An Interview with Keith F. Davis, Part 2: The Collector’s Eye
Keith F. Davis at his desk in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. In the foreground is the first edition of the book “An American Century of Photography”(first edition), featuring William Fraser’s “Wet Night, Columbus Circle” on the cover. Photo by the author.
Tim Greyhavens: Tell me about a print that really stands out for you in the collection.
Keith F. Davis: One of the prints I feel closest to is William A. Fraser’s Wet Night, Columbus Circle from 1898. We got this a long time ago; I think it was 1986 or ’87. I had been working on a show on the history of night photography and was doing intensive research on the subject, reading through the early photo journals to pick up names of people who were shooting at night in the late 19th century. From that research, I knew that Fraser was important and I also knew that his prints were rare. In fact, I’d never seen any original prints at all.
Then one day I got a catalog from one of the leading New York auction houses for their upcoming sale. I was surprised and excited to see that this Fraser print was coming up — his most famous and influential picture. It was phenomenal — a big print in its original exhibition frame. The estimate was something like $1,200 to $1,500, which even then seemed like next to nothing. I called a dealer friend in New York and told him that I couldn’t get back for the sale, but that I really wanted this piece.
We talked a bit about it and he asked how high I wanted to go. I tried to emphasize that I REALLY wanted the print and — throwing all my naïve caution to the winds — I said: “I’d be happy to go to double the high estimate.” He thought that should do it, since, after all, Fraser was a practically unknown name.
I waited impatiently to call him after the sale — in the days before cell phones, one had to be at their desk in order to take a call. Assuming we’d gotten it, I asked what the final price was. He said, “Well, I went to $3,000 but we didn’t get it — it went for $3,200.” I thanked him and appreciated his professionalism — he’d done exactly what I’d asked. I hung up, completely deflated, knowing that the mistake had been mine.
Ouch. What happened?
About an hour later, a collector-dealer who I’d just met a few months before called me up to ask how I was doing. I mentioned in passing that I was unhappy at the result of the day’s sale in New York — there had been one piece I’d really wanted, but it had gotten away.
There was a slight hesitation and he asked, “Was it the Fraser?” Genuinely surprised, I said it was. After another short pause, he said, “Would you like it?”
Even more surprised, I said, “YES, I very much would.” I will never forget his response: “Then it’s yours. I only got it because I didn’t want it to fall in the wrong hands.” I happily agreed to a 10% courtesy commission, and he had it shipped directly from the auction house.
What did you learn from that experience?
It definitely taught me several lessons. One of them was the role of luck. If anyone else had gotten that piece for $3,200, I may never have seen it again. As it happened, the buyer who did me that great favor became a good friend and helped with the collection in numerous other ways in the coming years.
It was remarkable to realize that, on this day, there were only two people on the planet who cared about this piece — and that similar “special” opportunities could happen again at more or less any time. I learned that if you do serious research you’re may end up in a position of having more perspective on a piece or a period than most of the rest of the audience. If we have to battle with “everyone else” in order to acquire something of general interest, then we grit our teeth and do it. But it’s much more fun to find great pieces that effectively fly below the radar — that aren’t immediately familiar to every other collector.
To me, this is a masterpiece; there’s nothing else like it. It’s one of a kind — the print that was shown in the 1898 Philadelphia Salon, in its original frame. I was happy to use it on the cover of the first edition of An American Century of Photography.
Wet Night, Columbus Circle (1898) by William A. Fraser. 16.5 x 20 in / 41.9 x 50.8 cm. Collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc.
Are there many known prints by Fraser?
As far as I know, there are very few. This image was reproduced as a gravure in an issue of Camera Notes, but that is in a much smaller size, and, of course, not a silver print. We have a few of Fraser’s lantern slides, but no other significant prints. He exhibited quite a bit in that period around 1900, but his prints seem to have vanished. In fact, he may have done the majority of his exhibitions in the form of lantern slide shows.
When you get something in the original frame, how do you conserve that image in the frame?
We had the frame worked on by a conservator, who made it look beautiful and protected the print so that the whole package could be safely put back together. The frame is by George F. Of, who was Stieglitz’s primary framer, and Of’s label is on the back. This work has everything a collector could want.
Tell me what makes this print exceptional for you.
First, it’s a grand statement―it’s relatively big, which was unusual for those days. It was one of the most talked-about pieces at the 1898 Philadelphia Salon, a very important early artistic exhibition in the years before Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession. It’s also a wonderful example of a piece that stylistically looks both backward and forward in time. This is a study in natural Impressionism, but it’s very much about the modern world. This is about the electric light opening up New York at night, which was a new thing in the 1890s.
I think that dual aesthetic idea―of both drawing on the best of the existing tradition at the time but also anticipating something to come―is very compelling. It’s a modern current that others really hadn’t tapped into yet.
This is the second in a three-part series about the Hallmark Photography Collection and the photographic legacy of the Hall Family of Kansas City. Read more in Part 1 and my profile of the Hall family’s philanthropy.