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Samuel Wagstaff papers, 1796-1987 (bulk 1952-1986)

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Wagstaff (Samuel) Papers

Biographical / Historical Note

Curator and visionary photography collector Samuel Wagstaff Jr. was born 1921, in New York City. The son of a lawyer from an old New York family and fashion designer Olga Piorkowska, Wagstaff graduated from Yale University and served in the Navy during World War II. After the war and a short career in advertising he studied Renaissance art at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts under the mentorship of Richard Offner. In 1959 he received a David E. Finley art history fellowship at the National Gallery of Art. He assumed a curatorial position in contemporary art at the Wadsworth Atheneum from 1961 to 1968 and then at the Detroit Institute of Arts from 1968 to 1971. At both institutions Wagstaff pursued his interest in the avant garde and helped promote the careers of artists such as Michael Heizer, Tony Smith, Gordon Newton and Richard Tuttle.

In addition to his curatorial work, Wagstaff was a noted collector. He originally concentrated on avant-garde paintings. Following his return to New York in the 1970s, he turned his attention to photography, with an initial focus on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French, British and American photography. Influenced by his long-term partner, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Wagstaff's collecting later shifted toward more daring and contemporary photography. At a time when scholarship on the subject was limited, Wagstaff promoted the significance of photography in lectures, on panels, and famously on the Dick Cavett television show. Wagstaff loaned works from his photography collection for national and international exhibitions, often served as a freelance curator, and regularly responded to requests for curatorial advice. In 1977 his own press published A Book of Photographs from the Collection of Sam Wagstaff.

When Wagstaff's photography holdings numbered more than 2,500 masterworks, he sold the collection to the J. Paul Getty Museum and focused on building a collection of 19th-century American silver. The New York Historical Society exhibited more than 100 examples from his silver collection in 1987, the last show curated by Wagstaff. His silver collection was sold at auction following his death. Wagstaff died in 1987.

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