The Burchfield Collectors
By Elizabeth Licata

Sotheby’s New York, Dec. 2000: Wild Sweet Peas in a Summer Rain, (1961-65),
watercolor, 47 x 30 1/2 in., $511,750.

Sotheby’s New York, May 24, 2001: Backyards in Golden Sunlight, (1946-66),
watercolor 48 x 48 in., $511,750.

Cookie Spiro
Collector Cookie Spiro at her desk.
A work by the well-known Surrealist
painter Matta hangs behind her.
Photo by Charles Clough.
With these two auction records, available to anyone who subscribes to or Sotheby’s catalogs, Charles Ephraim Burchfield (1893-1967) entered the rarified realm of twentieth century artists whose work sells for over half a million. True, the work isn’t selling for close to the stratospheric prices that usually make up auction headlines (“Cezanne and Van Gogh paintings fetch record 50m”) but six figures is very respectable for an artist whose work—until recently—rarely sold for over $50,000.

For comparison’s sake, here are some other artworks that sold in the same range as Backyards in Golden Sunlight in 2001:

•Cezanne watercolor, Study of an Apple (1885), $445,750, Sotheby’s.

•Edward Hopper watercolor, Mount Moran (1946), $501,000, Christies.

•Rufino Tamayo painting, Madre Feliz (1949), $556,000, Christies.

•Andy Warhol painting, 4 Reversal Marilyns (1979-86), $390,750, Sotheby’s.

So while Burchfield has not yet arrived at “blue chip” status, where major works would always be selling in the seven-figure range, he is now among those artists whose prices are worth noting, and whose auction activity will be closely watched by dealers and collectors.

Burchfield collector Jay Ferrari, a former Buffalonian who now lives in Ohio, sums up the recent surge of interest in Burchfield with this anecdote, “Four years ago we saw a Burchfield at Kennedy Galleries that was too expensive for us at $97,000. Now that painting is $297,000.” Rather than wasting time on regrets, Ferrari is thinking about trading up some of his lesser paintings for a major Burchfield before the artist is totally out of reach.

A Give and Take Process
Collector Cookie Spiro, who is the only Burchfield collector interviewed for this article who really has no Western New York roots, agrees that collecting is a give and take process. “You have to sell,” she says. “There aren’t unlimited resources.”

Spiro met her late husband Harry Spiro, a real estate developer who was older and already ensconced in the art world, when she was still a co-ed. They moved from New Orleans to Manhattan in 1972 and raised a family, collecting art all the while. Harry Spiro began with the German Expressionists, then became interested in mid-twentieth century Modernist painters such as Matta and Bluemner, and then moved on to twentieth century American art.

Spiro Living Room
The living room of Spiro apartment in
Manhattan, with another Matta.
Photo by Charles Clough.
“We did it together,” remembers Cookie Spiro about their collecting adventures, recalling that they worked with legendary Burchfield dealer John Clancy of the Rehn Gallery, who took over from Frank Rehn, Burchfield’s first important dealer, and also bought from the Kennedy Galleries (founded by Lawrence Fleischmann, a great champion of Burchfield).

There is no question that the Spiro Burchfields, soon to be on indefinite loan to the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, are major works. I saw some of them in Cookie Spiro’s dining room, which is continually kept blocked from all sunlight. There were perhaps seven paintings closely hung around the room, lending a luminous glow to the darkened space. They include Bee Hepaticas (1962), Late Winter Dawn (1956-65), March Day, Gowanda (1926-33), a painting formerly owned by the late Armand Castellani, who bought it from Kennedy Galleries; Pine Trees and Oriental Poppies (1955-60), Sparrowhawk Weather (1960-65), and The Star (1941-48). There are other Burchfield paintings throughout the Spiro’s large upper East Side apartment, as well as works by Matta, Tom Wesselman, Ben Shahn, Picasso, John Marin, Oscar Bluemner, and John Singer Sargent.

I was probably one of the last to see this amazing darkened room of Burchfields—Cookie Spiro has since relocated to Arizona, and the paintings will next be seen at the Buffalo Club, in a special exhibition.

Reminders of home
For other Burchfield collectors, their Burchfields are a connection to another time, to memories of a different Buffalo. Peter E. and Elizabeth Parisi, who have since moved away from the area, used to venture forth on Sunday afternoons to long-forgotten galleries in Allentown, where they became interested first in Burchfield pencil sketches, and then, in watercolors. “I did know about his work but it was different than what I had collected before, “says Peter Parisi, who had previously focused on antiques. “It was different was so well expressed, so appealing. We went to the various art galleries on Sundays. Along Allen Street and John Goodman’s gallery at the Park Lane.” [Goodman is now a dealer in New York.]

Parisi agrees with Spiro and Ferarri that collecting is a fluid, mutable process, but has a more pragmatic explanation: “For one thing you run into a space problem, and you’ll have a beautiful painting hanging in a hallway,” he says. The Parisis have donated many of their works to the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, but still have a sizable collection. “We have a great emotional attachment to the works,” Parisi says.

Another Western New York artist and collector who wished to remain anonymous, has even better reason to be nostalgic about Burchfield. “I met him in 1959,” she remembers. “Hardly anybody in Buffalo knew who he was, but I was an artist and another artist introduced us. I bought his work through the Rehn Gallery, which wanted to get the work into the hands of young collectors.

“He was like an eggshell,” she continues. “If you touched him too strongly he would break. He was such an interesting person. He couldn’t talk to strangers. But when he spoke in public, the words would flow out of him, he lost himself completely and it would just flow out. I guess that’s how he painted as well.”

Probably the most well-known Burchfield collector is Western New Yorker Charles Rand Penney, whose name is now forever joined to the artist’s at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center. Penney bought works directly from the artist and through other means—attempting to get a work for every year of the artist’s painting life. When he gave the works—183 in all—to the Burchfield in 1994, he ensured that the center will be the largest public collection of the artist’s work. Now, with the auction value and art historical prominence of Burchfields going up every year, the museum’s place in the international art world is assured.

Elizabeth Licata is editor of Buffalo Spree.


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