Rufus Foshee Antiques
Edith Gregor Halpert: Nothing Short of a Whirligig
by Rufus Foshee

When Edith Gregor Halpert, founder of the Downtown Gallery in Greenwich Village in 1926, and the Gallery of American Folk Art a few years later, died in 1970, she died intestate.

About five years before, she had revoked her will under the influence of Ralph Colin, not only the attorney for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but also for the Art Dealer’s Association. Edith knew Colin well, had wrestled him for years in ADA meetings, and must have seen that his position was one that was a conflict of interest.

Not only did she revoke the 1965 will, she did it without making another. Gilbert Edelson, Colin’s colleague and who also signed her revocation, argued later that Edith’s failing to make a new will was not unusual. To the contrary, many would argue that most revocations and new beneficiaries appear in one document. Halpert had never trusted Colin, detested him.

While Edith allowed downtown Gallery’s well kept records to pass to the American Achieves of Art, she put a 25 year hold on the sales records. Aware of this, I pleaded with her niece Nathaly Baum, during the last months of her life in 1986, to release those records. They impeded research. I urged Scudder Smith of The Bee to do the same. They were released before Nathaly died.

Lindsay Pollock, a journalist specializing in the art market, has published The Girl with the Gallery, a sexist, condescending title. I have studied the book carefully. After having known and worked for Edith, I wanted to take this occasion to consider the book in conjunction with my memory and my records.

Pollock has attempted to trace Edith’s life from childhood through nearly 45 years of art dealing in both contemporary art and American Folk Art. Pollock’s efforts are impressive. She is a rare biographer who, in the process of painstaking research came to understand the being of her subject, showing sensitivity, though firm in her analysis of Edith’s many undertakings. Still, she allowed the wrong sources to influence her.

Edith was many things. Above all she was downright funny. Instead of using more anecdotal material that might have revealed this side of her subject, Pollock repeats the same types of details that bog the book down.

Pollack has laid before the reader, again and again, Edith’s claim that her first purpose was to sell only to museums and to collectors who would not resell. She believed that they would pass her “masterpieces” on to museums. While Pollock was astute in repeating this song over and over, she failed to cash in on this great irony in the end.

Dancing the night away in her elegant plumage, Edith led the authorities of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. through a legal briar patch for years. She led them to believe that they would get her private collection. The legal papers flew back and forth. The Corcoran gave major exhibitions to show off Edith’s splendid collection that they were convinced they would soon have.

In 1961 Edith hired me to replace her long time assistant, Charles Alan. I began my job just when the O’Keeffe show was opening and what a joy to live with that legend on the walls daily.

Over and over Edith insisted to me, and to Downtown Gallery clients, that the reason the arrangement with the Corcoran had not materialized was because the Corcoran wanted to put her name on the building. This does not square with what Pollock has revealed from her research.

One flaw in Pollock’s research is that she failed to interview the three living people who worked for Edith: her secretary, Gracia Schneider, her bookkeeper, Irene Gruber and myself.

Baum, Edith’s only niece and daughter of her sister Sonia, both of whom she loved, had no interest in Edith’s business. But every other Monday morning she took the train from Washington to New York and we worked together in the gallery. She spent the night, worked on Tuesday and at end of day took the train back to Washington. Edith took great joy in Nathaly’s company, her help. The feeling was mutual.

Again and again I heard from Edith and Nathaly the same story. Edith had used her sister’s home in Philadelphia to display many examples from her collection, not only because she knew Sonia would enjoy them, but that was much better than storage.

Sonia Watter died in the mid 50s. The story related by Pollock is far removed from the story told to me by both Edith and Nathaly. Pollock’s version of the story is that Edith had sold Sonia and Michael Watter the collection over the years, giving them access to top pieces with the thought that one day they would give the collection to the Philadelphia Museum.

Nathaly spoke of Dr. Michael Watter, her mother’s second husband, as her father. Though I didn’t know his name in 1961, Nathaly always spoke of him as her father, and Edith, as her brother-in-law. According to Nathaly and Edith, after Sonia died, Watter claimed that since Edith’s art was in his possession, it was his. Nathaly was embarrassed. She gave me the notion that she would have sued. Edith would not, though she did try to stop the sale when Watter auctioned the art at Sotheby Parke Bernet in 1967, just three years before she died.

Edith was unshakable in certain matters. She said that the highest ethics could be practiced in business better than anywhere. She believed that artists had a right to a living from their art. She paid her artists when the work was sold, whether the gallery had been paid or not. If she allowed Lawrence Fleischman to run up tens of thousands of dollars at the gallery, she did not feel that the artists should have to wait for their checks. Equally unshakable, as long as she lived she disputed the concept of contemporary Folk Art, insisting that it was an anathema.

I can hear her now complaining that she had to sell her bonds to keep Larry Fleischman afloat. But she never cut him off. Blind faith maybe, but she really believed that clients with whom she established relationships, and there were many, would be as good as their word, that many important paintings she sold them would go to museums one day. Few did.

It might be argued that Edith’s biggest failure was in not getting the “Sonia and Michael Watter Collection,” or her own, in a permanent home in a museum. While Edith adored Nathaly, she was aware that she had no great love for art. I don’t think she minded that there was a sense that material things were more important to her heirs.

The greatest irony is that the woman who wanted the superior work of artists to go to museums, died intestate. The Edith Gregor Halpert Collection was sold at Sotheby Parke Bernet in 1973 to the highest bidders, leaving her heirs what they valued - money. There appears to be no record that Nathaly Baum, nor her daughter and son-in-law, Patricia and Romano Vanderbes, made even one gift to any museum.

Though Edith’s collection was sold in 1973, dealers and auction houses are still selling things tagged as Edith Gregor Halpert Collection. Not possible. At best Edith could only be listed in the provenance. When I said this to one dealer who was doing just that, he repeated what I said to the Vanderbes. Shortly, Romano Vanderbes called me and threatened me with a lawsuit. I welcomed his call and urged him to go to court. I never heard again.

Edith was very smart and, as Pollock has said, a hustler. But once in a while she met her match, at least once with a man in a clerical collar. An Episcopal priest in Dallas had been to the Downtown Gallery to consider O’Keeffe works. When he got home he sent his daughter to look. They wanted an O’Keeffe Black Iris, among the most prized of all her works, then, and still.

There were two Black Iris in stock. Edith would not have let God buy both of them. But the lady said that she could not make up her mind. She asked to have both sent to Dallas and she and her father would decide together, then return one. The Iris were $6000 each. All that Edith got was a check for $12,000. Edith’s efficiency had failed her again and she was only 61 - then.

One of Pollock’s weaknesses is her lack of understanding the O’Keeffe and Edith relationship. They did not like each other. O’Keeffe’s wealth did not come from Alfred Steiglitz, though she certainly could have increased it had she chosen to sell his collection when he died instead of giving it away, as she also did that of Charles Demuth who had left her his works as well.

One of O’Keeffe’s brothers-in-law was Robert Young, who spent his life gaining control of the New York Central Railroad, then killed himself. He advised O’Keeffe’s investments. Independent of selling her art or her husband’s wealth, she was rich on her own. But that cut her very little slack with Edith.

In 1961, I remember well that Edith felt that O’Keeffe had insulted John Marin, Jr. on the phone. She sat right down at her desk and wrote O’Keeffe a letter saying, “...take your paintings and get the hell out of my gallery.” But the bad marriage continued for about three more years.

Edith’s legacy is not diminished because of her acute envy and jealousy of others. She liked to pull the chain of important people. Blanchette Rockefeller, wife of John III, once burst into tears when Edith said to her that she didn’t have to go to the Museum of Modern Art to know who was in vogue. She could see it in the homes of board members. She accused the MOMA powers of promoting in the museum only what they collected at home. Mrs. Rockefeller in her tears said, “You pick on us Rockefellers.”

The Downtown Gallery always closed at the end of June through Labor Day. Edith had asked me to do some work in the gallery the first two weeks of July that needed catching up. James Michener called and made an appointment for he and Mrs. Michener to see paintings. It was a long, exciting afternoon. I was a true greenhorn with a chance to deal in big time.

The Micheners bought major works by Marin, Dove, and others. Not knowing that Mrs. Michener did not like women artists, I convinced them to take O’Keeffe’s 1942 “Stump in Red Hills,” a pivotal work, on approval. It took me a long time to understand why it was returned.

When the Micheners left I think the Downtown records will show that it was the largest sale made to date. Edith was not happy. She canceled the sale, saying that Michener had wanted her to pay another dealer a commission. She added that she sure as hell did not need other dealers to sell her artists. Later the sale was reinstated under Edith’s signature.

Edith did not like women who were a threat to her - anyone who was a threat to her. While the artists she represented were alive she controlled the wives through the men. The only time an artist’s wife was welcomed at the gallery was on the night when their husband had an opening show. They did not call her, she did not call them. There was an understanding.

Edith’s relationship to John Marin, Jr. and his wife Norma was troubling because of Norma. She was definitely a threat to Edith because she controlled John. She wanted to take the Marin paintings to what she considered a more prestigious gallery that would ask greater prices for Marin’s work.

Edith worked hard to control prices wanting to keep them low to make it easier to place them in museums and in the best collections. In 1961 the best Marin watercolors were about $3000, some as little as $900. An European came into the Downtown about 1960 and wanted to buy 50 Marin watercolors. Edith threw him out. She knew he wanted to buy, hold a while, and dump them back onto the market.

But Norma won in the end. The Marin estate was moved on. After John, Jr. died and to this day, Norma has been generous and continues to manage the estate admirably.

After Stuart Davis died his widow Roselle attempted to rough Edith up a bit. Edith was plain. She told Roselle, “I have more Davis works than you and certainly better ones. I have never offered one for sale as long as one was available from the artist.” She went on to say that if Roselle removed the Davis works from the gallery, she would offer hers for sale in competition. Edith had sacrificed much to keep Davis going when no one wanted him. She was not about to be out-foxed by an art widow.

As the decades passed, 1926-1970, the important artists grew old, many died. When Edith died in 1970, O’Keeffe was the only artist living of great importance and whose work had sealed Edith’s reputation in contemporary art dealing. She had been unable to find and trust an assistant who might have helped her make a smooth transition to a younger, highly talented stable of artists.

When Edith terminated my tenure in November 1961, she said she was bringing in Boston dealer Boris Merski as a partner. She no longer would have a place for me. I think she really believed that she had found an “art heir.” It did not work out.

It was over except for a great collection that was thrown to the winds and to the highest bidders.

As long as discussions continue about 20th century American art or American Folk Art, Edith’s name will continue to glow.

The legacy is indelible.