Of course, children sometimes leaned back in chairs, which sometimes snapped. She just took them to repair shops. “They made it through 200 years,” she says, “they can make it through me.” In drawers and on cabinet shelves, she stacked everyday belongings. “In that one, I put sweaters,” she points out, “and over there, pillowcases and sheets.”
Inside the house, a replica of Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, valuables were never cordoned off, but the collection is still a showcase of refinement, like Kaufman herself. “We always like the more sophisticated pieces,” she says. “I’m just not a very folksy person.” And yet wherever she passes in the National Gallery, curators and security guards call out to her — always “Linda.” She keeps herself done up — black pantsuit and butterfly pin — but ready for a day with art handlers, with her salt-and-pepper hair in a Tidewater-gentlelady bun.
She’s the daughter of wealthy Old Dominion philanthropists and the widow of an entrepreneur who founded the Guest Quarters hotel chain. This furniture donation may be the family’s most heroic act of hospitality. She wants everyone to see what she and George found, a treasury of historic pieces that was “one of the largest and most refined collections” in private hands, according to the gallery. And all their work to preserve these valuables was its own act of creativity and ingenuity.
Kaufman collects what is called the decorative arts, a fussy name for a messy process in which a lot of sawdust flies. This was a craft for a nation that was literally building itself by hand. Early American furniture like the pieces the Kaufmans found — representing crucial city styles from Boston to Baltimore, in the colonial, federal and classical periods — is considered colonial America’s first art form.
Many of the Kaufmans’ pieces have been on view before; the National Gallery showed several rooms of their furniture in 1986. That exhibit felt like an American answer to the Treasure Houses of Great Britain blockbuster that captivated museumgoers a year earlier.
This new display has a septuagenarian grandmother’s touches. White orchids will brighten tabletops, which Kaufman long ago figured out to be a necessity. (“One day, I turned to my husband and said, ‘George, something’s missing,’ ” she recalls.) She may move out one Chippendale side chair for a pretty painted one. She will futz — but not much, since she and George have had their fun with arranging, which has been as much fun as purchasing, she says.