William H. Wolff, considered by academics, museum curators and wealthy collectors as the nation’s top dealer in Asian antiques, is closing up shop. At the end of this month, Wolff will end a 30-year business that actually began as a hobby.
Wolff is nearly 85, but his age did not force him out of business. And, though tight money has caused sales to plummet, Willy, as he is known, would not have quit for that reason, either.
It was when his landlord doubled the monthly rent on his Madison Avenue art gallery to $22,000 that Wolff decided to pack it in.
On March 27, the sculptures that remain in Wolff’s inventory will be auctioned at Sotheby’s for, he estimates, between $1 and $2 million.
“The lease expired and rent rose to more than I make,” he said in his shop recently as he reflected on his career. “Business has been nothing to brag about in the last three to six months. People stick to their money. They don’t spend it anymore. And many of my customers are museums, and they have no money at all. They have to wait until someone gives them a present of a half-million, and at the present time that just doesn’t happen.”
But Wolff will be missed by his customers, who consider him one of the most honest and knowledgeable dealers in Far Eastern art. They say, in fact, that he helped launch the Southeast Asian and Indian collections of many museums. He figures he has acquired sculptures for about 50 museums, who in dollar terms have been his biggest customers.
“He is a purveyor of masterpieces,” read a recent article in an art magazine. “Over the past three decades he has placed important works in many of the world’s great public collections.”
His private customers have included John D. Rockefeller III, Avery Brundage and Norton Simon. About a dozen of his acquisitions are on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“He is unlike other art dealers in an important way,” says Pratapaditya Pal, curator of Indian and Southeastern art at LACMA and one of Wolff’s oldest customers. “When he finds an object, he does not embroider it. Most dealers give you a pitch. He is almost a little bit detached. And, should there be the slightest question about the authenticity of an object and he finds out about it, he’ll be the first one to tell you.”
Stanislaw J. Czuma, curator of the Indian and Southeast Asian department of the renowned Cleveland Museum of Art, also has high praise for Wolff.
“He is among the most important in his field,” says Czuma. “He has brought us some very important things.”
Wolff found his art objects on biannual sweeps through India, Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan, Burma, Thailand, Japan, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. His excursions would have fatigued people many years younger. When he traveled to the Orient, he would average 30 beds in 60 days.
He knew all of the important sources and suppliers in these countries, and he recognized value as he scouted for his customers.
He doesn’t talk much about how he would get his merchandise into the United States. He concedes that in many of the countries where he acquired art, its export was illegal and had to be done clandestinely. In many countries, he had his own network of scouts.
“The fellows I bought from knew how to get it out of the country,” he said. “Otherwise, they would not have been able to sell it.” The smuggling put the sellers in jeopardy, one reason the objects are so expensive.
Some of the artworks would have to be smuggled through mountain passes, he said. Some families had been in this business for generations.
Such overseas acquisition is a costly business, and Wolff has been well rewarded. He was able to mark everything up by 100%, he said. Most of his pieces have sold for six-figure prices. “There was not much bargaining. My asking price was my selling price. If I bought a worthwhile piece I sold it right away. The museums were lined up when I returned from a trip.”
How did he spot the fakes? “It’s all guesswork,” he says.
He says that the people from whom he bought have been a more interesting lot than those to whom he sells.
Wolff got into the business quite by accident. After his 1936 escape from Nazi Germany, he began an animal byproducts business that he ran out of his basement in the New York suburb of Queens. This business took him to China to purchase feathers, to India for goat hair and to Thailand for snakeskin. But that business declined with the advent of the electric blanket and foam rubber.
“When I went to the Far East for feathers. I would buy an antique statue for myself. Friends would say, ‘Why don’t you bring something back for me?’ All of a sudden I was in business.”
As soon as he closes the door on his gallery for the last time, he plans to go to Hawaii and sit on the beach for three months. He has no plans to go to the auction of his remaining collection.
“I can’t bid against myself to get a higher price. That would be gambling. And there’s nothing I can do by just watching.”
As he prepares to retire, Wolff takes pride in the fact that his acquisitions are represented in so many museums: “It has been a marvelous adventure. Each piece becomes a part of you. I feel I have contributed to the cultural life of our people.”