AN INTERVIEW WITH SAUL STANOFF
(In Memory of Saul 1917-2005)
Saul Stanoff holding a beloved Dan mask from his collection
[Saul Stanoff Passed away peacefully on July 2nd 2005 at the age of 88 just three months after this interview. He was extremely proud of this "article" as he called it and enthusiastically told all of this family and friends. Saul was a significant inspiration to me and I feel privileged to have known him. We are all fortunate he was able to share his thoughts before passing. In his words and in the art he collected his soul lives on; he will surely be missed. May Saul rest in peace.]
recently had the opportunity to spend time with the venerable American collector
Saul Stanoff. Saul is recognized
worldwide for his superlative collection of diminutive tribal art masterpieces,
our first session, Saul recalled some of the experiences from his early years,
and how his upbringing formed his views on life in general.
He also related how he began collecting Tribal Art:
was a high school dropout and fortunately for me I came from an impoverished
background which has helped me a lot. My mother was an illiterate orphan from
and wagons were still used back then and I remember if a horse would die the
owner would just leave it in the street because he couldnít afford to have it
taken away. Its belly would swell all up and we kids would jump up and down on
it like a trampoline ignoring the flies. Thatís what was available to us to
play with, so we did. I was blessed to be born poor.
People that were born with a silver spoon in their mouth could not enjoy
the apple in the icebox because they had ice creamď.
A piece of bread with some butter and a glass of milk was heaven to me. I remember one day as a kid a friend said come over for lunch. I said what are you eating? He said a piece of bread with some jam and peanuts on it. I said, wow give me a slice. It was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted. My mother never had jam or peanuts in the house. See, my friend that was raised on it and could not appreciate itÖ. he ate it everyday. It was no big deal to him but when youíre hungry food tastes better."
the beginnings of Saulís collecting career:
first started collecting natural history items and sea shells years ago.
One day I went to a show and a guy had this clay head. I said Ďhey fellow what
is this clay head you have here? He
said Ďthis is 1500 years old and is Pre-Columbianí. I bought the piece and
someone mentioned that I ought to take it to Stendahl Gallery so I did. I
remember walking in the door and Earl shouting at me saying ĎDonít bring
that piece of junk into my gallery I donít even want to see it. Get it out of
here now.í So I took it back to my car and tossed it in the trunk.
cautiously walked back in. He said to me ĎListen if you come back tomorrow
with a bottle of Chivas Regal Iíll give you an education and tell you all
about this Pre-Columbian Artí.
I did and proceeded to get an amazing education and drunk as a skunk.
From that day on I was hooked, and when I do things now I do them in a
I did and proceeded to get an amazing education and drunk as a skunk. From that day on I was hooked, and when I do things now I do them in a big way!Ē
"The notion of ďcollectorĒ to me is hideous.
Iím not a collector. To me a collector is someone who collects postage stamps
and has to have one from every country. There is no beauty in a postage stamp,
thereís beauty in a one-of-a-kind piece. Some people have to collect
every culture and feel they must have something from
TM: YOU GENERALLY LIKE TO BUY AT AUCTION. WHY IS THAT?
SAUL: "I like auctions because the playing field is fair. All of the pieces are available at the same time and you know exactly when they are going to be sold. With a dealer a piece could be gone or pre-sold... I also like buying from dealers because you can get good deals and buy things that might go for too much money at auction. For example, I bought this little Northwest Coast Tlingit Raven Pipe bowl from a dealer last year. That same piece at auction may have gone for double what I paid for it when you consider other dealers and collectors biding the price up."
HOW HAS THE MARKET FOR TRIBAL ART CHANGED SINCE YOU FIRST BEGAN
years ago at Parke-Bernet Galleries in
TM: WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE FOR NEW COLLECTORS JUST DISCOVERING TRIBAL ART?
SAUL: "Wow, thatís tough, very tough see. The good news is that great objects keep appreciating, so if you can get a hold of a masterpiece (at a reasonable price) that is potentially worth $50,000 then new collectors have a chance. If you canít afford one important piece of art then buy books. There is nothing wrong with that. It is hard for people who donít have art ability to get going and often theyíve lost 20 or 30 years before they even start. So itís important to begin (collecting) early."
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON HOW ART SHOULD BE VIEWED IN THE HOME
ďMany evenings when my wife is asleep and its
in the morning, Iíll put a piece on a pedestal under ďgoodĒ light and
look at it from all angles. Art needs light and if you leave it in the same
place too long it looses its power. Art doesnít deserve to be in the same spot
all the time. It needs to be walked around the house and displayed in different
areas so you get a completely different perspective. I do this a lot and it can
blow your mind how it looks in different areas. Height is very important tooÖ
you must play with the height. Sometimes eye level is not always best, so it
depends. As you know, I only have about five or ten percent of my pieces out in
my house at any one time. The reason is that you canít absorb too many pieces
at once. They are powerful pieces and if you had them all out at once it would
blow the house apart. So I rotate pieces out of storage and live with a few at a
time. Less is moreÖ less is definitely more. One
great piece makes a collection.Ē
TM: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE PIECE IN YOUR COLLECTION?
SAUL: "Thatís hard. My favorite pieces change, but thinking about it (long pause) I would have to stay my Tabwa staff finial".
Tabwa Staff Finial
TM: EVERYTHING IN YOUR COLLECTION SEEMS TO HAVE SOME BEAUTIFUL & LOVELY ASPECT TO IT--WHY DO YOU CHOOSE TO STAY AWAY FROM MORE grotesque AND/or crude larger PIECES?
thoughts about art and aesthetics are that a piece has to be lovable.
If you look at a beautiful woman everyone can recognize beauty but
thatís not so with a piece of primitive art.
donít like any art which shows western influence.
A great piece is magnetic and spiritual and thatís why I pay a lot of
money for a small piece. I hate to
use the word, but itís almost a sexual experience for the brain. Love and sex
go together; I can fall in love with an object. Art is an escape for me.
great pieces have a very spiritual aspect. Iím
fascinated with pieces made by a manís hand which shows spiritual belief and
vision. Also, I have a good eyeÖ. people know I have a good eye.
I love my taste, I enjoy it because you look at a great objectÖ. take a
butterfly for example, it is beautiful, but when man makes a beautiful thing
with his mind and heart and soulÖ he comes up with a masterpiece- wowee!
I can fall in love see. You
know, people ask me how I know if a piece is a fake.
An object will tell you if it is a
canít stand stupidity in tribal art. Authentic
tribal art is never stupid; it has spirituality and energy to it.
A piece will speak to you and tell you if it is authentic.
If it is stupid get rid of it because great tribal art is never stupid.
When there is a passion and exchange of energy with a piece it talks to you and
tells you that it is real. Sometimes it may stop talking to you then it is time
to pass it on to someone else.
look at art differently than most people do and Iím blessed. Iíve seen many
collections and they bore the hell out of me. The collector will say ĎLook its
three feet tall and its grotesque and thatís how art should beí.
No thatís not how art should be. See, I canít understand grotesque.
Life is too short to live with negative objects.
When Art is great it is not a material thing it is an emotional experience and if more people would have this sensitivity they would not be collecting ordinary things, they would be collecting nice things. Maybe I better keep my mouth shut (laughing)."
TM: DO YOU FIND THAT IT REQUIRES MORE AND MORE POWERFUL PIECES TO AROUSE YOU AS YOUR TASTES HAVE EVOLVED?
SAUL: "All of the pieces have power, but I find that if it is too lovely I get bored with it. A powerful piece stays in my gut much longer. These pieces are not meant to be sweet, kissable and huggable. They deserve a certain amount of respect. If a piece becomes too sweet and too sugary then theyíve got to go. If a piece loses power for me it becomes sweet and then it time for it to leave the house. Art has to be on wheels as I say. One of the biggest thrills in life is to be able to share the art. A piece will become powerful and alive for me all over again when I share it and talk about it with another person. By showing you this Dan Mask the same is trueÖ. it is magical allover again."
COULD YOU EVER IMAGINE A LIFE WITHOUT ART?
is no real life without art and to live without it is a loss. The first time I
walked into a museum as a kid I got my first whiff and felt the aura of the
primitive people. In this case it
was Native American.
needs an escape and the only escape Iíve ever had is the art. I donít take
drugs and the sex is just about gone so the only thing left is the art.
I tell you a few years back my son died of a drug overdose and with my
nervous condition and neurotic ways I felt very suicidal. If it was not for the
art I could not have gotten through that period.
Art is therapy for me. When
Iím looking at a beautiful art object and feeling that energy and spirituality
I donít have any problems and in fact Iím in a different world. My wife can
talk to me and I donít hear her. Art that is great deserves a lot of attention
and that is a wonderful escape for a person like me.
For the last 60 years of my life Iíve always had an art experience everyday whether it was a book, a magazine or a piece. Art and music go together by the way. Iíll put on some classical music and then just place a piece in some good light and just look at it. Art is a living thing, it vibrates. Art is meant to be touched and it canít breathe inside a glass box. In fact a blind man can enjoy tribal art in three dimensions."
Tokelau Island Tackle Box
TM: DO YOU FEEL THAT YOUíVE SEEN ALL THERE IS TO SEE?
SAUL: "Luckily I donít have blinders on like some people that say ďI just collection one thing and thatís itĒ. So no, there is so much great art to look at like Pre-Historic Eskimo, Pre-Columbian, Chinese art etc. There is plenty of art to go around and it will never be exhausted. I find that there is enough for everybody and itís constantly available. A lot of people look but they canít find anything and lucky for me, I can find a needle in a hay stack. Iíve got to tell you one other thing and that is that I was born with sensitivity and art appreciation and was able to cultivate it to a high degree".
TM: IF YOU COULD HAVE ANY OBJECT IN THE WORLD WHAT WOULD IT BE?
is a good question. There is one thing
and it is in the Louvre in
Zulu Spoon at the Louvre
I BELIEVE YOUíVE COINED THE EXPRESSION ďTHE PIECE HAS DIED ON MEĒ
WHICH A NUMBER OF US
DEALERS ARE FAMILIAR WITH. WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR YOU WHEN YOU SAY THIS?
SAUL: "Yes, sometimes when I get a piece the energy or power that it initially had for me will run out and goes flat especially when I get it home. This could be within five days or five years. It will no longer move me the same way. Some objects however, are timeless and very powerful continuing to offer themselves to the viewer. I believe Art should have wheels. A collection should move and when Iíve gotten all of the juice out of an object I feel it is time to let it go and let someone else get the juice from it."
Buddhist Houshang Mask (Monpa) Himalayas Arunachal Pradesh
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT YOU IN PARTICULAR?
shy I donít like to be on stage (long pause).
Iím honest and fair and I donít like to go with the masses and I
donít have many friends. Well, if people could understand my taste I would
feel more comfortable. I donít
feel comfortable with most collectors because they donít understand me at all.
They donít understand how I buy things or why. They buy with unlimited funds
and I buy for love and passion. If you buy for investment and to make money it
kills it. Money is the downfall of collecting.
It will ruin a collection because if you have too much money you buy
everything that is available and end up with a huge inventory.
have no respect for the new collectors with millions to spend on art who
accumulate everything in sight and build a collection in a few years.
It is impossible to build a
great collection that quick. No, I respect for instance the school teacher in
TM: DO YOU THINK YOU WILL EVER PUBLISH YOUR COLLECTION?
SAUL: "Yes, but it must be done a certain way. Iím interested to see what Mark Blackburnís book looks like when it comes out. I donít know about publishing all of my collection, that is too overwhelming. I think 50 pieces would be fine. I donít care about doing something like a text book with descriptions, provenance and it measures 80 cm etc. Thatís been done and is boring to me. I see something done by a European photographer like Hugh Dubois with beautiful photos and proper descriptions which evoke emotions and feeling."
TM: WHAT IS YOUR ULTIMATE INTENTION FOR YOUR COLLECTION?
SAUL: It has got to be dispersed. Museums have basements that are full of stuff and out of 1000 pieces they might only display 10 pieces a year Ö... This is a shameÖ itís a crime. I want other custodians like myself to take care of the art in their own homes. I believe art should be enjoyed by the people. Someday I want my collection to be sold at auction. Art has been a big part of my life. Each time I look at one of my pieces it absorbs some of my personality. Life is worth living if I can die and people can still remember me for something. When a piece is sold and changes hands some of myself remains in that object and I love that thought. "
YOUíVE TURNED DOWN SOME ASTONISHINGLY HIGH OFFERS ON SOME OF YOUR
PIECES. HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL
TO RECEIVE OFFERS AND IS THERE A POINT AT WHICH IT IS SO MUCH MONEY THAT IT IS HARD TO SAY NO?
SAUL: "It makes me feel good and sad at the same time. Iím overwhelmed twenty times over. I donít buy for investment but the pieces keep appreciating anyway. Ultimately the piece itself is more important than the money. I receive dividends again and again from a piece I love. See, I would have to pay taxes on the money and would then have to go out and try and find a replacement object. It is not likely that I could find something I love as much or would have the emotional impact for me."
TM: YOU TOLD ME AT LUNCH THE OTHER DAY THAT IF YOU COULD BE YOUNG AGAIN THAT YOU WOULD TRADE ďEVERYTHINGĒ. WHY IS THAT?
is wasted on the young! If I could
have the experience Iíve got now and be 20 years of age again I would give it
ALL away. Youth is a waste there is
no doubt about it. Why did our
creator make people old when they have arrived?
Youíre tired and have all this knowledge it doesnít make sense.
should start life with the knowledge and then gradually loose it when you get
older. If you started life and had
that previous knowledge in front of you, then you could appreciate anything.
should have 60 years experience and then be young again. What can a young person
appreciate? They canít even
appreciate a womanÖ. they are too inexperienced. When youíre young you
donít observe anything. It takes
many years of experience to know how to live.
When youíre old you can really absorb things.
reminds me of something important we can end on.
I was having dinner in
is certainly an ďoriginalĒ and I extend him my gratitude for cheerfully and
enthusiastically providing this fascinating interview for the visitors to the
Michael Auliso and Saul Stanoff