Hoard is a new monthly column on collectibles, collections, and collectors outside of the fine arts by Shanti Escalante-De Mattei.
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I had come on the wrong day, mixed up next Friday for this Friday, so I caught Jerry Lauren, brother of Ralph, in his pajamas at 10 a.m. at his apartment on New York’s Park Avenue. His housekeeper stood guard until Lauren’s gaze softened, magnanimous, behind his thick, black glasses, ’70s style, that go along with his neatly trimmed sideburns. He invited me to take a seat as he put on some slippers.
As I waited, I took in the surroundings from his glass dining room table. The apartment is large and white, classic with chrome accents: the candlestick holders, the curve of a lamp. The creamy tapers of the candles are unburnt, but the wicks have been singed. Prettier that way. It’s a pillowy world that cradles Lauren’s exceptional collection of weathervanes, as well as duck decoys, and an impressive gathering of works by outsider artists like Bill Traylor and William Edmondson. The canvas may be white but the weathervanes fill his rooms with fields of verdigris. The horse carriages and eagles and arrows and steam engines all seem to surge forward even as they lie still, barely tamed by their surroundings.
In the dining room is Lauren’s pride and joy, a large weathervane depicting a Native American standing six feet tall. He stretches his bow, ready to let fly an arrow in the direction of the wind. Each feather is crisp, none missing or bent. None pockmarked with bullet holes, like many of the works in Lauren’s collection. Lauren re-enters the room.
“Have you been speaking with my friend?” he said, referring to the weathervane.
Lauren settles himself beside me to explain why and how he collects. It started with buying an “All American house” with his late wife Susan. A modest home on a large piece of Connecticut land, it was their “answer to the Hamptons,” which the Laurens had become tired of as it morphed from a sophisticated hideaway to the traffic jam it is today. “We don’t have an American flag flying outside the house, but we wanted to seek out Americana because the house was Americana.”
As Lauren and his wife went from estate sale to auctions and back, Lauren found his version of the American flag: the weathervane. A good weathervane, in Lauren’s estimation, is “authentic”; “pure”; “untouched”; “real”. They are “a miracle of aging gracefully” and “evidence of American craftsmanship”. Their beauty is a result of the marriage between utility and design that reaches back a bit in history, an ethos that easily describes the Ralph Lauren and Polo brands.
“Ralph Lauren and Polo are themselves a celebration of the history and authenticity of American things,” said Lauren.
But those brands also represent a fantasy of this young country’s own brand of aristocracy, spliced from British aesthetics and replanted in hardy American soil, hence the windswept hair and freckles that featured in their ads, the Navajo blanket draped over a model in her plaid flannel, the red and blue stripes knit into the deep V collar of a cotton sweater. Boats in bays, the Harvard man, the Yale man, grown up to become the family man, his shy child hiding his face, tucked under dad’s arm. The women start as young wildflowers, pure as sea salt, that grow up to be elegant mothers, hard and serene sportswomen.
It was that fantasy of American life that Jerry and Ralph, two Jewish boys from the Bronx, fundamentally shaped. Lauren describes his whole family as being quite creative: his father was an artist and Jerry himself has a knack for drawing. But, while his younger brother didn’t quite have a handle on the paintbrush or the pencil, what he had was vision.
“My brother’s a genius. I’m certainly proud of him. We’re very close. We both got married in the same year. We both married beautiful blondes,” said Lauren. He catches himself, and politely adds “You’re a beautiful brunette but that’s okay … Thank god he doesn’t collect weathervanes, no, his thing is cars.”
But, as Lauren says again and again, he doesn’t collect weathervanes. He isn’t interested in filling the gaps in his collection, tracking down a piece that represents some moment in the evolution of the form.
“I have a dealer and he shows me this piece, he says, ‘Jerry, you can’t get this,’ it’s some ridiculous price,” Lauren said. “It looked beat up, it looked like a truck had run over it. Oh, but it’s rare–I don’t collect rare. I collect art, I collect beauty.”
The specter of the fake hangs over his quest for the sublime. “What matters is how old it is, if it’s real,” he said, and recounts all kinds of methods, forced oxidation among them, that are employed to trick the unsuspecting collector.
We took a lap of the apartment. Using his whole hand, he gently caresses the giant wooden rooster that used to perch over a farmhouse, still gilded in gold in places, the underside of the feathers, where the rain didn’t wear it down. He points out the shape of a horse’s ear, presses a finger into a bullet hole on the flank of a copper sheep that he found spinning above a roadside gas station. In the other living room, the one that is lived in, the one with the TV, are some other items that Lauren likes: old toys, mostly locomotives painted red and black. Other than a Basqiuat, Lauren doesn’t have any contemporary works. Lauren doesn’t think of himself as a lover of old things. Beautiful things are made in every age, he said. But there is grace in age.
We say goodbye. His building, constructed in the early 1920s, comes with an elevator operator who maneuvers the shaky cage. He slides the metal grate into place, and pulls at some comically large levers. Once I step outside, I peer up at the building. When the building management went about replacing the windows that hadn’t changed since the last millennium, Lauren made sure to stop them from switching out those wavy, thick panes of glass. It’s not that they don’t make ‘em like that anymore, it’s that the mark of time upon an object is precious.
It’s a privilege to have the real thing.