Ray Wielgus , His Guns, and Some Thoughts About Last Wishes

This month I was invited to speak at the Phoenix Museum of Art in celebration of the exhibition of the embellished gun collection of Ray Wielgus. For those of us that have admired Ray Wielgus, his extraordinary eye, and his knowledge of tribal art, we forget that he had other interests. Few people know that Ray had a world class collection of  rare books and scientific instruments. Some know that he was an amazing restorer and could make repairs to anything tribal that had a problem. It would delight Ray to know that experts will undoubtedly be discovering his work for decades to come.  There was a Bena Lulua figure covered with black paint that Ray was trying to acquire from Alan Frumpkin in Chicago. Ray didn't hesitate to drop the piece in acetone and see what was really going on under that horrible surface. At just the right moment he retrieved the figure and found that beautiful highly patinated surface with red camwood. It was a masterpiece that he acquired for $4,000. During our interview he deadpanned: "Most conservators just wouldn't do what I do." For some these actions seem reckless; but Ray knew exactly what he was doing and how aggressive he could be. He was, indeed, just a bit smarter than everyone else.
The story of the guns also reflects the talent, patience, and dedication of Ray Wielgus. After selling his company, Wielgus Product Models in 1967, Ray and Laura moved to Tucson in the early 70's. Ray no longer had the constant challenges of working at the Field Museum, or matching wits with Chicago and New York's tribal art dealers. He needed something to do. Without any training Wielgus decided that he would take old guns and fix them up and then embellish them with gold. As you might expect he had no desire to copy the artists that had gone before him. Instead Ray was inspired by Art Noveau,  Art Deco, and archaic Chinese designs. By 1974 his first gun was completed and he was on his way to creating an extraordinary collection of totally original creations. The gun folks, however, shunned him because he was an iconoclast. The gun collectors demanded that their embellished weapons be able to be fired. Ray could care less and often removed the firing pins. The gun world wanted the guns to be untouched and in their original form except for the embellishment. On occasions Ray used reproductions. The embellished gun collectors wanted curvilinear designs with animal or human figurative elements. Wielgus had no interest in pleasing an audience that was completely irrelevant in  his world.  For him the gun was a canvas and the creation was a journey that was every bit as important as the destination. He kept copious notes on each  gun and its journey. One gun near completion at the very end of the bluing process became pitted. Even though Ray had logged 700 hours in that one project he salvaged the ivory handles and sawed the rest up into tiny pieces.
Before his death Ray asked his very close friend Jim Cook and I to find a home for the second half of his gun collection which comprised in total 40 guns. Previously Ray had donated his first 26 guns to the Art Institute of Chicago. We had a number of institutions including the President of Indiana University that wanted this collection. Jim and I decided with some careful consideration that the Firearems Museum in Cody Wyoming at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center was uniquely suited to showcase the Wielgus collection. We are very hopeful that Cody will be able to work with the Art Institute to unite this collection in perpetuity. Soon the guns will leave the great installation at the Phoenix Art Museum for its permanent home in Wyoming. No word yet when the official opening will be, but certainly I will keep you informed. BBHC Director Bruce Eldredge  and their curator Warren Newman have promised that this will be a major addition to what is already an extraordinary collection.

Ray and Laura Wielgus were in my opinion generous to a fault in supporting the institutions they cherished all their lives. This couple donated art to several institutions to include both the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. As a consequence of the almost five decade long friendship with Roy Sieber the entire tribal collection was donated to Indiana University.  It is in my judgment a travesty that now almost two years since his death, the University has failed to publicly acknowledge his death. You can as of this date still read the following line in their website: "In 1970, they retired and moved to Tucson. Though Laura died in 2003, Raymond remains there, where other private collectors, museums, and dealers continue to call upon his legendary connoisseurship skills and expertise." I appraised the collection, so I am certainly aware that the collection was valued in the millions of dollars. Ray and Laura have done their part. Now it's up to the institutions that he supported to do their part in giving him the respect he is due. Ray's executors and me were told well before his death that re-installation plans for the collection at the IU Museum were well underway. We have heard nothing to indicate that there are any plans to re-install either the objects transferred prior to his death or those donated in 2010 after his death.  This apparent failure to honor Ray's last wishes is upsetting but unfortunately seemingly just one more example as Ray joins the company of Albert Barnes and George Gustav Heye. I hope I am proven wrong.