Great Sculptures, Exquisite Music: The Amy and Elliot Lawrence Collection

By Ron Adelman, MD

Amy and Elliot Lawrence built a world-class and unparalleled collection of art ranging from African, Japanese, Modern, Pacific Island, traditional Northwest Coast, and Eskimo. Amy was a scholar, teacher, and therapist, and Elliot was a famous bandleader in the late 40s and 50s, who went on to have a legendary career as a music director in TV and film. When considering art, Amy preferred gracious lines and a sense of interiority, whereas Elliot had a passion for expression and bold volumes. While they were full partners in collecting, Elliot always said that Amy really had the best eye.

What Amy and Elliot looked for in art was simplicity and purity of conception, an aliveness, and the presence of dignity; in the case of tribal art, they also looked for spiritual force resonating from its purpose for sacred ceremonial rites. This deep passion, emotional connection, and respect for the ingenuity of these great (mostly unnamed) artists brought them to collect this art and to actively seek out learning opportunities. Whenever they traveled for work or pleasure, they educated themselves by visiting dealers, collectors, and museums. In New York, they worked closely with the dealer John Klejman. Later, a strong relationship with Merton Simpson resulted in many beautiful acquisitions, including the crown jewel of their collection – the Luba Bowstand by the Master of Warua, now in the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum in Paris (inv. no. 70.2017.66.23).

Luba Bowstand by the Master of Warua, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac (70.2017.66.23), Gift Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière

My pathway to Amy and Elliot, as their physician and friend, began with my neighbor Saretta Barnet, through our common interest in African art. Saretta and her late husband, Howard, had an extraordinary collection of African art, as well as ancient Greek, Roman, and Native American works. Amy and Elliot credited them as their mentors in collecting. As the story goes, Amy and Elliot were new to their residence on Long Island in the late 1950s. They already had a nascent interest in African art and had placed a Bamana antelope headdress (ci-wara) they bought from Klejman in their window. One day Howard drove by, knocked on the door and asked – “So, are you interested in African art?” The rest is history—they shared many years of gallery hopping and admiration of each other’s acquisitions.

Even after decades of looking at African sculpture, Amy and Elliot still got excited by these beautiful objects. It continued to amaze them that these traditional forms which reflect the beliefs and way of life of peoples so far away and in such different circumstances could speak so eloquently in their modern lives in New York City.

The image of the Lawrences and their collection that remains powerfully in my mind is from a house call I made many months ago. When I came into the apartment, Elliot was in the living room sitting at the piano. He asked me to sit on the couch in the warmth of their living room filled with the southern afternoon sun. He began serenading me with a new song he had just composed. It had been an intense day for me at the hospital and sitting there among the great sculptures, hearing the exquisite music, I found peace – indeed, he had healed his weary doctor in the sacred space of luminosity and serenity he and Amy had created.

Knowing that someday the collection would be dispersed – and that the names Amy and Elliot Lawrence would become a mere provenance in the life of the sculptures – their wish for a new generation of collectors was to enjoy the objects with lots of love, as they had.

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