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A Washington art collection heads for the auction block

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“I’m no fool. I’m a bright guy. I know the difference between good, better and best.”

Robert Fastov, a Washington art collector, is sprawled on a sofa at Sloans & Kenyon, an auction house in Chevy Chase. It is a preview party for what is being called “The Lifetime Collection of Robert S. Fastov, Esq.” Some 1,500 works, from oil paintings to snuff boxes, will be on the block this weekend.

Fastov has a tumbler full of cola in his right hand, waving it to accentuate his points. He has been up all night framing the paintings that weren’t already in frames. He takes a very hands-on approach to the art he collects.

“I have my mother’s eye,” he says. “Don’t go by some of the crap hanging on these walls. Go by the great stuff I have.”

By that he means three portraits by John Singleton Copley: Capt. Benjamin Beale, his wife, Anne, and their daughter. Fastov says there hasn’t been a husband and wife Copley on the market for close to 30 years.

“Not only do I have that, I have the goddamn kid!”

Also for sale is what’s described as the last life portrait of Stephen Decatur, by Charles Bird King.

“That thing’s worth a million or two million bucks,” Fastov says.

On a budget? You might be able to pick up a pair of pewter candlesticks for around $50.

There is a lot of pewter — some 800 pieces: flatware, porringers, soup bowls, candle molds, tankards, flagons, plates . . .

“I love pewter,” Fastov says.

He has ever since he was an undergrad at Harvard in the 1960s, studying American history.

“I’d give a month of my life to be a fly on the wall in a Philadelphia tavern in 1776 or 1787 and listen to Jefferson, Franklin, Adams . . . .

Taverns are where the American Revolution was fomented, he explains.

“And what do you have in taverns?” Fastov asks. “Pewter.”

The most notorious work in the collection may be Lot 1367, a landscape that cost Fastov both $600 and $630,000. He bought it in 1985 for 600 bucks. A cleaning revealed the name “Schindler” in the lower right corner.

Fastov was convinced it was by Emil Jakob Schindler, a well-known, 19th-century Austrian painter. He sent photographs to a Schindler expert in Vienna who tentatively agreed that the painting was authentic, but withheld his final verdict until he saw the work in person.

In 1993, Fastov sought to consign the painting with Christie’s of London. Christie’s, however, declined to auction the painting after Fastov rejected its request to send it to the expert for his review. Nearly four years later Fastov sued Christie’s, seeking more than $5 million in punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.

The suit was eventually dismissed — the statute of limitations had passed — but the judge took the opportunity to excoriate Fastov for abusing the litigation process with numerous verbose filings. He also ordered Fastov to pay Christie’s $630,000.

“That judgment was a record, by a factor of six,” Fastov says, still irritated.

Originally from Long Island, Fastov went to law school at Stanford them came to Washington to work for the Office of Economic Opportunity, part of the war on poverty.

“I came to Washington to save the world,” he says, momentarily gripped by emotion, tears pooling in the corners of his eyes. He was a government litigator, then left the Feds to become an art dealer.

His collecting mentor was a Washington attorney named Henry Glassie, whom he met at a Sloans auction decades ago.

“He was curious about everything,” Fastov says. “So am I.”

Fastov was just beginning to collect. Glassie wrote down the names of 25 Washington artists on a legal pad and told Fastov to take it with him to weekend yard sales.

One of the names was Max Weyl. “The next weekend, there was a Max Weyl,” Fastov says. “That list, that got me started.”

Fastov has a special place in his heart for Weyl and for other Washington artists, such as William Henry Holmes and August H.O. Rolle. He singlehandedly rescued Rolle from obscurity when he purchased the late artist’s entire estate, hundreds and hundreds of paintings. More than 150 will be on the auction block, including many scenes of Rock Creek and the Potomac.

After all these years of collecting, of accumulating, of scouring yard sales, Internet sites and auction houses, why sell now?

“My house had become a warehouse,” Fastov says.

Not that he’s selling everything.

“I didn’t give her any of my Old Masters,” he says of Stephanie Kenyon, the auction house’s owner. “I got a little van Dyke. I have a Poussin. He’s French, 17th century. I have a drawing by him. I think I have the original and the Queen of England has the copy.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

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