As the former expert in charge of Tribal and American Indian art sales at Sotheby’s, New York, my career spanned the decades between the late 1970’s and into the late 1990’s. I became immersed and engaged in a culture of the great collectors who were distinguished in their expertise and generous in sharing their knowledge with others. For some of these collectors, their well-trained eyes enabled them to transcend cultural boundaries in their collecting interesting and appreciate the beauty of all great objects.
If asked to “categorize” Murray Frum in a “typology” of collectors, my response would be that he was one of the
most rarefied. Murray was a highly individual collector which is in many ways, perhaps what endeared him to so many
His ever-present and insatiable curiosity for knowledge and information, his essential passion for art and history, his astute ability to assess what was quintessential, combined with his highly discriminating and exquisite taste level, put him in a place that one could only describe as exceptional. While today many collectors often rely on the services of professional art advisors, it is impossible to even fathom Murray ever seeking this type of advice; he relied on the advice of his heart, his soul, his own gut instinct and his eye. At the same time, it is hard to imagine a conversation with Murray when art was not included, nor could one imagine Murray anywhere in the world and ever missing an exhibition, a great piece of theatre, music or any site that was worthwhile to see. An insatiable traveller, Murray was continually looking, asking questions, acquiring knowledge about works already in his possession as well as learning about new areas of interest and often acquiring works related to it.
In the fields of American Indian, African and Oceanic art many will recall that the decades of the 1970’s and 1980’s were a time of transition. Perhaps, part of the catalyst may have been the coming of age of one generation of collectors and the dispersion of their holdings. These sales enticed and allowed professional dealers, institutions and both established and new private collectors to meet and enter an arena where the excitement of competitive bidding often made for compelling theatre as well as record-breaking prices. For example, in the late 1970’s, the well-known and highly regarded collector George Ortiz sold his collection of world-class Oceanic Art at Sotheby’s London, a sale that generated tremendous international interest not only in the art community but also in the international press. This landmark auction was soon followed by the dispersal of the James Hooper Collection in another series of sales in London. Each of these auctions presented to the public market for the first time an unprecedented number of rare, and important and highly coveted early examples of sculpture from the South Seas, many with early collection provenance. The appearance of these historic treasures on the market, in turn, generated tremendous excitement resulting in a significant increase in prices and the number of and buyers among international collectors and institutions, including, at that time, the British Rail Pension Fund. Subsequently, other important and early examples of Oceanic Art came to the market including works from the Morris Pinto Collection and from the highly important collection of Dr. Edmund Carpenter and his wife Ms. Adelaide DeMenil, to name but a few. At this time too, potential buyers would more often travel to sales in London while Paris was yet to become the centre of the Tribal Art auction scene. Each of the auctions would turn out a large crowd and, often, Murray would be among them.
I first became acquainted with Murray Frum because he was the type of client that a Sotheby’s expert would enjoy, the type who would frequently call in advance of an auction to talk about the sale or discuss specific works. As time went on, our conversations continued not only about upcoming sales in London and Paris, but also the typical banter about the sales of competitors as well as “must see” exhibitions, theatre or places to eat… We enjoyed these discussions until the very end of his life. Murray always asked good questions and often the unexpected, a challenge that could be nerve-wracking but captivating nonetheless.
Watching Murray Frum in action when he bid, particularly in the Paris rooms, was a memory that I will always carry with me. No matter which auction room, he was an undeterred and confident bidder, but like a great card player, was never one to show his hand, but always exuding the cool confidence of a winner. Important sales always drew a gathering of all of the major players who chatted both seriously and/or casually about the upcoming offerings. Always a good listener and excellent inquisitor, Murray gleaned what he needed to and let on very little, knowing in the end what he wanted and what he would be willing to spend to get it.
Murray Frum was born to collect, he had the “eye” and that coveted sixth sense to know when something simply felt right, smelled right. He was also never afraid to do the legwork in fact it may have been the aspect that he enjoyed the most, to prove the authenticity of a work that he believed in. This pursuit of quality, rarity and importance is obvious both in the selections of African Art which he generously donated to The Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto as well as his beloved Renaissance sculptures, including the stunning Bernini, the Christ (Corpus), which he also recently donated and is currently displayed in all its glory at the renovated AGO. The selection of important and rare examples of Oceanic art included in this sale catalogue are further evidence of Murray’s consistent and highly discerning eye.
There is a unity to the collection of works with which Murray Frum chose to surround himself, regardless of the field. Respectively, the individual works were each refined and powerful; seemingly imbued with an emotional element, connecting one to the other in the context of the collection as a whole.
Collecting art does not necessarily have any prerequisites, nor does it require a specific membership like a private club. Among collectors of Tribal Art there has always been a special group of individuals, those with slightly more uncommon collecting interests. Like Murray Frum, they share that self-confidence which propels or compels them to seek the extraordinary and the different. While there is also no monetary requirement to be considered an “art collector”, particularly in this field, there is the absolute need for a never-ending curiosity and innate foresight as an information seeker. Great taste and connoisseurship, however, can separate one collector and their collection from the others and I can think of no better demonstration of this than the collection of Dr. Murray Frum. I will miss him as will so many of us in this field.