An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection comes to Christie’s

The story of the greatest privately owned collection of American Modernist art ever to come to market, and Barney A. Ebsworth’s single-minded determination to buy only the very best — including masterpieces by Hopper, Sheeler, O’Keeffe, de Kooning, Pollock and more


Barney Ebsworth at home, with (left, detail of) Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), Good Afternoon Mrs. Lincoln, 1944. Oil on canvas. 30 x 38 in © 2018 The Arshile Gorky Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; and (on the facing wall) Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Chop Suey, 1929. 32 x 38 in. © 2018 Heirs of Josephine Hopper / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photograph: Brian Smale

The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection represents an extraordinary achievement in the history of collecting, one that illuminates the rise of American art across the 20th century. The origins of this singular assemblage, however, lie across the Atlantic in France.

‘My real interest in art didn’t start until 1957,’ revealed Ebsworth (1934-2018) in his autobiography. ‘I was not an art connoisseur. I visited [the Louvre] because it was such an integral part of Paris, and what I found there changed me.’

Ebsworth was serving in the US Army at the time, having ‘willed himself to France’ after completing his basic training. Reading Proust at college had ignited his love of the country, and when he stepped off a train from Germany he described feeling that he was in ‘a glamorous place covered in history’.

His first trip to Paris lasted three days and proved to be a pivotal moment in his life. He talked of walking from exhibit to exhibit in the Louvre ‘in awe of how it felt to be surrounded by such great works of art’. It made such a deep impression on him, that he left wanting ‘to understand the pictures, the time periods they were from, the artists who had created them’.

Equipped with an enquiring mind and a thirst for knowledge, Ebsworth spent his spare time in the local library studying the art he’d seen the previous weekend, and preparing for his next trip to the museum. ‘With no mentor and no formal classes, I trained myself in art history just by reading and looking,’ he said. ‘My eyes were my mentors.’

‘In real estate, they say three things matter: location, location, location. For me, collecting art was about quality, quality, quality’ — Barney Ebsworth

He had Paris to thank for more than just his new-found love of art. On New Year’s Eve 1956, Ebsworth met Martine deVisme, a 19-year-old French girl, at a USO party, and began dancing with her on the stroke of midnight. ‘Little did I know that she was going to become my wife,’ he wrote years later.

They married in March 1958, and Ebsworth brought his new bride home to St. Louis where they had a daughter, Christiane. He embarked on the first steps of what would become a hugely successful career in the travel industry, buying a small travel firm that would eventually grow into INTRAV, an international company providing luxury group travel around the globe. And as his career progressed, so too did his love of art.

‘Nobody starts as a collector,’ Ebsworth mused. ‘You buy a few things you like, and then eight or ten items in, someone says, “Boy, you have a great collection,” and then you realise you have a collection.’ His own journey began with 17th-century Dutch pictures and Japanese scroll paintings, until a 1971 business trip to Rotterdam led to a conversation over dinner, which set him on a different, more defining course.

Barney Ebsworth in his Seattle home, known as ‘An American Place’, with (behind him) Gaston Lachaise (1882-1935), Standing Woman, 1932. Bronze. 88½ in high. Estimate: $1,500,00-2,500,000. Sold for: $3,732,500 on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York. Photograph: Brian Smale

Ebsworth was invited to visit a private collection containing multiple Old Master paintings by Rembrandt and Frans Hals. Realising he could not compete, he returned home and arranged a meeting with Charles Buckley, then director of the St. Louis Art Museum.

‘[Buckley] suggested French Impressionism,’ Ebsworth recalled. ‘I told him I couldn’t afford that. He then suggested School of Paris and I told him I couldn’t afford that either. So he suggested American Impressionism, and I said, “What is it?” Somehow we got into American modernism, and that’s how it started for me.’

It was agreed Ebsworth should start with the Ashcan School — early 20th-century painters of ordinary New York scenes such as Robert Henri, William Glackens, Everett Shinn, George Luks and John Sloan.

‘In real estate, they say three things matter: location, location, location. For me,’ said Ebsworth, ‘collecting art was about quality, quality, quality. I would rather have a smaller collection of the finest pictures than dozens of so-so ones.’

Vowing that he would only buy the very best, or ‘only what could hang on the museum wall right now, and not sometime in the future’, Ebsworth’s other ground rules were to buy works only by dead artists — so that he could make choices from their whole range of work — and to focus on objects rather than artists. ‘All that mattered was what I could see in the piece, and how well I understood it in comparison to the artist’s range of work,’ he explained.

In 1972, the year he founded the Royal Cruise Line, Ebsworth and Buckley identified William Glackens’ 1914 work Café Lafayette (Portrait of Kay Laurell), above, which was being offered at auction in New York. He described his initial impression as ‘love at first sight’.

In the same sale was an intriguing watercolour by Charles E. Burchfield, which prompted Ebsworth to embark on a further bout of research. ‘In my hour-long crash course, I decided that it was painted during his best period and that if the painting was in my range, I would buy it.’ He left New York as the proud new owner of both works.

At his next auction, Ebsworth bought three pictures by Charles Sheeler. He then added small paintings by Stuart Davis and Albert Bierstadt before finding himself at another fork in the road. Was it to be early 20th-century or 19th-century art? He opted for the former.

Acting as a trusted guide, Buckley encouraged Ebsworth to focus on the achievements of American Modernists such as Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Demuth, Joseph Stella, and Charles Sheeler. He also introduced the collector to reputable dealers such as Joan Washburn, Antoinette Kraushaar and Virginia Zabriskie.

Buckley suggested to Ebsworth that he should build a collection of the best 12 American Modernist paintings he could buy. If he found a 13th painting that was better than one he already owned, he should sell that painting to buy the new one. Within a year, though, Ebsworth had moved to buy a 13th, 14th and 15th picture.

The next significant milestone was the 1973 auction of The Estate of Edith Gregor Halpert, owner of the Downtown Gallery and the primary American Modernist dealer after the death of Alfred Stieglitz. Ebsworth later admitted he should have bought all 20 paintings on offer, confessing that he subsquently paid $1.5 million for a work that had been hammered down for $35,000.

In that auction, he lost out to John D. Rockefeller on a John Marin watercolour, but was the successful bidder for Black, White and Blue by Georgia O’Keeffe, paying $47,000 for the work. When he was subsequently introduced to Lloyd Goodrich, the director of the Whitney Museum of Art — and curator of the 1970 O’Keeffe retrospective — told him that he considered the 1930 abstract canvas to be ‘O’Keeffe’s greatest picture’.

‘The reason I understood Georgia’s work was that I came to American artists with European eyes,’ Ebsworth wrote. ‘Europeans understood this type of art long before Americans did. We still had a cultural inferiority complex that told us all great works of art came from Europe.

‘American art didn’t blossom until after World War II with artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. Georgia’s work showed no influence; it didn’t feel derivative of anything. It was purely American.’ Ebsworth would strike up a lasting friendship with O’Keeffe and was married to his second wife, Patricia, with the artist as their witness at her Abiquiu home in New Mexico.

Having satisfied himself that he had bought the very best available works of American Modernism, Ebsworth turned to museum-quality works by the great names of Abstract Expressionism, extending his quest to trace the unique creative experiment that saw traditions of the European canon being cast aside in favour of a bold, new interpretation of burgeoning national identity.

‘What I wanted to do by that time was to turn my American Modernist collection into the full American 20th century,’ Ebsworth told Christie’s in 2010. ‘And that was when I became interested in buying a Klein, a de Kooning, a Pollock, a Jasper Johns, a Warhol and a Hockney.’

Historian Bruce Robertson has argued that ‘the greatest performance in America — as well as its most original creation — is surely the United States itself.’ The Ebsworth Collection is a unique and powerful representation of that national experience, realised through the visionary talents of Hopper, O’Keeffe, Pollock, Joan Mitchell, Franz Kline, de Kooning and others. ‘Here,’ Robertson declares, ‘is where the value of a single great collection returns.’

‘Due to luck, timing and research, I managed to put together the best privately owned collection of American Modernist paintings in existence,’ Ebsworth reflected. In 1987-88, the collection toured to The St. Louis Art Museum, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as well as a second tour in 2000 where it was shown at the National Gallery of Art and the Seattle Art Museum.

In many ways, the collection mirrors Barney Ebsworth’s own journey in connoisseurship. ‘Buying American art of this period,’ Charles Buckley wrote, ‘has been for Barney an act of strong personal commitment and discovery. Although the pleasure that he experiences from collecting is apparent to all who know him, it is what he learns from living with these paintings and sculpture that perhaps brings him the greatest satisfaction.’

In the tradition of such esteemed American collectors as Henry Clay Frick, Isabella Stewart Gardner and Albert C. Barnes, Ebsworth, with his third wife Pamela, conceived of his residence, designed by the renowned architect Jim Olson outside Seattle, Washington, as a dialogue between art and architecture. ‘History is replete with houses that have contained great art,’ wrote curator Franklin Kelly of the National Gallery of Art, ‘but not with houses where great art has been a central factor from their very inception.’

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Throughout his art-collecting life, Barney Ebsworth felt it was very important to open his home to many museum groups, academic and art educational programmes in order to allow people to see the art and experience it for themselves first-hand. He felt strongly that he was merely a steward for these masterpieces during his lifetime, and that they should be accessible to everyone who was interested in learning from and truly experiencing the art as he did.

Barney Ebsworth was named as one of the ‘World's 200 Greatest Collectors’ as well as among ‘America's Top 100 Collectors’, and served as a board member or trustee for the Seattle Art Museum, the Honolulu Museum of Art, the St. Louis Art Museum, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park, St. Louis, and the Laumeier Sculpture Park. He gave generously over the years to the Seattle Art Museum as well as to many other museums and charitable institutions, including gifts of major early American works. 

‘It’s not owning the individual pieces,’ he said, looking back on the incredible artworks he had lived with. ‘It is the emotional and intellectual experience of collecting that has been the most glorious and rewarding aspect of my life.’

Barney A. Ebsworth passed away in April 2018 with Rebecca, his fourth wife, and his daughter by his side.

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