When a piece arrived, “we’d tend to put it at the foot of our bed,” she says. “It’d be the first thing we saw in the morning and the last thing we saw at night.” They moved everything around, all the time. “In 50 years, we’ve pretty much tried everything.”
The Kaufmans purchased most of their pieces from a legendary Manhattan dealer, Israel Sack, and other pieces at auction in New York. In the 1980s, buying was a buzzy, competitive bazaar, mixed with a social swirl. Collectors knew each other. They dined together before a sale and discussed what they wanted. After the last lot was gaveled “sold,” they reconvened, sorting out who had scored a steal and who had bagged a turkey.
Kaufman imposed a rule: She would try never to bid against a close friend. “I’d rather have a friend than a piece,” she says. When bidding on furniture, fewer intimates would have auction-house paddles in play.
“George liked to go up and sit in the balcony,” recalls Dean Failey, who oversaw American furniture sales at Christie’s for decades. George Kaufman and fellow collectors would debate what made each piece valuable, beyond its perfect condition and impeccable craftsmanship. Was a block-and-shell chest from Newport better if it had three drawers or four? George Kaufman insisted three. It was an aesthetic formula of his devising, about proportion, about expression, about strength.
“George was right in front of the pack, with his business acumen,” Failey says. “He really was the lead horse for a good number of years, and that’s principally when the large amount of their collecting took place.”
For decades, the Kaufmans welcomed Winterthur curator Wendy Cooper to see what they found, hosting her in Norfolk for many visits. Ultimately, Linda Kaufman and the National Gallery invited Cooper to guest-curate the collection as it becomes a permanent fixture in Washington.
Cooper remembers their enthusiasm most of all. “Look at that great foot! Look at that inlaid top,” she recalls George Kaufman saying. Nothing felt too precious in their house. George smoked. Guests put drinks on table surfaces, protected under glass tops. “They never made anyone feel like they couldn’t sit on a chair or a sofa,” Cooper says.
If Washington hasn’t yet become a destination for the Americana madness of recent years, it’s about to be. Some good furniture is on display in Williamsburg and Mount Vernon, and even finer examples are in the White House and the Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the State Department. The pieces that the Kaufmans gathered are the highest of the high end — not a blanket chest nor painted-Indian motif in the lot. And they represent a recent heyday in auctioneering.
The early-American antiques market percolated in 1972 with a $100,000 purchase, by Doris Duke, of a Rhode Island highboy. “News spread like prairie fire,” Failey, the Christie’s expert, recalls. The numbers climbed, and Failey sold the first piece to top the million-dollar mark: a Philadelphia scallop-top tea table. “Today it’s not common, but it isn’t unusual, for a piece to sell for a million or well over a million.”