Collecting for the Long Haul with Richard Kelly
May 13, 2010
This year's Collectors' Roundtable Series concluded the other evening with a spirited presentation by Richard Kelly, who showed us the ins and outs (as well as the oohs and ahhhs) of building a collection of illustrations. His collection, some twenty years in the making, covers the golden age of American illustration, roughly from 1890 to 1935, and includes all-stars Norman Rockwell, J. C. Leyendecker, Howard Pyle, and N. C. Wyeth, among others. The early 1890s are key to the story because, as Kelly explained, there was a "boon in printing, changes in technology, cheaper postage, people had more leisure time, and there was a high literacy rate." All this led to an explosion in magazines in which many of these artists published their illustrations. For example, The Saturday Evening Post--home to many iconic Norman Rockwell covers--was delivered to two million homes a week.
Kelly's collection was not always this golden. When he first started out in the 1970s, he began collecting comics and purchased an original "Doonesbury" by Garry Trudeau, here in Washington, D.C. He then moved on to science fiction as well as underground comics. And then he turned his attention to golden-age illustration. "My tastes matured around this time. Comic and underground comic stuff was going through the roof, but illustration was just starting to attract me," he told us. This shift in his area of collecting helped to define his mantra for the serious or budding collector: focus.
"If you want to build a great collection, then focus," he advised us. "The more narrow your focus, the better your collecting will get. . . . And once my wife and I had our period, we collected nothing but American illustration. We poured [all our resources] into American illustration. . . . And then we decided to focus even more."
With four hundred works by ninety-four artists in the collection, Kelly focuses more and more on quality. If he thinks an artist's work isn't a good fit, he will wait for something else to enter the market. Often this means that he will "sell from the bottom to buy from the top," always honing the quality of the collection.
To house it, the Kellys hired a museum architect to build a home complete with art galleries, a framing room, and a crate room. There's also a library for scholars and students. "A collection entails more than putting our pieces on the wall," Kelly said as he wrapped up the talk. "There's also a responsibility to share it."
If you're interested in illustration, then mark your calendars. The highly anticipated exhibition Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg will open at American Art on July 2, 2010.
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