Murray Frum: The wild bid, the fake and other art tales

He could be defined by many aspects of his life, unfortunately all of them very good, writes Barbara Amiel
Barbara Amiel
The wild bid, the fake and other art tales
Jeff Coulson

Toronto businessman, philanthropist and art collector Murray Frum has died. Frum passed away early Monday morning at the age of 81 after a battle with lung cancer.

In this piece, originally published December 14, 2011, Barbara Amiel reflects on Frum’s life and art as chronicled in his then-newly published book, Collecting: A Work in Progress.

The most difficult task a columnist can have is to write about a universally Good Thing. Santa Claus comes to mind. Well, no, it’s not Santa Claus I am about to discuss, topical though that would be in this December cheer, but rather Murray Frum.

Mr. Frum could be defined by many aspects of his life, unfortunately all of them very good. He was born poor, sleeping on the living-room sofa behind his father’s tiny grocery shop (good). He became a dentist, married a nice Jewish girl from Niagara Falls, Barbara Rosberg (triple good), and happily played Dennis Thatcher to super-broadcaster Barbara Frum while making lots of money in real estate and giving lots away. His gift for attracting the best women was confirmed when, after Barbara died, he married the enchanting, high-achieving business executive Nancy Lockhart. Now he has written a book about an aspect of himself (dodgy) but it is sadly not for sale, thus modest and good.

Published this month, the book is titled Collecting: A Work in Progress. Frum is a very important collector of African and Oceanic art as well as fine things in general. The Art Gallery of Ontario has the Frum gallery built with his own money and choice of architects. Frum sensed that superb as Frank Gehry’s new AGO addition would be, he was not the person to design the setting for Frum’s donation of African tribal art. This in itself is an excellent lesson: great name architects often build lousy museums. The best example is Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, an evocative, even brilliant building but a disaster as far as creating display space and best viewed empty.

Frum writes about a world that has no rules, namely the world of collectors. The book chronicles Murray’s life in that universe, and like all tales of alternate universes, when the prose is clear and unadorned, the landscape stands revealed. The collection of reminiscences is to collecting as William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade is to film writing—a classic.

Frum might disagree, but after reading this I think perhaps the true collector is born, not made. You need a number of character traits to survive among rapacious dealers, duplicitous auction houses, the cheaters and fakes. You have to learn from your mistakes. You have to have the discipline to study, read and train your eye, and the modesty to know exactly when you know nothing. Personally, I wish this book had been written 20 years ago; I needed a compass to steer me through the shark-infested waters of decorators and “art advisers” but had none, and was devoured.

Frum’s collecting began on his and Barbara’s first trip as a married couple in the late 1950s. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Murray saw a display of Egyptian sculptures in the gift shop. “They look remarkably good for copies,” he told the saleslady, who explained they were not copies but “extras” from the museum’s collection. The saleslady led the young couple to a small storeroom in the bowels of the museum, where Murray fell for an Egyptian wood sculpture of a man about 10 inches tall, pre-Middle Kingdom (2500 BCE), which he could get for $75. He did not have $75 but left the museum to borrow from the New York City branch of his fraternity. That was the beginning.

In person, Frum is droll, a man who has no need of drawing attention to himself, unlike many rich collectors. He emphasizes the necessity for the serious collector to understand the “context” of the desired object, which means look at pieces from the same period, know their distinctive features, have a reference library in your eye. Frum counsels self-discipline at auctions but confesses to the one time he went berserk. The item was a rare pair of combs from the Solomon Islands estimated at about £100. The price moved up rapidly to £500. “See who’s bidding?” Murray asked Barbara. “My God,” she whispered. “It’s Sainsbury.” Lord Sainsbury’s grocery chain was at the time the largest in the U.K. Frum kept bidding till he got the pair at £3,000. “What’s going on?” Barbara asked. “Simple,” replied Murray. “That grocer’s son was not going to best this grocer’s son.” Then, he writes, “after 20 years the combs are perhaps worth what I paid for them then, but I had honoured my grocery heritage.”

Two fakes made it into Murray’s permanent collection. A very rare Cameroon mask came, not surprisingly, through two of tribal art’s most knowledgeable and trustworthy dealers. Fortunately, the housekeeper knocked it over, revealing fresh new wood under the “ancient” patina. (Trust Frum to have exceptionally useful domestic staff. Any cleaning ladies I have break only my best things.) Murray packed up the pieces and sent them to the dealer from whom he had bought it with a polite note asking for his opinion—a rather elegant way of dealing with the situation. “Within a few days, I received a letter of apology and a cheque refunding the full amount I had paid. There was no more to be said.”

Frum sums up his collecting and through it, I think, his life. “Invention separates art from craft,” he writes. “A new juxtaposition, a modulation of form, a creation using associations of contradictory materials—these are things that excite and fascinate me. I am not gifted as a creator, so collecting is the closest I can come to making works of art.” The thoroughly discriminating man: some life, some collector. And some book.