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Big House

The late Bob Coggins of Marietta, Georgia was a dedicated collector who taught me more about art than anyone else could have in those early years. He was enthusiastic to a fault, available, but secretive. I could never sell him one painting, because he always felt he did better buying—or, better yet, trading—en masse. To Bob’s credit, he did not seek the blockbusters, because he usually was unwilling to pay the premium. Rather, he found value in the works of art then so often—and so wrongly—considered minor. He was a regular outlet for northern dealers who suspected that a piece might be Southern. In the end, these “minor” works made his reputation and solidified his collection.

My memory is that the goateed Dr. Coggins had grown up in Easley, South Carolina, the son of a shoe merchant. He drifted down to Athens and the University of Georgia, later finishing his education at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. There was some sort of a predilection toward gambling and high-stakes card games, for which a younger Dr. Coggins self-prescribed a cure, a cure that channeled his appetite for risk and windfalls toward collecting.

In the late 1970s, Bob convinced his medical partners to open their practice treasury to the second-generation art dealers of Berry-Hill Galleries in New York. The four internists helped finance the gallery’s growing inventory and as the values of those works were enhanced by a rising tide, Jim and Fred Hill sold their wares to the profit of all. Along the way, Bob—fortified by a healthy rate of return on his investment and guided skillfully by the Manhattan cousins— built what in retrospect must be called a major collection of American art. Over time, many of the broader and brighter American pictures Bob purchased were reacquired by Berry-Hill. The capital from those transactions was devoted to Bob’s intensified focus on “Southern paintings.”

I mined every vein I could to learn my business and, in so doing, spent many an evening with Bob and his curator Jim Sauls as I traveled west from Spartanburg—and almost always through Marietta. We knew so little, but spent countless hours (often until early morning) talking about the painters and their work. Though we were generally far more speculation than fact, our belief in the cause was unwavering: we were all about the South and, specifically, about Southern art. Reveling in our mutual enthusiasm, we left it to others to define the term.

The house at 413 St. Mary’s Lane was perennially shuttered from ambient light. I never knew if this was to afford a better viewing of the paintings or maybe it was the gambler in Bob—back to the wall, so to speak, ensuring that when that front door opened, whoever occupied the inner threshold was the only form silhouetted by light from the room. The kitchen was the only exception to this shuttering rule, but then it was on the front of the house and offered an unobstructed and useful view of the drive. Two German Shepherds maintained order in the fenced back yard.

A long Cadillac always waited in the lower drive. After Bob and I had settled into the spacious back seat, Jim would drive us to Montecalvo’s for dinner. Bob customarily carried the ebony cane with filigreed gold handle that I had given him in appreciation for the many doors he opened for me. One particularly important introduction was to the work of Elliott Daingerfield, the icon of North Carolina artists whose daughters Bob had befriended. Though Bob promoted Daingerfield’s work to me, I was never allowed the trip. Inevitably after a visit to my Spartanburg office, that Cadillac would snake up Highway 221, through Rutherfordton and Marion, on to Linville and Blowing Rock. The masterpieces sold by Marjorie and Gwendoline Daingerfield took my place in the back seat when this pioneer collector and his curator left West Glow, the artist’s home and studio, in descent towards Marietta. I am quite sure Bob stroked that goatee and fairly howled at his good fortune.

Those works would have come out on their own in another generation, but I would argue that Bob did the family and all of us so interested in this Southern artist and Southern art a tremendous service by bringing them to a larger audience when he did. Through a collaborative exhibition with Berry-Hill Galleries, Spirit of the Storm—the finest of the Daingerfield group and masterpiece of the artist’s Grand Canyon series—went to Reynolda House in Winston- Salem. An evocative and allegorical portrayal of Daingerfield’s daughters, The Sisters, went to Jack Warner in Tuscaloosa. As so often happens, that picture came back to me years later—June of 2002—over lunch with Jack. I consider it one of the true masterworks to have passed through my hands and say with pride that it now hangs back at Westglow, from whence it came.

Today, an individual or institutional collector has the advantage of studying the corpus of the Coggins collection and the opportunity therein to use the group as a guidepost in the pursuit of this name or that subject. The Southern paintings in the Robert Powell Coggins Collection became the core of Augusta’s Morris Museum of Art when purchased shortly before Bob’s death in 1989. Under the stewardship of Kevin Grogan, the museum has exhibited the obvious masterpieces and continues to increase our understanding of the whole, just as Bob led me. In helping me establish a course for my career, I really think Bob just handed me a frame and, with a wink, said, “The canvas needs some more detail, but I believe you can do it.” Bob Coggins truly was a visionary, and, due in large part to his foresight and devotion, Southern art has come back to the big house.

I cried at his funeral.

Elliott Daingerfield (1859-1932)
The Sisters (Marjorie and Gwendoline Daingerfield) (1920-1924)
Oil on canvas
48 1⁄4 x 36 1/8 inches
Signature Details: Lower right
Owner: Collection of Westglow Resort and Spa, Blowing Rock, North Carolina
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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