Last week Sotheby's auctioned off 13 French military paintings from the once legendary Forbes collection. It represents the end of an era.
Malcolm Forbes lived large with his eponymous Forbes magazine, adventurous motorcycle trips, and celebrity-drenched parties. Of even more interest to me, he amassed a fascinating and eclectic collection of most anything that caught his eye. There was military art — including the large paintings and watercolors by two of the finest French artists who worked around the time of the Franco-Prussian War for sale at Sotheby's.
More famous were the Faberge Eggs produced for the Russian czars before the Soviet Revolution. At one point Forbes owned more of the wondrous jeweled creations than were left in Moscow.
Forbes also accumulated a large number of autographs — indeed, years ago I sold a letter by Ronald Reagan which had been left in my hands at the close of his first presidential campaign to the collection. And there were the toy soldiers, enough to return any guy to his childhood.
Selections of Forbes' acquisitions were displayed at the offices of Forbes magazine, which I got to see on my occasional visits to friends on staff. Where else could you go for a business lunch and view paintings illustrating the Franco-Prussian War, the finest collectibles of the long-deposed Russian monarchy, and toys with which little boys played a century ago? My favorite were documents not just recording American history, but representing American history — such as Robert E. Lee's note to Ulysses S. Grant requesting a meeting to discuss surrender terms as the Civil War came to a close.
The Forbes Collection was a dream for anyone bitten by the collecting bug. Combine the interest, money, and opportunity to amass a collection with a fine building on Fifth Avenue in which to display the highlights to the public. And the contents had special appeal for me, since I enjoy history and especially military history. Indeed, I violated the Commandment against coveting my neighbor's possessions every time I visited the Forbes Museum.
Unfortunately, all good things must pass away. When Malcolm Forbes died the driving force behind the collection disappeared. The family didn't as much see the value of holding onto exotica like Faberge Eggs. So the items were gradually sold off.
The Eggs went as a group to a wealthy Russian businessman, thereby returning to their ancestral home. One auction disposed of the Reagan autograph that I once owned along with the Lee note — how I wish I had had the funds to bid on it. The toy soldiers went in another sale. And now the most important military art.
You have to be a collector to understand collecting. I inherited the collecting gene from my parents. We were stationed in Great Britain when I was in high school. I would travel with them around that glorious island on antiquing expeditions. My Dad liked clocks, my mother bought cameos, and both of them enjoyed pictures, pitcher and bowl sets, and oddities like bed warmers and knife cleaners. I picked up an occasional bladed weapon and chess set with my limited income from a paper route, bagging groceries at the commissary, baby-sitting, and mowing lawns.
Back in the U.S. my hobby went dormant while I was in college. Afterwards I checked out want ads for chess sets and picked up an occasional tourist set when overseas, but little more. Then I met a county fire official who was selling off a few chess sets. The ones I bought were nothing special, but I started "hitting the shops" with him, since his girlfriend had no interest in such nonsense.
Without Malcolm Forbes' money I couldn't create a collection to match his, of course, but I came up with my own interesting mix — a few chess sets, military pictures, icons, eagles, and autographs. For others these items acted as "conversation pieces" gathering dust. For me I got to touch history. Nothing quite so dramatic as Lee's surrender note, but still, a feeling that I was reaching across time.
Some of my favorite finds were part of history. For instance, I bought inexpensive busts of Felix Dzerzhinsky and Lavrenti Beria, heads of the Cheka and NKVD, as the Soviet secret police were variously called. What kind of a system celebrates mass murderers? I'm really not a com-symp, but I think Felix and Lavrenti, as well as the abundant plastic commie tchotchke that now fill my office are, well, cool. How else to explain it?
It's that desire to possess which unites collectors, from the extraordinary, such as Malcolm Forbes, and those of us on much smaller budgets. My buddy likes beer steins, as well as other items which variously catch and then lose his interest, such as the chess sets he sold me more than two decades ago. I've met women who collected napkin rings and hat pins. And a fellow with a passion (some would say obsession) with frogs, which filled his house. There was even the collector of the macabre whose day job was handling make-up for guests at one of the cable television channels.
Collectors share a fascination with the hunt, looking for that special find. The issue is less about value than uniqueness. Finally finding something for which we've been searching for years. An item which reminds us of our childhood, a special person, or a critical historical moment. Something which just speaks to us in a quirky way.
Our passions often are impossible to explain or even understand. A couple of years ago an analyst at Human Rights Watch, Marc Garlasco, was attacked because he collected German militaria, leading some to accuse him of being a Nazi-sympathizer. It was a convenient political meme, since he had criticized Israel's human rights practices.
Of course, Nazism generates a special, and well-warranted, revulsion for having attempted to eradicate an entire people. But the vast majority of collectors of Third Reich material do so because of its historical and military significance, not because they are hoping for a Nazi revival. Moreover, most German militaria have nothing to do with Nazism — the Iron Cross dates back to 1813, for instance. The finest German "regimental" beer steins, personalized drinking vessels purchased by members of individual military units, predate World War I. German material is the premier military collectible, highly sought by collectors. For most of them something with a swastika is just like my busts of Felix and Lavrenti.
However, most collectibles are non-controversial, at least other than raising questions about our sanity. Even I have limits. I mean, Beanie-Babies. They were mass produced, but turned into a financial bubble, a bit like houses (though far less costly, of course) today. Entire showcases at antique shops were filled with BBs; people presented themselves as BB "authenticators," who would make sure that everything, including the label, was authentic. The market eventually crashed, and now one often finds BBs tossed indiscriminately into big boxes and priced at a couple bucks each.
Still, collecting really is a harmless hobby, other than for spouses and kids forced to put up with the clutter. I remember a nature guide who commented that he felt things he couldn't explain when he saw a bird. A historian once told me of his pleasure in "fondling" books. Neither was involved in kinky sex. They just found their passions elsewhere.
Mine is collecting. A few years ago I bought a carved Soviet T-34 tank with a chess clock contained in one set of treads. Under the turret was space for the chess pieces. It's a homemade item that never would end up in a Sotheby's auction. But when I saw it, well, to coin a phrase, my blood ran cold. Some Red Army veteran and chess enthusiast probably made it after surviving the Great Patriotic War. I love both chess and history. What could be cooler?
I still drop by the Forbes Magazine offices from time-to-time, but it isn't the same with the collections being sold off. Still, I can continue to touch history in my own way. After all, Felix and Lavrenti are always there, staring down at me even as I write these words.