Make Americana great again: The Wunsch family has a plan

Glenn Adamson

Glenn Adamson Furniture & Decorative Arts

Among aficionados of early American decorative arts, the name Wunsch is legendary. The family’s art and antiques collection — started by the canny and ever-curious engineer E. Martin Wunsch (1924–2013), and administered under the aegis of the Wunsch Americana Foundation—is one of the most important in the field. The WAF is now run by Martin’s son, Peter, with the help of the third generation of collecting Wunsches, Peter’s sons, Eric and Noah. Glenn Adamson, editor at large for The Magazine Antiques, spoke with the Wunsches about the antiques world and their ongoing efforts to inspire a new generation of enthusiasts.

The Magazine Antiques: Peter, can you begin by telling us about the history of the foundation and its role in your family’s past?

PETER WUNSCH: The foundation started collecting Americana in the 1960s. My father, my grandfather, everyone in the Wunsch family back then was an engineer—a mechanical engineer. It played an important role in my father’s collecting. He would never purchase a clock until he knew how to attend to it, for example, so he took courses for years before he actually bought a tall­case clock. He needed to study how furniture was made, as an engineer might. I think that was probably the instigation for his friendship with Harold Sack and many others. Also, early on, he took a great interest in New York. We had upward of three hundred pieces up in Albany by 1990. As the marketplace got overheated— perhaps because of celebrity collectors like the baseball player Ted Simmons, or Bill Cos  by, or Eddy Nicholson of Congoleum— that relegated WAF collecting to the back burner for quite some time. When I became the person driving the bus, around 2009, I thought that a more interesting thrust would be to focus on really great pieces.

Earlier this year, brothers Noah and Eric Wunsch organized a curatorial walk-through of the American Wing at a Metropolitan Museum after hours event, guided by Assistant Curator of American Decorative Arts Alyce Perry Englund. Photograph by Simon Leung; all photographs courtesy of the Wunsch Collection.

TMA: You said your father had a very strong technical interest in furniture, but did he also have an aesthetic and historical interest in the objects?

PW: Absolutely! The history behind everything he ever considered acquiring was, I believe, paramount. There was also a great social interest. He liked to bring people together; the dinners that he would organize after auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York were legendary. Collectors came, curators came, dealers came, and they were all there for the same reason—they were sharing; they were discussing. It’s like Americana Week in January in New York, except it was happening all the time.

TMA: Is it your perception that the social scene that was built up around Americana has now diminished?

PW: Unfortunately, very much so. Those dinners they had, the trips collectors took together—even vacations—were bonding moments that allowed them to better understand what they each collected and why they were all interested in the field. When I was a teenager, I resented the fact that instead of playing ball, I was being taken to John Walton’s to look at something. But dealers were educators for these folks; they were participants. If I wanted to buy a great chair, I would not only want some important dealer, say Bernard Levy, to look at it. I would like him probably to buy it for me. I’d pay him a commission. And that would add to the provenance of the piece.

The Wunsches collaborated with Todd Merrill Studio on an event focusing on the work of designer Paul Evans. Leung photograph.

TMA:  Why do you think dealers have declined in their influence?

PW: I can only make a suggestion. As a businessman, I’ve devoted a great deal of time to networking and learning from peers. One of the most important topics in these meetings is succession planning. In the dealerships, I don’t think there was any succession planning. Who is going to take over is not the real question but rather, whom have I equipped for that role? Harold Sack is a great example. He was a real guy, a businessman, historian, creative thinker, you know? He not only was incredibly knowledgeable but he understood the numbers. That’s special. That really can make things happen. But just because you pass the leadership on to somebody doesn’t mean they have those tools, or most importantly, that you took the time to show them. So look what’s happening now: the base of dealers has eroded and the resources for professional guidance for collectors are narrower than they once were. There are some fantastic art and design consultants, and some not so fantastic consultants; experience is paramount and it’s increasingly difficult to come by.

TMA: They also haven’t handled the pieces in great quantity, like the dealers did.

PW: I remember the first time I saw my father do it, just turn a piece upside down and start pulling the drawers out. I thought, “Dad— you’re gonna get arrested!” But they all did it, and I see it done less often now.

TMA: That brings us to our main topic, reaching the next generation. Eric and Noah, can you tell us what it was like to grow up in a family with this stuff around?

ERIC WUNSCH: You asked about our grandfather’s aesthetic sensibility. I couldn’t speak to it per se; I don’t know what his aesthetic principles or priorities were, but he was definitely without the assistance of a decorator. His home at 45 Gramercy Park was furnished in eighteenth­century Newport and Philadelphia, wall­to­wall. That was his decor. The John Brown chair [shown here at the upper right] was his chair—he never drank coffee anywhere else. Actually, he always drank hot water, but you know what I mean.

Carved mahogany side chair attributed to John Townsend, Newport, 1770–1790. Wunsch Collection; Lennard photograph.

Oak side chair by Alexander Jackson Davis (1803–1892), New York, 1855–1857. Wunsch Collection; Lennard photograph.

TMA: Did you understand how important it was when you were young?

EW: No, not at all.

NOAH WUNSCH: I think that also speaks to how Grandpa collected. We were never told not to touch, which if you think of it now, is insane—we’d get our hands on everything. It was allowed. The message was: these are objects you live with; you’re supposed to interact with them; you’re supposed to sit in the chair; you’re supposed to open the drawers. Eric and I got to play with Civil War swords when we were toddlers, swinging these gigantic blades. They were corked on top, which was Grandpa’s version of making it safe. And if we expressed interest in anything he latched on to it, sometimes to our chagrin. I remember once I said I liked what a penny looked like and he tried getting me to collect pennies, took me to a coin guy out in Brooklyn.

PW: Eric said an important thing, which is that the John Brown chair sat in the middle of the living room. It didn’t have a ribbon on it so that you couldn’t sit. The utility, as he said, is that it was a chair. Why go buy a piece of modern furniture that doesn’t do anything different from that chair—and there’s an interesting story to tell around that chair. And you know, in five years, if you want to sell that chair, you’re going to get your money back.

TMA: Eric and Noah, at what point did you start becoming involved in the activities of the foundation? 

EW: When our grandfather passed away in 2013. As a family we were challenged to figure out what we wanted to do. At that time, the foundation had a fairly narrow agenda.

NW: And with the collection, we had to decide what to do as well. There was one armchair we almost threw out. It was torn apart at the seams, ripped to shreds, it looked like a piece of junk. When we were moving everything out and deciding what we wanted to lend to institutions, what we wanted to sell, what we wanted to acquire, I remember saying to my dad, “this is a piece of crap—can we just throw this out?” And he said, “probably, but let’s have John Hays from Christie’s take a look at it.” And, of course, because the torn linen turned out to be original, the piece turned out to be very valuable. That was just a prime example of an expert being able to see something that we obviously didn’t. It’s also probably better that I learned more about it later in life, too, because we can better understand other young people who don’t have access to this material in the same way, or who’re made to feel that they are not allowed.

Carved mahogany corner chair by John Goddard for John Brown, Newport, 1760. Wunsch Collection, on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; photograph by Jai Lennard

TMA: Let’s talk about that. How old are you guys?

NW: Twenty­-seven.

EW: Thirty-­one.

TMA: Do you think that your generation is completely unaware of this material?

EW: I think that’s right to some extent. Where does one go now to get exposed to eighteenth­century American furniture? How do you come to understand all the factors that make this an interesting, nuanced field?

NW: In New York City, for example, we have fantastic museums. The information is there if you want to go and get it. But the question is, are people even aware of it, and are we as a field reaching out to people who could potentially enjoy early American decorative arts in an effective and sustainable way?

EW: The point is that there’s a problem with access to the field. Rather than assuming that young people wouldn’t be interested, because it’s old or difficult to identify with, I think it’s better to assume that people naturally admire “best in class” design if you show it to them—the inherent beauty of certain pieces.

NW: It goes beyond that, too, to marketing strategy. Do you team up with new media outlets, social platforms, to tap directly into their audience? That’s definitely a twenty­first­century way of thinking. I think it’s probably seen as uncouth by some of the institutions but it’s necessary at this point. Auction houses are a good example. I’ve been going to auction houses since I was young, but really I was never comfortable there, because I wear a t­shirt and jeans. It took me a long time to realize that everyone’s welcomed there. It’s like a museum, if not better, because like Dad said, you can touch things; you can sit in them; you can open drawers, and there’s a salesperson who can tell you everything about them. I’ve bought at a number of auctions —these are not major purchases by any means, but on a small scale, I’m someone who’s buying. But I have to do the due diligence and search. There are no emails coming to me, inviting me to openings or anything like that.

EW: And too frequently, programming for young people doesn’t have this underlying thrust of education. Too frequently it’s assumed that to get young people into a museum or an auction house the thrust of the program has to be . . .

NW: Booze! And figure the rest out.

EW: Exactly! A cocktail party and networking. But these institutions are incredible resources. I think the challenge is to leverage the intellectual capital that this field can provide, in a way that feels relevant and fresh and interesting.

Walnut bonnet-top high chest of drawers, Newport, 1750–1770. Wunsch Collection; Lennard photograph.

TMA: You have been planning a series of events around New York. Is this your goal, to combine social and educational experiences?

NW: Yes, the first one we did was a Metropolitan Museum after hours event. We did a curatorial walk­through of the American Wing with Alyce Englund, and afterwards, we hosted drinks at the George F. Baker Houses. About a hundred people were there. And they were freaking out! They had no idea this house was there and that it’s open to the public. And Dick Jenrette [founder of the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust] was there. You know, young people like engaging with cool, interesting people from different generations. Sometimes we think there’s a disconnect, but it’s not true. More than ever, there’s a respect for our elders and we want to learn from them. I saw a ton of young people sitting with Dick and every one of them came up to me and said, “This guy is fascinating.”

NW: We’ve also done an event on the modern designer Paul Evans, in conjunction with Todd Merrill’s gallery, and an event at Sotheby’s for which we acted as co­hosts for a curated online sale for art and design. I had just gotten back from Tokyo, so I was in a jetlagged fog, but I heard it went well.

EW: He was struggling! [laughter]

NW: And then we have a ton of programming that we’re working on right now, particularly for Antiques Week. We want this January, around the time of the next Wunsch Award ceremony, to be, er . . .

EW: . . . Programming-­happy?

NW: Yeah. So we’re doing an event with the artist Thaddeus Wolfe and Brooklyn Glass. Thaddeus will do a demo; we’ll talk about his process; we’ll talk about American glassblowing, and I think that’ll be a nice progression from the events we’ve done to date. We’d like to do an Auction Houses 101 event, where we have young people go to the exhibitions of the January American antiques sales and then after walking through have a lecture from someone like John Hays just explaining the way it all works. I didn’t know until Dad brought me when I was like twenty and explained. This is how you bid; you wait until it slows down, that kind of thing.

Following the curatorial walk-through of the Met’s American Wing, the Wunsch family hosted drinks at the George F. Baker Houses, where the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust is headquartered. Leung photograph.

TMA: It seems like museums and especially auction houses would have a natural interest in reaching out to young people who are affluent. Let me ask a devil’s advocate question: how do you get to people who may not even be able to dream of buying an object at auction, or may feel even socially excluded by some prominent institutions?

NW: Last weekend, I took a bus out to our country house and I sat next to this girl who went to high school with me. We were catching up and she said, “Oh, I saw everything you’re doing with the foundation; I could have used you a month ago because I was furnishing my apartment.” I asked what she had bought and she told me she bought a couch from Anthropologie for $2,000. Now that’s not a small amount of money. At Sotheby’s, she could have bought a cool couch with a little bit of provenance, and more potential to resell than this Anthropologie couch that she’s probably going to throw away five years from now. Again, $2,000 is not a massive amount of money, but it’s not a nominal one either. If that’s the first step to getting this person in the door . . . maybe ten years down the line that $2,000 will be $20,000. I’d say it’s very much worth nurturing that relationship.

EW: You really do need to reach out to everyone. People should feel welcome and unintimidated. It really should be the charge of any museum to cultivate an environment that is welcoming and encourages questioning. You know, the experiences that I’ve had in institutions that were memorable were personal ones. My wife and I were in Chicago last year to see Christopher Monkhouse’s Irish art show [Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690–1840, at the Art Institute of Chicago]. We were lucky. We had incredible access to Christopher. But you know, as he was walking us through the galleries we would sort of look behind us and all of a sudden there were ten people there listening. There is nothing that can replace an intimate personal experience with a curator on the floor. Those are the people who can speak most passionately about their field. So on the institutional level, I think the challenge is to create a set of really personal experiences for museumgoers, because that is a sustainable way of building an audience. If you have  an amazing experience like the one we had in Chicago, you will go back. Period. In terms of the collector base, there’s a confined pool of major collectors in this field acquiring at the very highest level; is it unrealistic to try to expand that number by 50 percent? To get a handful of new people interested in the best of eighteenth­century American furniture? I don’t believe that’s impossible. But it should also be understood that this is a field that can serve people who are interested in collecting at the $500 level, not just the $5 million level. And there are so few fields that can do that with integrity.

Attendees explore the oval dining room at the George F. Baker Houses. Leung photograph.

TMA: One last question. As you mentioned, you did an event about the mid-century designer Paul Evans. I wonder how you think about the foundation’s activities with regard to period— early American antiques and more recent design? Is there a strategy there?

NW: Yes, we have roots as a family in early American but we are twenty­first century people. We like Paul Evans’s work; we like contemporary work by people like Thaddeus Wolfe, David Wiseman, and Wendell Castle; but we also love colonial craftsmen like John Townsend. Design shouldn’t be one thing. Using my apartment as an example, I have early American pieces; I have a huge bookcase and a dressing wardrobe that are eighteenth century. But I also have modern furniture by Vladimir Kagan, Paul McCobb, and Le Corbusier. And I’ve got eighteenth-century portraits on my walls alongside recent Genieve Figgis paintings. It spans time and genres.

EW: It’s not realistic for most people our age to decorate a home entirely with eighteenth­ century American furniture. That’s probably not going to happen, nor should it. I think we’ve been true to our roots, but we’re also developing our ambitions to support American decorative arts across multiple periods.