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Samuel Wagstaff papers, 1932-1985

Biographical Note

Samuel J. Wagstaff, Jr. (1921-1987), the son of a lawyer from an old New York family and fashion artist Olga Piorkowska, was born in New York City. A graduate of Yale University, he was an ensign in the Navy and took part in the D-day landing at Omaha Beach.
Following World War II, Wagstaff studied Renaissance art at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. A David E. Finley art history fellowship took him to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C. in 1959. He served as curator of contemporary art at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Conn., from 1961 to 1968, where he coordinated sculptor Tony Smith's first museum show in 1966. In 1971, during Wagstaff's tenure as curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts (1968-1971), he presented Michael Heizer's installation Dragged Mass Geometric on the grounds of the museum.
In addition to his curatorial work, Samuel J. Wagstaff was a noted collector. Originally, he was a fairly influential collector of avant-garde paintings. After seeing the exhibition "The Painterly Photograph" and meeting photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Wagstaff became convinced that photographs were the most unrecognized and, possibly, the most valuable works of art. He moved to New York and began selling his collection of paintings, using the proceeds to begin his photography collection and concentrating on 19th century American, British, and French examples. Then, influenced by his lover, photographer Mapplethorpe, Wagstaff's taste veered toward the daring, and he began to depart from established names in search of new talent. His collection was soon recognized as one of the finest private holdings in the United States. An exhibition of his photographs was organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., in 1978, and A Book of Photographs from the Sam Wagstaff Collection was published to accompany the show that toured the country.
The photograph collection was sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, Calif., in 1984, for a reported $5 million. Wagstaff then focused his attention on collecting 19th century American silver, and a selection from that collection was exhibited at the New York Historical Society in 1987.
Samuel J. Wagstaff died in New York City on January 14, 1987, from pneumonia, a complication of HIV infection.