hired photographer’s film ended up getting spoiled. His photos delighted the hostess and the bride, who quickly recommended him to their friends. Soon he was routinely working the society circuit, from weddings and fashion parties to movie premieres. Drawing on his business acumen, he spearheaded a shared studio with a 24-hour darkroom.

Henry Buhl’s collection exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in 2004.

Buhl now had the money to collect some serious art, but he still didn’t feel entirely confident. “I stuck to the big names – Avedon and Irving Penn,” Buhl says. About two years into it, he hired Marianne Courville to strategise and build the collection. “She knew much more than I did,” he says. “She was the one doing the legwork because I was the one running ACE. She was very instrumental in honing my taste.” Courville curated the collection for nine years, during which Buhl often bought more than a hundred pictures annually. (Courville now has an eponymous gallery in Hudson, New York.)

Once he’d reached a critical mass with his photography collection, Buhl decided to branch out and began acquiring sculpture, also with hands as the subject matter. Some 110 works now make up the collection. All manner of three-dimensional hands fill the loft, many from big names like Bruce Nauman, Louise Bourgeois and Do-Ho Suh, whose large floor work of scores of tiny people, their hands raised overhead, Buhl made into a cocktail table in his living room. There are also amusing curiosities that give the place a slightly gothic feel, such as a seven-fingered hand and sconces shaped liked hands holding torches.

Though he does not believe his fascination with hands rises to the level of obsession, Buhl does entertain the notion that collecting them became an addiction. “It probably did for a while there,” he says.

Buhl stopped collecting photos five years ago. “I ran out of money,” he says simply, noting that prices have continued to rise while he accepts a weekly salary of just $1 at ACE. He insists, however, that he is not sad to be selling so much of his celebrated cache. “No, no,” he says. “I’ve had three careers in my life. I just had the 20th anniversary with ACE. You’ve got to do different things.”

Julie L. Belcove writes about art and culture. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Architectural Digest, Elle, Town & Country and The Financial Times, amongst other publications.

[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]

Tags:New York, Photographs, Collections