‘I fell in love with the people and then the art’: an astonishing Surrealist collection comes to Christie’s
With an eye for the avant-garde, fashion executives Rosalind Gersten Jacobs and Melvin Jacobs forged deep bonds with Surrealist and Dada artists, who were instrumental in helping them curate the collection
A cornerstone of the collection of Rosalind Gersten Jacobs and Melvin Jacobs is Man Ray’s Le Violin D’Ingres, which Rosalind, known as Roz, first encountered while visiting the artist’s 1962 retrospective with Man Ray himself. Surrealist expert Francis Naumann has described the work as ‘an iconic piece in the same way as the Mona Lisa is… the way the Warhol soupcan is… the way Magritte’s man wearing a bowler with a floating green apple in front of his face is… All are instantly recognizable and will be centuries from now. That is not to take anything away from any of the other exceptional works in the collection.’
The collection began with a gift. When William and Noma Copley, patrons of the arts and artists themselves, generously gave Roz their René Magritte gouache, Eloge de la dialectique, as a birthday present in 1955, they could never have anticipated just how formative their gesture would be on their new fashionable acquaintance. What began as a token of friendship opened the door for Roz to a world of collecting possibilities.
Throughout her life, Roz, alongside her husband Melvin Jacobs, known as Mel, became deeply entrenched in the rarefied Dada and Surrealist circles, befriending and championing artists, including Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, and Lee Miller. Together, the Jacobses helped cement the legacies of some of art history’s most legendary talents. Now, their own legacy as discerning collectors will undoubtedly be established as the curtain is lifted on their exceptional holdings.
This May, approximately 200 works will be sold in The Surrealist World of Rosalind Gersten Jacobs & Melvin Jacobs, a single-owner live auction at Christie’s in New York, with a dedicated online sale running concurrently.
‘It wasn’t a planned, conscious, or strategic goal of my parents to acquire works of art that would become a collection,’ says Roz and Mel’s daughter, Peggy Jacobs Bader, who remembers being fascinated by the ‘vibrant’ Copleys and the ‘mind-bending’ works by Magritte and Dalí that were on display in her parents’ homes in New York and Florida. ‘The art was part of their everyday lives. Every work came from a friend, whether acquired from an artist or bought from a gallerist. In many ways, the artists really helped curate the collection because they aided my parents in picking the pieces in their studios when they were visiting, so it’s a very personal collection.’
Every artwork, photograph, piece of jewellery, poster, or ephemeral object in the auction tells an intimate story of a collection that formed organically through deep relationships, many of which are documented in the couples’ extensive archives. The letters, receipts, and drawings are a ‘treasure trove of history,’ says Bader whose parents’ passion for collecting shaped her own. ‘Growing up, I never lived in a home that didn’t have art in it, and now I feel a powerful need to be surrounded by art.’
Roz and Mel: business leaders with artistic sensibilities and a penchant for puzzles
Professionally, both Mel and Roz enjoyed great success. Mel started in the basement of Bloomingdales and rose through the ranks to become Co-Chairman of Federated Department Stores, eventually finishing his career as Chairman & CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue. In the male-dominated corporate world of the 1950s-1970s, Roz rose to become national Fashion Director of Macy’s and one of the top executives of the company.
Though both Roz and Mel enjoyed extraordinary business careers, both engaged in artistic endeavours. Roz drew, painted, and took art classes in college. Later, she was known as a fashion pioneer with exceptional, boundary-pushing taste, even in the clothes she chose to wear, especially Geoffrey Beene and Zoran, trailblazing designers themselves. Roz enjoyed pairing garments and accessories, which she thought of as a kind of puzzle-solving exercise. Mel, who before college studied the oboe at Julliard, also loved puzzles, not to mention playing backgammon and chess, pastimes shared with many of the Surrealist and Dada artists. Ironically, neither knew what Surrealism was prior to meeting William and Noma Copley.
The early years: how the Copleys started it all
‘My mother always loved to retell the story of how she met Man and Julie,’ says Bader. In 1954, art dealer Sidney Janis invited Roz to a dinner hosted by the Surrealist gallerist, art patron, and artist, William Copley, and his new wife, Noma. The two were visiting New York from Paris. Roz and the Copleys met again shortly thereafter at the opening of The Golden Apple, reintroduced by mutual friend Jerome Moross, who wrote the music for the show. That evening, a lifelong friendship was spawned.
The Copleys invited Roz to call them in Paris on her upcoming buying trip for Macy’s ‘should she find herself alone and bored’ as Roz often recounted. And that is exactly what she did. Roz called the Copleys and Bill (Copley) answered the phone. He called out to Noma, ‘Hey, Noma…it’s that pretty girl! Let’s invite her to dinner, Man Ray loves pretty girls.’ Roz developed an immediate rapport with the Man Rays. ‘It was the perfect storm of timing, temperament, and interest,’ says Bader.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the Copleys’ Longpont home just outside of Paris served as a hotbed for artists who would gather around the James Metcalf marble-top dining table and chandelier that the Jacobses would later own. Noma, who was much admired among cognoscenti as a gifted Surrealist artist and jewellery designer, would become Bader’s godmother. Among the many adornments Noma made for Roz was an engagement ring (a belated present since Roz and Mel had eloped, thanks to the Copleys’ encouragement), as well as Bader’s own petite diamond ring, given to her for her thirteenth birthday, which has been passed on to her own daughter, Molly.
The Copleys would prove to be as influential on the Jacobs’ personal lives as on their art collection. It was at their home that Roz fell in love with what would become her first artwork: Magritte’s Eloge de la dialectique, which the Copleys gave to her as a birthday present in 1955. ‘It was just so beautiful,’ Roz once stated of the work, depicting a house within the window of another house. ‘I longed for it... It influenced everything we collected from then on. We only bought things that spoke to us, never thinking of their future value.’ Several years later, to celebrate the Jacobs’ wedding, the Copleys gave them another work by Magritte, L'autre son de cloche, a painting whose celestial image of the earth eclipsing a planetary-sized apple is spellbinding in its simplicity.
‘Until the moment when they took their Magritte off the wall, it never occurred to my mom that she could actually own or collect art,’ says Bader, adding that the Copleys acted as art advisors to her parents throughout their lives. ‘Noma would call my father and say, “Mel, I found this unbelievable artist,” and he’d say, “Pick something you think is great and I’ll buy it.”’
Shared Surrealist sensibilities and artist relationships
After being exposed to the worlds of Surrealist and Dada art, which had waned in the public eye by the 1950s when Abstract Expressionism reigned supreme, Roz championed the movements privately and publicly. Helping the artists to infiltrate pop culture, she organized exhibitions at Macy’s, introduced unconventional designs by the likes of Italian artist Piero Fornasetti to its home department, became an active philanthropist and board member to many institutions, and made her artistic affiliation clear through her attire.
‘In the 30 or 40 years I knew Roz, she never failed to wear some very recognizable piece of jewellery made by an artist,’ recalls Francis Naumann, a scholar, curator, and art dealer, specializing in the Dada and Surrealist periods. Naumann also contributed to The Long Arm of Coincidence: Selections from the Rosalind and Melvin Jacobs Collection, the catalogue for a 2009 exhibition at Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York. ‘She carried that connection of what she collected whenever she presented herself publicly.’ In a constant effort to promote artists, Roz increasingly wore artist jewellery, whether pieces by Noma Copley or Man Ray, Ernst, Matta, and even Roy Lichtenstein and Claude Lalanne.
Le Manteau de Pascale — in which a trench coat is floating in the sky — and Le modèle rouge — which depicts either a pair of boots becoming feet or, alternatively, a pair of feet becoming boots — must have resonated with the fashion-oriented Roz and Mel. In other instances, the fashion/retailing executives’ occupations provided unexpected materials for the artists. Such is the case in William Copley’s 1965 amusing work, American Girdle, in which a girdle from Bloomingdale’s, where Mel was working, is placed over an eagle.
‘My parents were young, up-and-coming, fun, and adventurous, and these older artists were mentors to them,’ says Bader on the reciprocal exchange between the artists and her parents. At the centre of the Jacobs’ Surrealist circle was Man Ray, whose works form the heart of their collection. Included in this sale are his famed rayographs, assemblages, paintings, and jewellery. ‘Whenever my mother went over to Europe on a buying trip for Macy’s, she had a habit of buying something from Man, allegedly as a way to help support him — which it no doubt did — but perhaps more because she was entranced by his work,’ says Bader.
The iconic Le Violon d’Ingres: Man Ray's most important work
One work by Man Ray that completely captivated Roz was Le Violon d’Ingres, a 1924 portrait of Alice Prin, known as Kiki de Montparnasse, a model, actress, muse, and the artist's lover at the time. Having photographed Kiki from behind with her turbaned head facing left, the artist then manipulated the print in his darkroom. Using pure light to ‘burn in’ the violin-like f-holes onto the model's back, Man Ray created this dreamlike Surrealist masterpiece, full of sexual innuendo and mystery.
Roz first encountered the work serendipitously at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris in 1962. The museum was doing a retrospective of Man Ray’s work, and the artist had brought her there to see a portrait he had done of her. While Roz was flattered by the picture of herself, she was more focused on the Le Violon D’Ingres, which she immediately acquired from the artist.
‘The photographs in the Jacobs’ collection are a fantastic multi-decade representation of Man Ray’s photographic practice, and the crown jewel in the diadem is Le Violon. Unequalled as a 20th-century photograph, it has inspired generations of artists and seeped into popular consciousness in a way that no other image has,’ says Darius Himes, Christie’s International Head of Photographs.
Patronage and posters
After Man Ray died in 1976, the Jacobs’ buying slowed down; however, what they did acquire was often in the Surrealist vein. Among the contemporary photographs included in the auction are those by Gilbert & George, Bernd and Hilla Becher, and James Casebere, whom Bader introduced to her mother. Also featured is a photorealist work by Vija Celmins, whom Noma Copley recommended to the Jacobses.
‘We are honoured to offer this special collection comprised of a diverse breadth of art by both European and American Surrealist artists, whom the Jacobses felt were kindred spirits,’ says Cyanne Chutkow, Christie’s Deputy Chairman, Impressionist & Modern Art. ‘Every work in the collection bears a unique story and each anecdote further highlights the value of those close friendships.’
Describing her collecting philosophy, Roz once said, ‘I fell in love with the people and then the art.’ When buying pieces of art at a friend’s exhibition was not possible, Roz and Mel would always purchase the poster from the show as an indication of their support for the artists’ endeavours. ‘Many times, my father would buy two posters — one he’d frame, and one he’d keep unframed. They were very excited and happy that their friends were being recognized,’ says Bader, adding that many of the posters are signed with notes to her parents.
‘I fell in love with the people and then the art’ —Rosalind Gersten Jacobs
In terms of organizations and institutional patronage, Roz was on the board of Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art and was a great supporter of the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. In 2019, Peggy encouraged her mother to gift four important artworks from the collection to the Phillips in Roz and Mel’s name. Roz and Peggy were both actively involved in the Guggenheim Museum’s Learning Through Art (LTA) program — which brings arts education into the inner city — since its inception. Roz was also on the Board of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which she thought of as Surrealist Dance.
Giving back is as much a part of the Jacobs’ legacy as championing Surrealist and Dada circles. Guided by passion and joy, their singular collection reflects an era where creativity knew no bounds, whether taking the shape of a Duchamp’s ‘erotic object’ sculpture or Man Ray’s masterful photographic homage to Ingres.