Capricorn Galleries


Editorial Review

The Post's Michael O'Sullivan writes:
For more than 30 years Philip Desind suffered from what he called an "incurable disease." But the longtime local art dealer wasn't referring to the cancer that took his life in August 1996 at age 86. Rather, his obsession for collecting a trove of top-notch 20th-century American realism was his ironic affliction, both the curse and enrichment of his days. When Desind died, he left behind a mountain of art -- 2,500 pieces consigned by more than 600 artists lay in jumbled stacks at Capricorn Galleries, his cluttered Bethesda dealership; another 2,200 works from his personal collection (including pieces by Bellows, Gericault and Glackens) filled his Silver Spring home, overflowing into a half-dozen 10-by-20-foot climate-controlled storage rooms. But he also left another surprise to the executors of his will: a mountain of debt in the form of unpaid commissions to dozens of artists he represented. "Dad was no businessman," says Barbara Kernan, Desind's daughter and heir to his estate. "Unfortunately, although the gallery was doing well in the '80s, he always said he was his own best customer. He was never interested in making money. The business was his door to acquiring beautiful things." There were one or two artists who were upset, but for the most part they have been extraordinarily patient," says Kernan, who adds that many artists sent testimonials upon Desind's death describing how his patronage saved them. "We have assured everyone, 'You will be paid.' " Although fiscal necessity closed the original gallery, Kernan is attempting to raise enough cash to settle with the artists and pay the hefty estate taxes by liquidating much of her father's collection. Rather than consign the work to an auction house or secondary art gallery, Kernan has decided to let her father's many local friends and clients get first crack at the art. "Everyone has been saying, 'When can we see what Phil had?' " To facilitate that, she has leased a second Capricorn Galleries ("Call it Capricorn II, if you will," says Kernan). Unlike the first one, the new gallery sells only work from Desind's private collection. The 96-page inventory of Desind's collection (parts of which have already been shown in such prestigious places as the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio) reads like a Who's Who of contemporary American realism, featuring not only the nationally known players but such local heroes as Manon Cleary, Patricia Tobacco Forrester, Kevin MacDonald and Andrea Way. Within the genre of realistic painting, his taste was broad and impeccable, but never extended far enough to include abstraction. "Oh, he hated abstract art," laughs Kernan. "He said that nobody knows what it's about and called it a fraud on humanity." Kernan says she wishes she had the money to build a museum to house the entire collection in order to leave some legacy of her father, but she'll settle for the next best thing. "At least some of his friends will have a piece of it, something to remember him by." As for her, the memory of her father's love is evoked every time she opens the door to the new gallery with the 30-year-old name. "That's because I'm a Capricorn," she says softly. "He named it after me."