Collective Memories is an archive of personal anecdotes about art collectors who are no longer with us, told by those close to them. The first entry is a recollection of Aso O. Tavitian (1940-2020), the much beloved New York collector, written by his advisor David Bull.
Aso Tavitian started collecting paintings in 2004, after completing a seven-year renovation of a large townhouse in New York City. He divided his time between the townhouse and a home in the country. Over many years, Aso had acquired some very good sculptures, carpets, tapestries and English furniture, but only a few, not very significant, paintings.
Through an introduction from a mutual friend, Aso asked whether I could help find 15 or so paintings in 18 months to decorate the townhouse. We arranged to have lunch together. I had no idea of his taste or interests and so brought to the lunch a stack of photographs of paintings with a whole range of subjects, which included landscapes, seascapes and portraits. I wanted to observe his reaction to these painted images in an attempt to discover any possible preferences. It was clear then, and was confirmed during the following years, that portraits were by far his main interest. Today, as I look back over the collection of approximately 220 paintings, well over half of them are single portraits or groups of people. This love of portraits was a reflection of Aso’s deep interest in stories surrounding the human experience, our collective cultural past and defining historic events.
After our initial lunch, Aso suggested that we go to London and Paris together and visit some art galleries. I was amused and surprised when he only purchased one painting on this first trip: a small landscape by Jan Brueghel, the Elder. Over the following years, Aso bought equally from dealers and auction houses.
His passion for collecting was kindled early in 2006, by the pursuit and eventual purchase of a painting from an auction in New York. The painting was a head and shoulders portrait of a beautiful young woman, catalogued as Italian School, Lot 295, with an old label on the back of the panel describing the work as School of Raphael. The considerable interest in this painting captured Aso’s attention. The lengthy discussions and disagreements over its possible attribution fascinated him. The fact that nobody could agree over its authorship made the painting even more intriguing. Aso enjoyed listening to the different opinions of the many art historians and dealers who came to see the collection, and he enjoyed the fact that there was never a consensus on the painting’s attribution. We always just referred to the painting as “295.” Such was his pleasure in these discussions, I think he would have been very disappointed had someone made a clear attribution. He thoroughly enjoyed taking people around his collection and telling stories about each painting: the artist, the sitter or the events surrounding the acquisition. The start of his frequent elegant dinners at the townhouse was often delayed by a musical performance or an extended tour of the four floors of paintings, sculptures and furniture.
Aso’s favorite acquisition was a portrait of a young man by Jacopo Pontormo, which hung on the wall next to the desk in his study. The complicated acquisition of this painting, in 2009, combined the elements of scholarship, quality, intrigue and the chase that Aso so enjoyed about collecting. This tender portrait is unfinished and was painted on a roof tile, suggesting that it was not a commission, but more likely a quick sketch that the artist made as a gift. The identity of the sitter is not recorded, but I proposed that it was a portrait of Giovanni Battista Naldini, an apprentice to Pontormo of whom he was very fond in the last years of his life. One day, Aso called me from the National Gallery, London and said that he was looking at a painting by Naldini and the dates made sense.
In some cases, such as Rubens’ Portrait of a Man, there was a very rigorous examination and inquiry into the attribution. Aso wanted the opinion of six Rubens scholars before he acquired the piece. By contrast, there were other paintings, such as the Portrait of a Young Man with a Lira da Braccio, which, at its offering to Aso, was the subject of a disagreement over attribution as well as date or origin. In this case, the debate only served to intrigue him and he took enormous pleasure in listening to the discussions between various art historians.
One evening at dinner before attending a major fine arts fair, Aso suggested that he and Isabella Meisinger would like to visit museums in the United States simply to look and study collections. Time was always important and his plan was to visit two different museums each day. He asked Teresa Longyear and me to plan the trip. In the following years we made three weeklong trips to major museums around the country and enjoyed looking through the collections with the curators and directors of these institutions. Dinners were spent talking about what we had seen and which paintings we most admired.
One Wednesday morning, I arrived at the townhouse to be greeted by Aso, who was, unusually, wearing shorts and a t-shirt. He had a broad grin and said, “I have just sold the company and I can now spend more time on the collection.”❖