William N. Copley Collection

By the time the Copley Galleries closed in 1949, Copley was already devoting much time to painting. But as soon as the artist moved to Paris in 1951, his passion for collecting lead him to greatly expand the group of works he had acquired while stewarding the gallery. In France, Copley purchased works by Jean Arp, Victor Brauner, Dorothea Tanning, Frida Kahlo, Kurt Schwitters, Hans Bellmer, Alberto Giacometti, Joan Miró, Arshile Gorky, Leonore Fini, Jean Balthus, Meret Oppenheim, Giorgio De Chirico and Francis Picabia to name just a few. In short time Copley’s collection would become the largest individual collection of Surrealist Art by an American collector.

Once Copley returned to New York in 1962, the artist and his second wife, Noma Ratner Copley, would become friends, patrons and collectors of the rising icons of the New York art world. Copley acquired works by Pop stalwarts, (Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg), as well as iconic pieces by peers HC Westermann and excellent early examples of younger artists including Peter Saul, Robert Whitman and Christo.

The majority of the collection acquired between 1947 and the mid 1970s would be dispersed at a record-setting sale at Sotheby Parke Bernet on November 5 and 6, 1979. The sale coincided with Copley’s potentially draining divorce settlement with his third wife, Stella Yang Copley. Copley had also tired of supervising such a monumental collection, which elicited much attention from international museums and curators who were eager to borrow the many exemplary pieces. Most of all, the collection had become a major distraction from Copley’s own painting.

The William N. Copley Collection, Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc, 1979.

The William N. Copley Collection, Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc, 1979.

Nevertheless, after the Sotheby’s sale Copley’s collecting continued through the 1980s unabated. He acquired additional Westermanns through the Frumkin Gallery, bought work directly from artists such as Ray Johnson and Judith Bernstein, and was a loyal client of Phyllis Kind, his own gallerist in the 1980s, who sold him numerous works by Jim Nutt, Martin Johnson and Howard Finster. Fortunate enough to have inherited fantastic wealth from his father in the late 1940s, Copley was prone to spend and give generously throughout his life, mostly in pursuit of collecting art or supporting artists he admired. With such exuberant spending, it is not surprising that Copley had a second major auction of his collection in 1993. The November 8, 1993, sale at Christie’s East was catalogued with the title Contemporary Art: Including Property from the Collection of William Copley.

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Contemporary Art: Including Property from the Collection of William Copley, Chrstie’s East, 1993.

Apart from these two catalogues, more public documentation of Copley’s collection was made available in 1966 by an article in Art in America. Written by Francine du Plessix, and titled “William Copley, The Artist As Collector”, the article surveys the interior of the artist’s East 69th Street apartment. In Copley’s living room, kitchen, library, and bedrooms, which he still occupied with second wife Noma, are stunning highlights of the Copley collection as it appeared in the mid-1960s. Select images from the article are reproduced below:

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Hanging: Man Ray’s A L’heure de L’Observatoire: Les Amoureux, Arshile Gorky’s Crooked Run, Man Ray’s Chess Set, and Max Ernst’s Explosion Dans Ue Cathedral. Sculptures from left: James Metcalf’s Méduse and Arman’s Diffraction of Desire. On the table is Jean Arp’s To Be Lost in the Woods.

Martial Raysse’s Made in Japan and Ed Ruscha’s Falling Chiclets.

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Hanging: Magritte’s L’Evidence Eternelle and Max Ernst’s A Maiden, A Widow and a Wife. On the chest counter: a marble by Cardenas and a small Ernst painted for Copley.

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Hanging clockwise: de Chirico’s Metaphysical Interior, Marcel Duchamp’s Femme Nue aux Bas Noirs, and Man Ray’s Portrait of Marcel Duchamp. By the foot of the bed is Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Tomato Juice Box below a sculpture by Zev.

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Center: H.C. Westermann’s The Big Change. Paintings clockwise: Max Ernst’s Totem and Taboo, Ernst’s La Canalization du Gaz Frigorifié, Arp’s Danseuse, and Giorgio de Chirico’s Study for a Portrait of Apollinaire. Below are two sculptures by Ernst: The Anxious Friend, and Moonmad. ∎