“Small Victories: One Couple’s Surprising Adventures Building an Unrivaled Collection of American Prints” by Dave Williams (Boston: David R. Godine, 2015) is a great read for any collector. The book chronicles the “small victories” of Dave and Reba Williams in collecting over six thousand prints. It is not a book about art although there are many good observations about individual works, artists and schools of art. It is a book about the collecting of art. There are many great stories about the prints acquired and the prints that got away. Anybody who collects art whether it be pottery, paintings or prints can relate to and learn from their experiences.
I first learned of the Williams’ collection by browsing the collection of prints in the National Gallery of Art. I kept coming across their names as the donors of prints that I admired. So I did a search on “Dave and Reba Williams” and came up with over 6,000 hits. They have donated almost their entire collection to the NGA so that others can enjoy the fruits of their collecting endeavors.
When I saw that Dave Williams had written a book on their collecting experiences, I had to purchase it. I was not disappointed.
Of particular interest was the path this couple took to decide on the focus of their collection. After Dave Williams was selected to run Alliance Capital, he and his wife had the challenge of decorating the company’s “shabby offices.” First, they focused on contemporary prints but these were expensive. Even worse for him is that everyone was collecting the large contemporary prints in the late 1970’s and “moving with the herd offended his investment sensibilities.” Then they decided that they would focus their efforts on collecting American prints from the first half of the twentieth century. Artists from this period produced many outstanding prints but not everyone was trying to collect them and so it resulted in “less money, more prints.” He also remembered the words of a print dealer the couple had worked with: “Spend just a few hours researching any aspect of American prints, and you will become the expert on that topic.”
In order to provide focus to their collecting they established rules for their purchases: “only prints made by American artists; only prints made in the twentieth century with emphasis on 1900-1950 and only prints featuring images of America. And the prints would be mostly black ink on white paper, not color.” By doing this they were able to collect from the largest available universe and “maintain a consistency and theme to their collection.”
Small Victories is a great title for this book. To me that is what collecting art and prints is all about. It is like a treasure hunt. Each good piece added to a collection represents a “small victory”. Each and every print has a story of how it was acquired. Much of the book relates these stories. But there is also good analysis of individual prints (the reproductions in the book are excellent) and a succinct history of the print world in the twentieth century
Given the tight collecting parameters that the Williams’ set for themselves, it is interesting to note that quite a bit of the book is about prints and print makers who do not fit in their original criteria. But that is also the nature of collecting. Sometimes the active mind starts out in one direction, one interesting finding leads to another and soon a whole new line of thinking emerges. Some of Small Victories most interesting stories are in the chapters on the resurrection of the screen print, the Mexican muralists and early American prints. The connection described in the book between the Mexican muralists and American print makers is a little known but important part of the development of American art in the twentieth century.
Some purchases are home runs, some are singles and some are strike outs. (If you talk to a collector with no strike outs, you are not talking to a collector.) It is like any endeavor – you cannot win all of the time. That fact makes the small victories even more enjoyable.
In the Epilogue Dave Williams gives fellow print collectors some great advice. Here are a few of his words of wisdom:
“A strong impetus to collecting art of any type – paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints – is private access to beauty. Prints are an easy route to this beauty, because of their wide availability and relatively low cost. Since prints usually cost much less than paintings by the same artist, the same amount of money will buy more images.”
“Art admiration is part emotion, so the collector should let some feelings into the decision. The cliche ‘I only buy what I love’ is not to be scorned. Without passion for the objects collected, the exercise becomes investing, a decidedly unemotional activity.”
“Many collectors specialize, or create collections within collections, and the vast number of prints makes specialty collections feasible. . . . The possible directions are endless. Cohesion in a collection is advisable. A natural instinct may be to acquire impulsively, willy-nilly, but the result will be less satisfying than a collection built around a theme.”
“Do not buy prints (or any art) strictly for investment. Art is illiquid. It will probably take time to find a buyer for what you want to sell, and you may not find a buyer willing to pay as much as you did. The collector is usually buying at a retail price, while the seller – a dealer – has bought at a wholesale price. Buy what you have a passion for. If you love your print, or your collection, there’s a good chance that someone else will, too. And if you must sell it, you will probably – eventually – find a buyer.”
All in all, “Small Victories” is a very readable, enjoyable book with lots of great collecting stories and good collecting tips. If you collect prints, it is a “must” for your library.
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