PARIS - Watch out if you ask for a fork when visiting the smartly furnished Washington, D. C. home of David Frum, the political commentator and a former special assistant to President George W. Bush for economic speechwriting.
“These are cannibal forks,” he says cheerfully, as he retrieves from a library cabinet a pair of exquisitely carved and turned wooden utensils, whose elongated prongs once facilitated dining on human flesh. “Captain Cook brought them back from the Fijian islands on his second expedition,” Frum elaborates.
The unusual implements – as beautiful as they are fearsome – are part of an extraordinary legacy from his late father, Murray Frum, a Canadian real estate developer and a brilliant collector.
David Frum at the Art Gallery of Ontario, where a gallery bears his father’s name.
Photograph by Christopher Wahl.
Born in 1931, Murray Frum assembled over the course of his lifetime diverse collections in categories ranging from African, Pre-Columbian and silver to Art Deco, Renaissance and Canadian paintings.
During his last two decades, Frum focused his tremendous passion and laser-sharp intellect on Oceanic art. By the time of his death in 2013, he had assembled an exceptionally rare group of treasures, with distinguished provenances, from Polynesia and Melanesia. On 16 September, some 50 of these works – the most significant such group to come on the market in the last 30 years – will be offered by Sotheby’s in Paris in Trésors: The Frum Collection of Oceanic Art.
The story of Frum’s own remarkable life only adds to the richness of the collection.Murray Frum’s parents fled Poland in 1930 in advance of the Holocaust and arrived in Toronto. A loan from relatives a few years later enabled the couple to open a grocery store, behind which the family lived – Murray and his grandmother slept on two sofas in one room.
“My father was a very cherished son, an only child,” says David, who is senior editor of The Atlantic. “He was a person of Extraordinary gifts, which were immediately evident to everyone in his family.”
Murray helped put himself through the University of Toronto by taking a part-time job selling Fuller Brushes. He was soon ranked as Ontario’s top Fuller Brush salesman. While study-ing dentistry (because it took less time to qualify for the degree than medicine) he also “shoehorned in” art history classes, his son says.
Collector Murray Frum.
When 26-year-old Murray met Barbara Rosberg, a vivacious 19-year-old whose parents owned a department store in Niagara Falls, Ontario, they clicked immediately. “Art was a passion they shared from the beginning.”
“Their first acquisition was in 1959 on a trip to New York at the Metropolitan Museum. In the gift shop they found a small ancient Egyptian figure made of petrified wood, which the museum was deaccessioning, at a price of $75. He didn’t have the money, but went to his dental fraternity for a loan. The idea that he could own something so old was astonishing to him. It sparked his passion for collecting.
“His first major purchase was a Canadian Modernist painting. It was 1963, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The picture was more than he could prudently afford and he bought it on credit. He joked that there was a fifty/fifty chance he wouldn’t have to pay. But if they were going to die, they might as well die with great art on the wall.”
Even as Frum’s dental practice flourished, he began dabbling in real estate development, a field to which he transitioned fulltime around 1970, with enormous success. Barbara Frum, meanwhile, became one of Canada’s leading broadcast journalists. The couple’s other child, Linda, is today a member of the Canadian Senate.
In the 1970s, the couple began to focus their collecting interests on African art. “They collected intensely together and refined each other’s taste. My father used to say the steps to collecting were: study, refine, make mistakes, correct mistakes. They were cerebral collectors. Whenever they became interested in a new tribal area, they bought every book on the subject, looked at every image they could. But they utterly rejected African art as an ethnographic pursuit. To them these were aesthetic objects. They just wanted the best.”
After Barbara’s death in 1992, Murray donated half of the African collection to the Art Gallery of Ontario, where a gallery bears the Frum name.
It was a turning point in Frum’s life. “He had come to the end of his African experience. When he remarried, to Nancy Lockhart, with whom he would spend another twenty happy years, he threw himself into Oceanic Art.
“They collected on the same principles as he did with African Art. It wasn’t about ethnography, but aesthetics. And it had to be the best.”
The Frums also entered the field at a particularly fortuitous time. An abundance of objects that had been collected during the 18th and 19th centuries by missionaries, travellers and colonial officials were just coming on to the market. Oceanic art was still in its infancy as a collecting field; prescient buyers such as Frum were able to snap up great treasures.
“Oceanic art is very baroque,” says David. “Every millimetre of these objects is often intricately worked. They were the products of royal cultures, where there was a great deal of labour available.
“A lot of the art is weaponry – spears, staffs, shields, war canoes. Every inch of them was decorated, because for their cultures, going into human combat was the highest form of human actualisation. Many of the objects depicted deities, but these were not gentle gods of love. You wanted to keep as much distance as you could between you and them.”
As the younger Frum recalls, his father found a harmonious way to display these items in the Modernist house he built in Toronto. “He liked to juxtapose objects from different cultures. He might place a fierce Oceanic object beside a more restrained modern painting, or on a tortoiseshell-and-brass Boulle desk.”
While Frum was highly philanthropic throughout his life – in addition to his many gifts to the Art Gallery of Ontario, where he served as chairman, he aided such institutions as Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival – he decided before his death that the Oceanic collection should go on the block.
“He loved everything about auctions – the excitement, the strategising, the competition, the adrenaline surge, the snap decisions. He felt an auction allows you to present a total vision. They are also a way to say, ‘Who loves this object the most?’ And then let that person who loves it the most get it.”
Over the decades Murray Frum certainly acquired many things he loved. Among his most prized possessions was a pair of combs from the Solomon Islands, which he acquired after engaging in a furious bidding duel with Lord Sainsbury, heir to one of the largest grocery chains in the United Kingdom. “My father would not relent, and finally he won, after paying a great deal. My mother later said to him, ‘Did you lose your mind!’ to which he answered: ‘That grocer’s son was not going to beat this grocer’s son.’”
Trésors: Collection Frum will be on view at Sotheby's Paris from 9–15 September, Auction: 16 September. Enquiries: +33 1 53 05 53 39.
James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair.