Sara Ossana: On Collecting

October 15, 2013

I have always had an affinity for the act of collecting.  I pride myself on the more unique objects I have found over the years.  From Navajo and Hopi pottery of the southwest Pueblo Indians where I was born, to vintage costume jewelry from a small shop in London to my early Gustav Stickley Writing Desk (below); I have always believed that objects tell a story.  It is the accumulation of these objects that creates a visual narrative of one’s life. Of course, there is a fine line between the act of collecting and hoarding. Sometimes the distinction between a collector and a hoarder is simply a matter of taste and organization. I have been fortunate to grow up amongst what I would call collectors. 

My mother collected beautiful pottery as well as art and furniture, one of her favorites is a small Gustav Stickley-Grueby twelve tile table that is an exquisite example of the American Craftsman style from the early twentieth century. 

Gustav Stickley Writing Desk, Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

My Godfather, Larry, is a rare book dealer and collector, or as he likes to call himself “an accumulator.” Growing up I spent summers in Texas amidst his personal library of over 20,000 volumes and obscure collection of objects and miscellany such as an extensive skull collection including a saber-tooth tiger, gorilla and rhinoceros. There is a Balinese bed in one of the guest rooms as well as a museum worthy Ethiopian Triptych that was apparently acquired by an American ambassador in the early 20th Century from Haile Selassie depicting the burial story of a rich merchant. The triptych leans casually on top of the hearth in his dining room. Larry believes he is not in a “classical sense a collector” as there is no singular theme. Everything was acquired over time while buying books and came as a package deal with a library or university collection. One of his most prized items is what he deems, “The worlds best H.G. Wells collection.” This begs the question does a collection need a focus or theme to be considered important or noteworthy?

Part of Larry’s book collection; Photo by Sara Ossana

Larry’s prairie-style mansion was featured in Architectural Digest in October of 2000. It was here one summer that I was perusing his art section on the second floor when I came across a Sotheby’s auction catalog of the estate of Andy Warhol from 1988. I must have sat there for the rest of my visit leafing through the pages of the 10,000 items from Warhol’s private collection. From dental impressions to Ruhlmann and Lagrain furniture to his collection of 175 cookie jars, Warhol was beyond obsessive. Even then he had a grasp of the nature of high and low and this was ever present in the objects he valued and amassed over his lifetime.  There was a  Charles Rennie Mackintosh Ebonised Centre Table that he purchased right before his death, found in his foyer with paper still on the stretchers that was originally sold at Sotheby’s in London for $600 in 1967.  It sold for $275,000 during the Warhol auction in 1988 and recently sold in 2002 at auction for over $500,000.  I, like Warhol, love flea markets and consignment shops as well as yard sales and the like.  My personal home is a mix of collectible pieces and other objects like my beautiful yellow velvet loveseat that I found for $80 in a consignment shop in Bristol, RI along with some O&G pieces of course.

Photo by Mary E. Nichols for Architectural Digest

Photo by Mary E. Nichols for Architectural Digest

I never forgot his collection and those catalogs.  I was moved creatively and intellectually by Warhol’s avid and eclectic tastes.  Warhol was known for elevating the commercial approach to art to the status of fine art.  I think most people would expect to see his collection of cookie jars or dental impressions but a Federal-period bed, or Thonet bent-wood chairs and Navajo rugs?  This was a revelation.  This moment forever changed me, and opened my eyes to the world of not just art but the decorative arts at a level I could have only imagined.  I learned to be a lover of all things and constant hunter for the next sublime object to add to my collection.



Above photos courtesy of original Sotheby’s Auction Catalog’s lot descriptions.

The most amazing private collections still intact, many of which are in the guise of the home that originally housed them or ‘recreations’ of the original spaces with the objects staged as if on a theatre set. These collections have not disolved via auction, I would have loved to go to Andy Warhol’s home as a museum.

The first is Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. This has been a public museum since the early 19th Century and houses one of the most impressive catalogs of architectural casts, molds, models, busts sculptures and paintings. Once referred to as an ‘Academy of Architecture’ it is a rigorously curated selection of furniture, the decorative arts and architectural drawings.

Photo courtesy of

One local collection worth noting is the Charles L. Pendleton Collection or “Pendleton House” of eighteeth- and nineteenth-century American furniture and decorative arts, one of the finest of this period anywhere and boasts the country’s first museum wing devoted to the display of American decorative arts. It was built in 1906 as a replica of the Federal-style residence of Charles L. Pendleton. Mr. Pendleton was very explicit in his instructions on the display of pieces and the re-construction of the building itself, which has walls twelve inches thick of solid concrete and steel casing to provide a fire barrier to protect this priceless collection. 

Photo courtesy of

What do you like to collect?  Are there any notable collections that you would like to bring light to?

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