The Wolf Family Collection: The Spirit of America

The Wolf Family Collection: The Spirit of America

Sotheby's is delighted to present the most important collection of American Art, Sculpture, Furniture & Decorative Arts, and 20th Century Design ever to appear at auction.
Chapters
Sotheby's is delighted to present the most important collection of American Art, Sculpture, Furniture & Decorative Arts, and 20th Century Design ever to appear at auction.

E rving and Joyce (Joy) Wolf were pioneers in all aspects of life, and their remarkable journeys, beginning with their upbringings at a Wyoming Air Force Base and in Brooklyn, in many ways, epitomize the romantic ideals of the American Dream, from their whirlwind courtship of just over two weeks to building the Wolf Land Company and Inexco Oil Company from the ground up amidst the backdrop of the American West, and much more.

One of the guiding principles that defined their seven decades of marriage was the Wolfs’ shared passion and love of American art and objects. A mirror to their insatiable curiosity, wide-ranging interests, and decades-long friendships within the art community, the vast collection that filled the Wolf’s Fifth Avenue residence is unique in its superlative quality and unparalleled depth. Replete with more than 1,000 individual works that adorned its carefully curated spaces, the rooms of the home each spotlight a different a style and time period while creating a unique harmony that ties them all together and evokes the grandeur and authenticity of museum period rooms. The home exudes an effortless style that is a testament to Erving and Joy’s natural ability to live with and care for their collection, from paintings adorned with the most elegantly carved frames to works on paper preserved to their highest integrity to exquisite ceramics placed around the residence.

The Wolf Family Collection is comprised of a remarkable breadth of exceptional works of fine and decorative arts, with extraordinary examples of paintings and watercolors, sculpture, early American furniture, silver, Chinese export porcelain, design, and jewelry. In its impressive totality the collection embodies the spirit of American artistry, design, and craftsmanship, spanning the 18th through 20th centuries. Each unique space in the Wolf home allows for conversations and natural connections between paintings and objects which provide an intimate window into American history, from the Colonial Era to the Arts & Crafts Movement to the avant-garde artists of the Stieglitz Circle in the early 20th century.

Fitting of their long-standing position within the American art community, the Wolfs went on to notably endow The Erving and Joyce Wolf Gallery in the American Wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art – where Joyce was a founding member and both were part of the William Cullen Bryant Fellows – and later made contributions to the Denver Art Museum and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C, defining their legacy as stalwart friends of American art in the truest sense.

Estimated to realize in excess of $50 million, The Wolf Family Collection will be offered at Sotheby’s New York beginning this April across an historic series of single-owner sales (see full schedule below), all together constituting one of the largest and most significant private collections of American art to ever come to auction.

The sale series will launch with a season-defining Evening Sale, The Spirit of America, showcasing a selection of the Collection’s top masterworks in fine art, sculpture, furniture, Chinese Export porcelain, silver and 20th century design. The Spirit of America will be the first sale of its kind to present masterpieces from these diverse collecting fields in one auction, followed by a series of cross-category live and online sales curated to reflect the narratives and dialogues across the collection.

The Wolf Family and their Collecting Journey

Erving (1926-2018) was born in Nebraska and raised in Cheyenne, Wyoming where his father, Leon, was the tailor on the Francis E. Warren Air Force Base, while Joyce (1927-2022) was raised in Brooklyn, New York, about as far from Cheyenne as possible. After honorably serving in the Navy and stationed in Guam during World War II, Erving met his future wife in Denver shortly before she proposed to him only days after meeting each other, and they were married in 1951. A brief courtship and an enduring love served as the foundation for an exceedingly prosperous partnership in life and business.

Erving received bachelor’s degrees from Northwestern University and Notre Dame and earned a law degree from Northwestern University. He practiced law in Cheyenne before being drawn to the oil and gas industry. In 1951, the same year he married Joyce (née Mandel), he founded the Wolf Land Company, which later became the Inexco Oil Company. Under Erving’s leadership, Inexco discovered Wyoming’s 200-million-barrel Hilight Oil Field and its four-trillion-cubic-foot Madden Gas Field, one of the largest natural gas reserves in the United States, as well as the Key Lake Uranium Mine in Saskatchewan, Canada, which once produced 15 percent of the world’s uranium.

Although Joyce was born and raised in Brooklyn, the West played an important part in her life. The day after their wedding, Joyce and Erving returned to Cheyenne, where all three of their children were born, and then moved to Denver for eleven years. She was instrumental in building and overseeing the family's cattle ranch in Ridgway, Colorado, where she spent almost every summer, while Erving, who became a captain of industry, led the Wolf Land Company.

Fitting of their successes, the couple began their collecting journey in the 1960s with American Indian rugs, pottery, and jewelry from trading posts in the Four Corners area. The Wolfs embodied the connoisseur model of collecting, one built on scholarship, patience, and a way of living with art that speaks to the timeless quality of the works in their collection.

Nearly two decades later, Joyce and Erving became major benefactors of the nation’s greatest museums and other institutions, instilling a passion and curiosity of art to those who carry on their legacy. The couple donated numerous works of American art to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Joyce was a founding member of the William Cullen Bryant Fellows, and The Erving and Joyce Wolf Gallery was dedicated in the museum's American Wing in 1980. In 2001, Erving Wolf was elected an Honorary Trustee of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of the major gifts made to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, two are particularly significant – a large silver presentation vase made in Philadelphia by Fletcher and Gardiner that was given in 1825 to Governor DeWitt Clinton to commemorate the opening of the Erie Canal, and Martin Johnson Heade's 1859 painting The Coming Storm, a masterpiece of American Luminism.

The couple also loaned and gave American artworks and sculpture to the Denver Art Museum and to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in honor of their late daughter, Diane Wolf. With his brothers, Erving donated the Leon and Dora Wolf Law Building at the University of Colorado School of Law, in honor of their parents.

Iconic collectors at a time when Americans were just beginning to preserve their own history, the Wolfs were staples in Sotheby's salerooms. With their children in tow, the couple would sit for hours while taking in the distinctive rhythms of our auctions and learning how to identify art and objects of exceptional artistry and quality. Each piece being a small part of this story, The Wolf Family Collection grew as the family’s interests continued to expand into the next generation. They bestowed their curiosity and fervent passion for collecting onto their children who each carried this through to their personal and professional lives.

A Glimpse Inside the Collection

American Art

“Few collections so seamlessly bridge the currents of American art across centuries as does the Wolf collection, which, through this carefully selected group of paintings and sculptures, articulates a unique story of American history from Colonial America through the 20th century. It is a deeply personal collection that wonderfully captures the breadth of the Wolf’s areas of interest and their deep and abiding passion for American art.”
Kayla Carlsen, Sotheby’s Head of American Art

The American paintings from The Wolf Family Collection are unmatched in their exceptional quality and broad scope. They represent the very best from a range of periods, subjects, and styles spanning the history of American art, from 18th century portraits to 19th century landscapes to 20th century modernism. The centerpiece of this vast and important collection is William Merritt Chase’s masterpiece of American painting, with portrait highlights by John Singleton Copley and Gilbert Stuart—founding members of the American art scene in the 18th and 19th centuries—as well as depictions of the American landscape, including Hudson River School paintings by Sanford Robinson Gifford and Worthington Whittredge. European influences representing the cultural interchange that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries are embodied in works by Winslow Homer and John La Farge, with work by American modernists Maurice B. Prendergast and Charles Demuth highlighting the technical, cultural, and artistic achievements of the 20th century.

William Merritt Chase, In the Studio

Painted in 1892, an especially productive year in Chase’s career, the work depicts Alice Gerson, Chase’s wife and favorite subject, in the artist’s summer studio during their first summer living in Shinnecock Hills – an eclectically decorated space that inspired him creatively while also serving as a vibrant social space for Chase. This portrayal of Chase’s wife holding prints effectively pairs his artistic and personal lives in a single dynamic image. The success of In the Studio lies in Chase’s ability to combine his affinity for detailed, beautiful interior subjects with his talent for illustrating tender portraits of loved ones.

Winslow Homer, On the Beach at Marshfield

On the Beach at Marshfield was among a group of paintings which hung in Homer’s “Kettle Cove” cottage in Prout’s Neck, Maine. Homer moved from New York City to Prout’s Neck in 1884, inspired by the raw beauty of the Maine coastline and produced many of his notable seascapes from the cottage where this painting once hung. Following the artist’s death in 1910, On the Beach at Marshfield (and The Sand Dune, the related sketch) descended into the collection of his brothers, Charles S. Homer, Jr. and Arthur B. Homer, who identified the scene as Marshfield, Massachusetts. This painting relates to an illustration that Homer produced for the August 17, 1872 issue of Harper’s Weekly entitled “On the Beach—Two Are Company, Three Are None.” Both the Harper’s Weekly publication and this painting are emblematic of Homer’s preoccupation with summer beach subjects and his affinity for capturing the serenity of the sea.

Additionally, a carefully curated selection of important bronzes in The Wolf Family Collection surveys the finest offerings of American sculpture by the most renowned artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and is among the most impressive private holdings of American sculpture ever assembled. As with the broader collection, the American bronzes span various geographic regions and historical periods in a manner that presents a comprehensive study of American history through sculpture. The range of the collection includes multiple works by Paul Manship and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, offering a unique perspective into their practices.

Paul Manship, Indian Hunter and His Dog

In June of 1925, prominent Minnesota-based banker and patron Thomas Cochran commissioned a fountain in the artist’s hometown St. Paul, with Manship collaborating with the architect to install Indian Hunter and His Dog as the focal point of the Cochran Memorial Park fountain. This subject recalls John Quincy Adams Ward’s earlier execution of this theme in The Indian Hunter (which is also part of the Wolf collection). The reunion of Ward and Manship’s respective renditions of the Indian Hunter subject shows how closely Manship studied his sculptural predecessors. Manship’s Indian Hunter and His Dog applies Native American subject matter in an Art Deco style, bringing a classical hunting figure into the 20th century. Manship was so pleased with his rendition of Indian Hunter and His Dog that he issued a reduction and cast several smaller versions of the original work, of which this work is a part of that group.

20th Century Design

“The Wolf Collection is unique in that it encompasses legendary treasures of American art and objects across all time periods and genres. The collection of American Prewar Design is unparalleled in its artistry, quality and pedigree, and brings the narratives within this remarkable assemblage into the modern realm. In the earliest and formative years of this market, Erv and Joy had the great vision and foresight to acquire some of the most defining and historically important works ever created by Louis Comfort Tiffany, Frank Lloyd Wright and Greene. The collection stands as a true testament to their exceptional taste, passion and connoisseurship.”
Jodi Pollack, Chairman and Co-Worldwide Head of 20th Century Design

Rife with masterpieces of 20th century design, showing the artistic progression and lineage of craftsmanship from the Colonial Era to the 20th century, The Wolf Family Collection marks the most significant offering of American prewar design to appear at auction in a generation. The collection features some of the most important historical works by the quintessential artists and architects who defined the 20th century, notably Louis Comfort Tiffany, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Greene & Greene. As seen across genres, the Wolf design collection speaks to a connoisseurial criteria of the highest order defined by supreme artistry, masterful craftsmanship, and impeccable provenance.

Tiffany Studios, Twelve-Light “Turtle-Back and Lily” Chandelier

Of the many examples of lighting and objects by Tiffany Studios in The Wolf Family Collection, the rare Twelve-Light “Turtle-Back and Lily” Chandelier is a magnificent demonstration of the firm’s mastery in glass. Impressive in scale with resplendent visual presence, this exquisite chandelier has graced the entry foyer of the Wolf residence for many decades. The geometric registers of leaded glass elegantly transition from shades of fiery orange and golden yellow to chartreuse green and sky blue. These registers are punctuated by two bold bands of iridized “Turtle-Back” tiles, whose wonderfully irregular surfaces enhance the naturalism of the design. Finally encircling the shoulder of the fixture are twelve favrile glass “Lily” shades, the delicacy of which perfectly balances the weight of the patinated bronze framework. Taken all together, these elements result in a stunning, jewel-like chandelier of masterful proportion and aesthetic beauty.

Greene & Greene, Monumental Lantern from the Entry of the Robert R. Blacker House, Pasadena, California

Included in The Wolf Family Collection are several of the most famous works of furniture and lighting by Greene & Greene from two of their most celebrated architectural commissions: the Robert R. Blacker House in Pasadena, California, and the Charles M. Pratt House in Ojai, California. The monumental lantern from the Blacker House is one of Greene & Greene’s quintessential masterpieces. Considered the most important residential architects working in Southern California in the early 20th century, their revolutionary approach to the bungalow style popular in California expanded the boundaries of American domestic architecture. The Blacker House was the largest and most elaborate of their architectural commissions, further distinguished by its masterful program of exterior and interior lighting. The lantern is one of only two interior lanterns of this monumental scale and complexity that was uniquely designed for the Blacker commission and was given prime position in the main entry of the house. Suspended from delicate leather straps, the mahogany frame echoes the Japanese-inspired architecture of the house itself with its dramatic silhouette, overhanging canopy and elegant proportions. The complex mahogany shade is inset with beautifully iridized glass panels, two of which depict floral vines meandering along a trellis while the others depict stylized birds in flight against a sunset sky. This seamless integration of motifs and materials distinguish this lantern as one of the most exceptional examples of lighting by the architects, personifying their unique aesthetic vision and masterful craftsmanship.

Masterworks by Frank Lloyd and Greene & Greene from The Wolf Family Collection

American Furniture

“Erving and Joy Wolf assembled a remarkable, best-in-class collection of American furniture, with definitive examples from the finest makers of their time. This collection epitomizes the ultimate achievement in craftsmanship in Colonial America and celebrates not only the enduring and timeless quality of these pieces, which were lovingly lived with, but also the Wolf’s commitment and passion for the craft, as they thoughtfully built their collection over decades.”
Erik Gronning, Sotheby’s Head of Americana 

Among the highlights of American furniture in The Wolf Family Collection, three examples representing the major furniture-making centers in America during the 18th century–Newport, Rhode Island, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Boston, Massachusetts–are each singular masterpieces of American craftsmanship from this period.

LEFT: THE IMPORTANT GIBBS FAMILY CHIPPENDALE BLOCK- AND SHELL-CARVED MAHOGANY KNEEHOLE BUREAU TABLE, NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND, CIRCA 1770
RIGHT: THE IMPORTANT MCMICHAEL-TILGHMAN FAMILY "ACME OF PERFECTION" CHIPPENDALE CARVED AND FIGURED MAHOGANY SCALLOPED-TOP TILT-TOP TEA TABLE, PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA, CIRCA 1755

Made in Newport, Rhode Island, and descending through five generations, the Gibbs Family kneehole dressing bureau has expertly carved block-and-shell drawers and is one of the very best examples of its form. This piece has only ever been offered at auction once before, when it last sold at Sotheby’s 40 years ago in 1983, making it an exceptionally rare opportunity.

The table’s perfect proportions are accentuated by the cabinetmaker’s selection of highly figured mahogany and its sumptuous carving by the master ‘Garvan High Chest’ carver. His ingenious rendering of acanthus leaves gathered by tapestry swags, combined with his rendering of flower heads and exuberant Rococo carving, combines for a masterpiece of Philadelphia furniture.

An Important Chippendale Carved and Figured Mahogany Serpentine-Front and Side Dressing Chest Of Drawers, Boston, Massachusetts, Circa 1785

The brilliantly figured and carved chest of drawers is one of the grandest expressions of the Rococo style in 18th century Boston. The cabinetmaker’s blend of perfect proportions, excellent wood selection, outstanding carving, and elaborate fire-gilt hardware make for an unparalleled work of American art.

Chinese Art

Meticulously assembled by Erving and Joyce Wolf since the 1970s, The Wolf Family Collection’s Chinese and Chinese export ceramics holdings make up one of the landmark ceramics collections of its kind. Comprising Ming and Qing porcelains, the Collection includes significant examples of 18th century works, including many widely published best-of-type pieces formerly in the collections of James A. Garland, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Laurance S. Rockefeller, Nelson A. Rockefeller, J. M. Hu and François Hervouët, among others.

Notable pieces include an impressive pair of Famille-Verte ‘Phoenix and Qilin’ vases; a large Famille-Verte ‘birds and mythical beasts’ rouleau vase; three Chinese export ‘Hong’ punch bowls; a blue and white pilgrim flask, Ming dynasty, Wanli period circa 1610-20, decorated with the arms of Spain; and multiple works featuring designs by Dutch 18th century artist Cornelis Pronk including a rare lavender ground five-piece garniture and a pair of ‘torchbearers’ wall sconces. The wide-ranging and comprehensive collection is one of the most significant groups of Chinese export porcelains to appear at auction within the last thirty years.

 

Silver

The two largest categories of silver in The Wolf Family Collection are the American Colonial silver and the Art Nouveau silver line by Gorham Mfg. Co. called Martelé. The leading lot from the Colonial silver is the set of three beakers by Paul Revere, Jr., the prominent silversmith who is best known as the great patriot of the American Revolution. The Charles LeRoux tankard is a beautiful example of an early New York tankard. It has all of the decorative elements that the best early 18th century New York tankards are known for: cut-cardwork decoration around the base, a handle applied with a baluster and with a cast cherub terminal, a corkscrew thumbpiece, and a cover with shaped and engraved rim.

The ingenuity and skill of American silversmiths is further celebrated in the Wolf collection by the extensive group of silver by Gorham, one of the largest and most important American silver manufacturers of the 19th and 20th centuries, second only to Tiffany & Co. In particular, they collected Gorham’s Martelé line, which was the company’s American interpretation of the French Art Nouveau style. Martelé translates “to hammer”, and with the whiplash curves of the Art Nouveau style, this line evokes the shaping of silver from its molten state. An elaborate terrapin silver suite which includes a covered tureen and set of twelve matching bowls is the most impressive group of Martelé silver in the Wolf’s collection.

Jewelry & Luxury

Like the fine and decorative art in the The Wolf Family Collection, the jewels and handbags reflect a lifetime of connoisseurship and an appreciation for rare, often one-of-a-kind designs. The vast majority are signed by esteemed makers, from inventive creations by René Boivin, Jean Schlumberger, and JAR to classic styles by Van Cleef & Arpels, David Webb, Harry Winston and Hermès. Perhaps the greatest triumph of the Collection is the extensive selection of Van Cleef & Arpels mystery-set jewels – one of the most impressive of its kind ever to appear at auction – with eight stunning examples from a variety of periods in sapphires and rubies.

Sale & Exhibition Calendar

Live Sales

The Wolf Family Collection: Spirit of America
6 PM Wednesday, April 19, 2023

The Wolf Family Collection: Building America
10 AM Thursday April 20, 2023

The Wolf Family Collection: Forging America
2 PM Thursday April 20, 2023

The Wolf Family Collection: Exquisite Jewels
10 AM Friday April 21, 2023

The Wolf Family Collection: Glorious America
2 PM Friday April 21, 2023

The Wolf Family Collection: Cross-Currents in America
10 AM Saturday April 22, 2023

The Wolf Family Collection: Modern America
2 PM Saturday April 22, 2023

Online Sales

The Wolf Family Collection Online Sale
April 2023

Luxury Handbags: Vintage Icons
April 2023

Ex Libris, The Wolf Family Collection Art Reference Library
April 2023

Traveling Exhibition

13–21 January, 2023

Sotheby's Aspen
534 East Cooper Ave
Aspen, CO 81611

Sotheby's Los Angeles
350 N Camden Dr
Beverly Hills, CA 90210

Sotheby's New York
1334 York Ave
New York, NY 10021

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