The Collectors City has some masters in art of pick and choose

August 22, 1993|By Sally Solis-Cohen | Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writer

What makes some collectors rise above the rest?

Generally, they're trailblazers who find things few people know about. They've become experts in their areas of interest. They see quality in ordinary objects and buy before others catch on. Most of all, they have an eye for beauty and a respect for history, and pursue collecting with persistence and passion.

Baltimore is a city with a long tradition of collecting and many distinguished collectors. Here are a few whose collections truly stand out.

Dr. Leslie King-Hammond

Dr. Leslie King-Hammond, dean of graduate studies at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, has filled her four-story house with African, Haitian and contemporary African-American art, and with what she calls "black Americana."

Sculpted, painted furniture by contemporary Baltimore artist Tom Miller and traditional African art share space with Aunt-Jemima-brand pancake premiums; 1920s Caribbean dolls with painted black faces; racist bisque figurines of naked black boys posed monkey-like as "see no evil," "hear no evil" and "speak no evil"; 19th-century Currier & Ives "Darktown" prints; and early 1900s posters of African-American cowboy Bill Pickett.

"My collection seeks to explore hidden phenomena behind the evolution of people of African descent in the New World," explains Dr. King-Hammond.

She uses her black Americana to teach art students to neutralize the negativity created by stereotypes and construct more positive role models.

"I try to understand the culture that would produce these things," she says. By owning and teaching with these often grotesque, racist relics, she believes she can transform and control their power and message.

Dr. King-Hammond hasn't spent much money on her collection, and is amazed by the steady rise in prices for black Americana. She began collecting in the early 1970s while a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. For only a few dollars, at second-hand shops and flea markets, she could buy boxes full of small bisque or plastic figurines, kitchen accessories, dolls and postcards. She recalls that many dealers were embarrassed by these stereotypical objects, stored them under tables and in drawers, and were delighted to be rid of them.

Now, collecting artifacts of African-American history is a multicultural mainstream pastime, and prices reflect increased competition. The circa-1950, Japanese-made tin toy figure of a dancing man that Dr. King-Hammond purchased for under $50 fetches closer to $300 today; vintage woman-shaped cookie jars in good condition might bring $200 to $300 each.

The King-Hammond collection clearly is a manifestation of her roots, an adjunct to her professional life, and an affirmation of her personal spirit. "I hope I live an artful life," she says.

Arthur and Wheezie Gutman

There's a gleam in the eyes of Arthur Gutman and his wife, known as "Wheezie," when they talk about their collecting pursuits.

She searches for English lusterware, 19th-century pottery decorated with metallic hues of pink, copper, silver or gold, and has a museum-quality collection.

He pursues with passion 19th-century Maryland prints and maps (over 300 at last count), books and autograph letters of Baltimore's H. L. Mencken (400 examples), and toy soldiers ("a couple thousand," he estimates).

Mr. Gutman is a lifelong collector.

"I came from a family of book people," he says.

A native Baltimorean, he always has been drawn to images of Maryland. Among his favorites is an 1852 view of the frozen Susquehanna River showing railroad cars being pulled by mules and passengers transported by sleigh. A look through the Gutman print collection is a study in the development of %J 19th-century Baltimore: For example, he has views drawn from the same vantage point (looking south from the Washington Monument) in 1852, 1862 and 1870. Another choice print is an 1814 lithograph of Admiral Cockburn burning and plundering Havre de Grace just before he sailed to Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.

"There's only one other known; it's at the Peale Museum," Mr. Gutman says proudly.

Mrs. Gutman recalls that when she and her husband honeymooned in England in 1968, she realized she needed something to collect.

"I bought my first pieces of luster, a tea set, on that trip," Mrs. Gutman reminisces. "I was attracted to its beauty."

After a friend gave her a luster pitcher decorated with one of 26 views of the famous iron bridge over the River Wear in England, she decided to collect them all.

"I unearthed a half-dozen more, then got bored with them, especially when I realized how many other examples of luster were out there," she says.

Mrs. Gutman now focuses on luster impressed with English makers' marks, although she has Spanish, French and Italian examples, too. She's very particular about the condition of each piece she buys.

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