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Sons of Alabama

There is a bridge over the Mobile River and the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, two parallel spans of coreten steel on concrete pilings anchored in the river and swamp below. Though it lacks the drama of some, this viaduct is, all the same, as pretty as any in America, lifting in natural harmony from the watershed that feeds the city and offering spectacular views to both the left and right. I pay attention when on this bridge, drinking in the changing scene by season, in weather, over time. I have risen early to watch the break of day on the delta as I cross that connector en route from Mobile to Montgomery. I’ve likewise cut short an afternoon in Wetumpka hoping to catch the last light of an afternoon from the bridge’s loft as I headed back South. This is a road I know—Tuscaloosa wide to its west and culminating in Mobile, strategic stops for this traveling salesman.

There are a handful of key collectors who have profoundly influenced my career. Sometimes, they are notable due to the sheer volume of their acquisitions and those purchases’ impact on the gallery’s bottom line. More often, they are important in other, more personal ways—teaching me about art, the South, and the relationship between the two. Two particular gentlemen were equally significant to me in both ways. Proud sons of Alabama, the late Jay Altmayer and Jack Warner are pillars not only in their home state—as business moguls and civic leaders—but both have played pivotal roles in the advancement of Southern and American art on the larger stage. Jack is well known to most every dealer out there as a major player; Jay kept a lower profile.

Jack Warner is the former chairman of Gulf States Paper Corporation in Tuscaloosa, while Mobile’s Jay Altmayer, whose commercial interests were strictly entrepreneurial, bought, held, and sold land—an awful lot of it. As I survey the parallels between the two, I see men who, as with their fortunes, grew from the soil of Alabama, like loblolly and long leaf pine. Jay was most proud of his forest; his 28,000 privately-held acres (small by comparison with that belonging to Gulf States) is a lofty model for my own tree farming efforts. Pride of place and that place’s past shaped their passion for art and, in turn, helped to mold the very face of Southern art as we know it today. They share too an abiding interest in the indomitable spirit of America, and the themes recorded in its art illuminate them for us. There is an old Southern saying that goes something along the lines of “if you want to truly know a man, pay attention to how he treats his dog.” To that I would add, take note of what hangs on his walls. Though we certainly built friendships that offered plenty of insight into their respective characters, I first came to understand Jack and Jay through their art collections.

For my professional purposes, Jack and Jay shared another important trait: a strong regard for the works of William Aiken Walker. A prolific itinerant artist of great charm and Charleston roots, Walker spent his life chronicling the post-bellum South, which he envisioned through romanticized scenes of plantations and cabins, field hands and mammies. Jack Warner purchased many Walkers from me over the years, while Jay’s collection had already reached an impressive maturity by the time we met. I believe both men were drawn to the artist’s work because Walker painted the land: the land of the South, land populated a century earlier by the shacks built from the felled trees of pine forests that grew where cotton had once been king. Slavery was behind us then, and Walker emerged in the late 1870s to visually document a new system: the sharecropper, his crude shack, and, with less frequency, the cotton gin and plantation complex which surrounded it. His was the art of Reconstruction.

In the spring of 1983, I received a call from a gentleman in San Francisco who described for me what I knew must be an incredible plantation scene by Walker. It was big—replete with figures and activity. The man would not give me his name, but told me that he wanted to sell it and would phone back when he was ready. It was a conversation that makes you get up from your desk, take a walk, count your blessings, and hope like hell that the fellow does indeed call back. He did, and I got the picture. I exhibited at the Tri-Delt Antiques Show in Dallas that year and hung the Walker in the booth, where it caught the attention of several New York dealers. I didn’t sell it, though, and was growing just a tad nervous over the almost hundred thousand dollars I had invested in the painting, a sum borrowed from the mother of a friend.

Fortunately, Tuscaloosa is on the way home from Dallas, and, as far as Walkers went, Jack Warner was at the top of the acquisition chain. With the Walker masterwork safely packaged in the back of my Suburban, I nervously planned my presentation for Mr. Warner over the many miles of that trip. Charles Hilburn, curator at Gulf States, was the gatekeeper. Charles has always been mindful of dealers’ needs and worked me in for the middle of the next morning. I don’t remember what I quoted Mr. Warner for the painting, sensing he liked the picture—though he could have played poker or traded mules with the best of them. In classic fashion, he asked me what I really wanted for the piece, and I naively out-negotiated myself by offering a lower price. He left the room without comment. All I could think to do was follow, silently panicked as to where I was going to get the money to repay my friend’s widowed mother. Halfway down the hall, Mr. Warner stopped, turned back toward me, and asked if I had tasted one of those new Diet Cokes. I replied that I had not, and he said, “Well, I’ll buy you one, if you’ll take $162,500.” I collapsed on an aluminum can.

Over lunch that day, he asked the name of the as yet untitled painting, and I answered vaguely: “I don’t know; how about Plantation Scene?” That moniker didn’t suit him, and as we discussed the canvas in detail, I grew to understand the man and his passion. Together we came up with Plantation Economy in the Old South. That really said it all. The scene took the viewer into the Old South—for better and for worse, in all its glory and its inequity. It was an apocryphal title for the painting, but significant to us.

I learned another lesson here, one which proved terribly important. After picking up the aforementioned plantation painting in Connecticut (the family home of the San Francisco seller), I took the train back into New York to show the painting to a conservator of some reputation. I showed it to this expert, and he confirmed my assessment of its condition. Puffed up with my own good fortune, I made the mistake of telling him what I paid for the canvas. Well, news travels fast.

Nan and Jay Altmayer always shared with me a vast knowledge of Southern art, as well as their signature hospitality and unrivaled collection. Jay died in February of 1999. His paintings, still hanging at Palmetto Hall in Mobile, surely comprise the finest collection of paintings relating to the Deep South gathered in a single home. Jay made his living by hard work and never had a problem with anyone else doing the same, though he sure did like to make you fret over it. All told, I never sold Jay that many things, but he always received me well and tutored me in not only the art, but the art of business. Jay didn’t need Plantation Economy in the South; he had Big B Cotton Plantation, a larger and, to his eye, better picture.

On this particular occasion, I phoned ahead to say I was coming through Mobile and asked if Jay could see me. He welcomed my visit. Jay usually sat at a conference table with his devoted assistant Gayle Dearman opening the mail and taking notes, always in animated conversation. I had barely gotten through the door before he demanded to know how I could have possibly paid so much for the painting. As it turned out, the New York conservator had promptly called an auction house in New Orleans as I left, and they, perhaps wanting to broker the painting, had phoned Jay. Oh, that lesson in discretion—just one of the many I credit to my Alabama mentors.

William Aiken Walker (1839-1921)
Plantation Economy in the Old South (1881)
Oil on canvas
22 x 42 inches
Signature Details: Lower left
Owner: Private Collection, New Orleans, Louisiana
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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