Tom Wheelock - In Memoriam Winter 2017

Amyas graciously permitted me to reprint his personal recollections of Tom. This was posted on the Facebook page Amyas African Art which I encourage you all to follow.

Tom and I were never close but were certainly congenial acquaintances. We both felt, however, that we had the very unusual opportunity of getting to know each other as we shared a common foxhole in the Trepel Baga Serpent case that found us pitted against formidable adversaries working for the plaintiff. I found the case challenging, interesting, and at times fun. Tom found this experience to be in his words one of the worst in his life and worthy of a commitment to three martinis after testifying. I thoroughly enjoyed his very dry sense of humor, his dedication to excellence, and his reverence for the finer things in life. Tom will be missed by many. JB

Remembering Thomas Wheelock
Albums Remembering Thomas Wheelock
1 Photo · Updated about a month ago
Many of us were shocked to learn this month that our colleague and friend, author, collector and connoisseur Tom Wheelock had died over Christmas. He was just 75. Tom was born in 1941 to family of means. His maternal grandfather was one of the original giants of Wall Street and had set up Tom’s parents in a capacious apartment on Manhattan’s Upper Eastside where, as Tom described it, his father spent his day reading the newspaper. To some degree followed in his father’s footsteps as a professional gentleman although he traveled far and never endeavored to raise a family. Wherever he did go Tom always impressed with his impeccable dress and physical bearing a man of class. He was fan of the opera, knowledgeable about the arts of Japan, Europe, Ancient Egypt and the classical world, and until the end he maintained a membership at the venerable Union Club on Park Avenue. While he did earn some income writing appraisals and providing curatorial advice these endeavors gave satisfaction more in the form of purpose than needed remuneration.

I first met Tom at the very start of my career as a stand maker in the early 1990’s. A Malian trader had dropped off a mask for me to mount and suggested that I might sell it for him. As the mask was allegedly Bobo, another visitor to my basement workshop, Noble Endicott, recommended that I show a Mr. Tom Wheelock as it was not unattractive. Despite the fact that I had doubts about the authenticity of the mask I was assured that Mr. Wheelock was an avid collector of art from Burkina Faso and would know right away whether or not the mask was right. If the piece proved to be good I would be rewarded. And if not? Mr. Wheelock, I was assured, was fair-minded and would not hold it against me provided I was straight forward about the circumstances. At worst I would meet someone who I ought to know and who might well become a client. I called and in due course a man in a tweed jacket and matching fedora appeared with an elegant woman in tow. When I showed him the mask his shoulders drooped and he shook his head, then looked me in the eye with that wry half smile I would get to know so well. Although he said nothing, silently mouthing the word no. It was apparent that he had been somewhat hopeful but at the same time was unsurprised. Unfortunately, as I had nothing else to show him, he turned to leave but paused and said, “But it IS very good to know you are here.” Tom was then in his early 50’s, very fit and lively demeanor. In due course Tom did bring me pieces to mount. The quality was unfailingly outstanding and set a high standard by which similar objects might be judged. I visited his office on the top floor of an eastside mansion. It was something of a lair as it was stuffed with wonderful artwork warmly but inadequately lit and otherwise decorated with an eclectic array of Japanese prints, paintings and, by the door, an erotic, sado-masochistic flavored collage or two.
 
I learned that Tom had begun collecting art at an early age but knew nothing of African art until 1972 when, after driving with a girlfriend across the Sahara, he ended up in Ouagadougou. There he made the acquaintance of a fellow American, William Wright who was then at an early stage of his own career as an African art dealer, gathering up quality crafts and authentic works in the bush and shipping them to the US. Tom looked through Bill’s inventory and was smitten by the art. It was then the early 1970’s, a golden time in the African art trade when a substantial amount of older, indigenously used traditional sculpture and artifacts could still be found in situ, particularly in countries like Burkina Faso and Liberia that for a variety of reasons had hitherto been relatively overlooked by dealers and collectors more fixated on the art of those peoples from Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon and Mali that had most influenced the modernists. Having been raised in a milieu more concerned with quality than thrift Tom began by focusing on acquiring the best, eschewing bargains and cultivating contacts through a willingness to pay for it. Over the next five years Tom made
frequent buying trips to Burkina, then called Upper Volta. For a time these visits proved rewarding both in terms of his personal edification as well as in great finds. Along the way a few wonderful things were passed up because of youthful errors of judgment or breakdowns in negotiations (after all, Tom’s interests were not unique) but these failures were as instructive as they were rare. Finally, on a trip in the late 70’s, when he found nothing that met his rising standards for quality, Tom concluded it was over: Henceforth, he would only buy in Europe and state-side from collectors, dealers and at auction. The reality was that Tom had only hit a dry spell. Fine, important, authentic works remained in the field in Burkina Faso as they did elsewhere, albeit it in ever shrinking numbers. Tom of course understood this but the adventure of setting himself up in a “villa” in Burkina’s capital had lost its novelty along with the all the necessary sorting of authentic material from the fake, the cleverly repaired from the intact, and the beautiful and bold from the merely typical. And there was also the strain of negotiating deals under time constraints in a borrowed language without the benefit of second opinions or a library of books. Enough was enough.

The other side of the coin was that by the 1970’s a few African traders had long since built up enough capital, confidence and contacts both local and international to no longer be content to sit at home waiting for buyers to arrive from abroad. If Tom wasn’t going to come to Ougadougou, Ouagadougou was going to come to Manhattan; in fact many African traders were already ensconced in America- not only in single-residency-only hotels on Manhattan’s Upper West Side; a few had bought properties in suburban New Jersey and elsewhere and were raising American families. As a result, Tom was able to meet with and buy from African traders on his home turf- including individuals he had known in Burkina, their siblings, sons and other introduced family members as well as wholly new acquaintances. Inevitably, there were traders with high quality merchandise of whom Tom did not know. In the 1990’s one such merchant, a Hausa from Niger based half the year in Burkina’s western hub of Bobo Dioulasso, appeared in New York with a trove of often wonderful and unusual material including both figurative and ethnographic works. For the next several years Aboubacar Doubou provided me with a steady supply of fabulous objects from Burkina, the best of which went to Tom. A number of these pieces would ultimately be included in Tom’s marvelous book: “Burkina Faso; the Land of the Flying Masks” (Prestel, 2007). In the book’s acknowledgements and notes, Tom remained true to his decent nature and sense of fair play, and included the names of the many traders, dealers and individuals from whom he purchased material directly over the decades regardless of their place of birth or stature, among them William Wright, Michael Rhodes, Mamadou and Ali Konate, and Gilbert Ouedrago.

No remembrance of Tom would be complete without mentioning his myriad and complicated relationships with women. These included many long-term girlfriends and no less than five marriages. Tom was a dapper and confident fellow with a dry sense of humor and a generous nature. He was a charmer who listened attentively with a ready smile and a willingness to equally embrace your point enthusiastically or disagree with aplomb. He was never in my experience in want of companionship. After abruptly leaving his fourth wife and setting up with number five, a reptile aficionado from the south with big hair, he decamped from Manhattan in the late 1990’s and alighted in Hudson, New York. We city folk saw much less of him thereafter especially after the couple moved yet again, this time to Tennessee where the spouse had a daughter and now a grandchild. Marriage number five did not unfold without drama. A flood inundated their house and destroyed much of Tom’s library. A few years later the relationship dissolved on less than amicable terms, but soon enough Tom found new companionship with Jannean Barnes. It was, he confided, his happiest union to date adding, “Given my history I know what you must be thinking I’m really very sincere.”

Despite his move to Tennessee, Tom continued to communicate with his friends in New York and to pay regular visits. I shared pictures with him of family vacations and we regularly discussed objects in auctions, on offer from traders , and still others in need of evaluation- matters in which he was generally of greater service to me than the other way around. While in the city Tom stayed at the venerable Union Club where he was a long-time member. A few years ago Tom called me out of the blue to say that he and number-five were in town for the week and had extra tickets to see La Boheme at the Metropolitan Opera the following evening. Tom was a member of the Opera Club and Eve and I were cordially invited to join them for dinner and desert there between acts. There was a catch: the club had a dress code and I would have to wear a tuxedo. Given that the only suit I own is the one I was married in and that it was nowhere near black I apologized and said that we would have to gratefully decline; there was no time to find a rental. However, Tom had already done some calculations: if I could get myself over to the Union Club where he was staying I could probably just fit into his tuxedo while he would wear his set of tails. All I needed was a pair of black shoes. A number of things struck my mind all at once: that this would surely be an evening we would not soon forget, that being invited was a rare honor let alone opportunity, and finally: what kind of person travels for a week away with both a tuxedo and coat and tails? I checked with Eve and she agreed to the plan. Somehow I got past the front desk at the club in shorts and made it to Tom’s small but elegant room. Wife-five was already resplendent in an evening gown. An inordinate number of handbags and ladies shoes were scattered about, although none of he latter were as yet on her feet. Tom’s tuxedo more or less fit me- the suspenders helped. Eve arrived and we were soon in a limo bound for Lincoln Center. The trip there proved to be an odyssey in and of its self as the wife had taken the wrong handbag and half way there we had to circle back. She apologized for the inconvenience, blaming the error on some undisclosed malady. She also had us stop at a bodega (for a soda) and a pharmacy en route. Now late we had to rush through the first course of dinner. Tom’s spouse opted for lemon sherbet in lieu of an appetizer. She had sherbet again as a main course, and a third time for dessert. Tom was unflappable. He showed compassion for his ailing spouse’s well being without a hint of panic or embarrassment through the opera’s final spectacle.

Recently, I learned that Tom had passed away in his sleep shortly before Christmas. We had last spoken in the fall about some unusual Burkina masks that had come up for auction in South Carolina and whose images I had sent to Tom for an opinion. Our conversation convinced me to buy none of them. Instead, I nabbed a Bobo Fing funerary mask (one we did not discus) from the same sale as it was beyond reproach. This mask retains much of its original fiber attachments and although a little askew it’s a powerful piece with layers of paint and a glorious interior patina from repeated service. My plan was to send him images of it once I had it on a base- I was sure that he would like it and anticipated a congratulatory response. I learned of Tom’s passing before any images were taken. The mask now stands on my desk mounted, open mouthed and mute, a reminder of the many deceased individuals it honored and the one whose acquaintance it never made.