Thomas H. Oxford (1927-2008) and Victor Gail (1929-2014) began their life-long commitment to American decorative arts in 1967 when they purchased a handsome high chest-of-drawers made in Salem, Massachusetts in the mid eighteenth century (lot 120). Over the course of fifty years, they amassed what has become one of the finest collections of early American decorative arts in Southern California. By Victor Gail’s own account, he was the more “acquisitive” of the two, while Tom Oxford was the historian. According to Victor, “Tom loved to research each piece, particularly when it involved provenance. Even to this day I find little pieces of paper tucked away in drawers, notes recording Tom’s observations on the piece and its history.”
Victor Gail, who was born in Chicago, met his life partner Tom Oxford at a Halloween party in 1948 in San Francisco. They moved shortly thereafter to Southern California where Tom worked as a chief land surveyor. Victor was employed for thirty years as an administrator at U.S. Borax. After his retirement in 1982, he worked as an assistant to the San Juan Capistrano antiques dealer Polly Royce in her shop The Blue Quail.
They made their home in the Belmont Heights section of Long Beach and over five decades filled it with the finest examples of American decorative arts. Much of what they collected was purchased on the West Coast (Santa Barbara, San Diego, La Jolla and Los Angeles) during a time when Americana was not so highly prized and when few people imagined such treasures could be available in the West. However, they also made occasional trips East to visit dealers such as Zeke Liverant, Philip Bradley and David Schorsch, from whom they acquired pivotal pieces. They were also friendly with John Kirk and Benno Forman who on at least one occasion accompanied them on “shopping trips,” introducing them to East-Coast friends and colleagues. Sweetly persistent and ever patient, Victor often “tracked” desirable pieces over an extended period of time, periodically calling owners to ask if they were ready to sell. His persistence frequently bore the finest of fruit. Victor also spoke about a phenomenon he called “collecting karma” and believed that as much as he, the collector, was looking for extraordinary objects, those objects were, themselves, looking for “happy homes.” Over the years many such objects found their “happy home” in the Gail-Oxford Collection.
Tom and Victor were particularly interested in non-urban, vernacular forms of furniture because they felt those pieces reflected the daily lives and values of everyday Americans with whom they felt a particular affinity. They had a special fondness for brass lighting implements, European ceramics (particularly delftware) and American pottery, and they collected these materials in great depth. When considering the ultimate disposition of their collection, they decided to contribute it to a public institution in Southern California because, as Victor described, “When we first became interested in Americana, there was no place in Southern California we could go to look at original objects. We wanted to provide a place where the public could see this wonderful material and learn about our nation’s history and its people through fine examples of the American decorative arts.”
The Huntington Library and Art Collections
Extremely pleased with the Huntington’s growing commitment to American art and cultural history, they decided to give key pieces in their collection to the Huntington as a irrevocable bequest. Their gift comprises over 100 examples of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century American furniture, paintings, sculpture, ceramics, needlework and metal. Among the highlights are a New York high chest-of-drawers of about 1710; a block-front desk-and-bookcase made in Massachusetts about 1775; a high chest-of-drawers made in Wethersfield, Connecticut around 1760; and a needlework sampler by Nancy Anne Moulton stitched about 1796. In addition to giving numerous pieces from their collection, they have contributed the remainder of their estate to the Huntington to endow a position dedicated to the American decorative arts field. In recognition of this gift, the position will be called the Gail-Oxford Curator of American Decorative Arts. A gallery has also been named in honor of their great generosity. Steven S. Koblik, President of the Huntington, has said: “We are truly delighted at Tom and Victor’s generosity. Their gift will endure for all time, giving future generations of Huntington visitors an opportunity to see and experience American art and to learn about our shared past through this collection of truly extraordinary objects.”
The proceeds of the Christie’s sale of the Gail-Oxford Collection will benefit the American decorative arts collection at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California.
Harold B. Nelson
Curator of American Decorative Arts, The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens