By Linda Kohn Sherwood
Smoke Signals Editor
I sat down to lunch with one of our cherished collectors, Carl Robertson. He and his wife Sue Robertson have a beautiful Los Angeles home filled with creative objects, reflecting their integrated, exceptional taste. They have world-class collections of 17-18th century American furniture, Western Americana, art, textiles, among others, all set in a physical space that amplifies the beauty of each piece.
I wanted to learn what makes Carl's collecting gene work so well. And the answer is - he has it in his blood. Growing up north of Chicago, eventually moving out to a farm community in the 1940s, Carl purchased his first piece at the age of 15 at an old farm in Wisconsin. No, not trading cards. Not toy horses. But a drop-leaf dining room table! He bought it he said, because it had the original finish. Did he have a place of his own at that age to use or store it? No, of course not. But he had to have it. Did he purchase it to make money? No, he answers, great collectors love the objects first, and the possibility of making money with them is low on the list.
How did you begin your love of collecting?
My parents antiqued as an avocation. My father was an engineer and he and my mother antiqued for fun. My parents' idea of a family vacation was to pour us kids into the station wagon and hit the road, stopping along the way at every antique shop from Chicago to Maine. I perfected the art of collecting naturally as we headed east, usually adding a U-Haul to our car for the overflow.
What made those road trips so much fun?
My fondest memories were of the social experiences, visiting friends we had made all across the country. We were close to collectors and dealers alike, as their boundaries melded together. It was the heart of the experience.
How would you describe your collection?
If I had to use one word, it would be folk-art.
Please give me your interpretation of what is considered folk-art.
Anything made by untrained hands, for every day use, is folk-art. If it is made by individuals to decorate their homes or their horses it is folk-art. People and artisans had to make utilitarian pieces for their homes, especially furniture. But if they took the extra time and talent to make it a one-of-a-kind piece, to make it pretty, it then becomes folk-art. Take saddles and spurs for example. There were working saddles and Sunday spurs. All made by the same artisans, all utilitarian. But there were those that gave it an extra something, some additional effort that was in place, to make them beautiful in the eyes of the makers.
Do these objects speak to you?
Yes, they do. I read the stories of our culture through them. You can trace the development of wealth in America, for example. Prosperous people have always encouraged great artisans because they could pay someone to take that extra time and energy. Let's use the saddles example again. You can trace the wealthy Mexican landowners as they migrated from Mexico up through California and into San Francisco in the 1870s, by looking at the fanciest, most artistic saddles of the day. Then the post gold rush era in the West allowed for burgeoning patrons to pay for unbridled beauty, both in saddles and in spurs. The 1700s were so simple, but not so in the later part of the 1800s. Gold became the under-writer for art.
Why do you collect the simpler 17-18th century furniture?
It represents another major part of our cultural history. Colonial America in Pennsylvania in the 1640s and Boston in the 1760s was slowly becoming affluent. So we see log cabins being carved out in the country and the same skills brought to the cities where patrons would under-write the art of furniture building. Those Bostonians were frugal and less ostentatious. Philadelphia was more elegant. Both kinds of furniture are important to the story and both bring high prices. We furniture collectors also tend to collect other types of American folk-art: weather vanes, quilts, ceramics, primitive American paintings, American silver, western Americana. All these types of objects share a thread of commonality to a place and time whether it is East coast or West.
Have you developed any collecting tips you can share?
I buy the best I can afford. I'd rather own one great piece over 12 mediocre pieces. Best is better.
What do you consider to be the best?
What object has the best story? Best condition? Most beautiful form? Most originality? Beautiful surface? Written provenance? All of that boils down to the question: where is this piece in terms of history?
So it's all about the objects?
Absolutely not. For me, it's as much about the people I meet along my way. Other collectors and dealers I know all enjoy an interest-in-common. The social aspect draws us together on an intellectual pursuit of the story and culture. In many ways, the auctions de-personalize that aspect so it's important to keep that aspect alive. I gravitate to the dealers and collectors who love the objects. Yes, they make a living at it, but retain their passion for the objects. It is about with whom we choose to spend our time.
Do you WORK at collecting?
I don't remember ever WORKING in the traditional sense since I unloaded cement bags with my brother at the age of 14. Yes, I spend many hours making a living. Yes, I study my collecting. But, in the end, great material makes my blood rush, my adrenaline flow and I have FUN with it all!
And that "collecting gene" of yours?
My wife, Sue, is a passionate collector too. Growing up in a deeply rooted California family that collected fine art her whole life, Sue and I then created our own collecting partnership. We have apparently now spawned two more serious collectors, a son and daughter, because they take their own collecting very seriously! And they each have a great "eye" for good material. Now I ask you, were they born or bred to be that way?