Lovely Bones

In spring 2001, Richard Harris found himself at a crossroads. He was heading into retirement after 35 years selling antique prints, largely botanical and herbal, from his Chicago shop to high-end decorators across the country. At the same time, he had decided to sell his personal collection of prints by Rembrandt, Matisse and Picassosome 85 pieces acquired over three decades—through a series of shows at C. G. Boerner, a dealer in Old Masters, 19th-century and modern prints and drawings with branches in New York and Düsseldorf.

Harris was ready to start a new collection, but this time he wanted to rely more heavily on his own sensibilities and avoid the more-traditional collecting categories. In addition to prints, he had amassed rare books in such fields as natural history and anatomy—an interest since his time as a premed student at Queens College (he switched to economics and art history upon discovering he didn’t have the stomach for medicine). Maybe, he thought, he should focus on anatomical books and prints—especially the whimsical and scientifically inaccurate images from 16th- and 17th-century Europe. On consideration, however, the topic felt a bit narrow. A more compelling vision came to him the following March, when he went to the art fair in Maastricht. Kunstkammer Georg Laue, of Munich, had staged a dramatic display of the art of memento mori, or reminders of human mortality, from a 17th-century watch in the form of a skull to 20th-century Papua New Guinea skulls decorated with seeds.

“This booth was the talk of the year,” says Harris, who at 71 speaks rapidly and moves with the nervous energy of a much younger man. “It was filled with these oddities that took me on a wonderful journey from medieval times to the present. I had found my subject.” In effect, Harris had also found an open ended approach to collecting art, one that in the spirit of the Renaissance Wunderkammer, is not bound by historical period, genre or medium. And he had found a broad theme—images of death—that complemented his interest in anatomy.

Today, Harris has a large, varied, highly personal and idiosyncratic collection of artwork featuring skulls and skeletons,which he has dubbed, rather theatrically, 1,000 Faces of Death. It comprises well over 1,000 pieces—prints, drawings, paintings, photographs, sculptures, books and comics among them. Some were intended for scientific research or medical instruction;some are religious in nature. Some represent protests against the ravages of war, and some embody other modes of confronting death.

In deference to his wife, Barbara, and to preserve their 41-year marriage, Harris displays only a small selection of his macabre and decidedly nondecorative pieces in their home (a ranch house that, like so many in the area, owes a clear debt to Frank Lloyd Wright), in Riverwoods, Illinois, about 30 miles from Chicago. He keeps the bulk of his collection tucked awayin flat files in his home office and library, with other pieces stored under his bed. He has also left acquisitions with galleries for safekeeping, including a prized early 17th-century carved-fruitwood skeleton from southern Germany, purchased at the Blumka Gallery, in New York, for $100,000.

These days, Harris’s goal is to find the right museum to exhibit his treasures. To this end he has consulted with several curators, including the former MoMA heavyweight Robert Storr, who reviewed images of the works and flagged those of particular interest. (Storr declined to speak for this article, noting that it is his policy not to promote private collections.)

Some of Harris’s acquisitions are exactly what you would expect were you to free-associate on the theme of death in art history. He owns a full set of the first edition of Goyas 1863 “The Disasters of War”—all 80 prints in original blue wrappers—as well as Jake and Dinos Chapmans 1999 re-interpretation of that series. Harris also has a 1945 Surrealist drawing by Hans Bellmer of a woman in a diaphanous robe with a skull coming out of her stomach and a 1958 collage of skeletal figures, Faces of Death, by the great Dada satirist George Grosz.

Another prize among his possessions is a 17th-century Dutch vanitas still life by the Flemish Baroque painter Adriaenvan Utrecht, which now hangs in his dining room. Bought at Sotheby’s in 2003 for $56,250, this brightly dark picture is loaded with the genre’s typical imagery, including time pieces representing mortality and the ephemeral quality of life. As Harris puts it, “The painting shows that flowers die, petals die … we all die.”

Some of Harris’s items have a startlingly strange physical presence. Having set out a few of these on his dining room table, he holds up a white stone Chinese skull from 4,500 b.c.—his oldest piece—which a New York dealer sold to Harris from his personal collection. “You don’t see so much skeletal iconography in Chinese art,” Harris says. “You see it in Tibet, Nepal and Japan, but not China.” Then he pulls out a Kiki Smith bronze skull, modeled on a human one, from an edition of 16 made in 2000. On it are engraved the words visconsili expers mole ruit sua, which translates roughly as “Strength without wisdom falls by its own weight.” 

“People show me animal skulls, and I say no,” Harris states. “Human skulls and skeletons are the only things I’m interested in.” Then he points to a very tiny ivory skeleton inside a miniature coffin, date and origin unknown. “We think of death as being so horrific, but this little skeleton is so vulnerable,” he says. Later he brings out a stack of “metamorphic” postcards that he found in an antiques mart in Paris. On one, a white skull floats on a black background above the words Au Revoir, also in white. The rather unnerving metamorphosis occurs when your perception of the image changes to reveal two human figures popping out of the skull’s eye sockets. “The postcards are nothing, but they’re fabulous,” says Harris. “That’s what my collection is about—how things that are not of great consequence can be great when seen in a certain light.”

The quest for such works is clearly something Harrisen joys. In his former business, he frequented bookstores in London and Amsterdam, unearthing cheap antique prints to resell at higher prices back home. Since retiring, he has applied the same resourcefulness to tracking down ghastly representations at galleries, art and collectibles fairs, auctions,bookshops and flea markets. “That’s the fun part for me, turning the corner and finding the dealer who has postage stamps with skulls, or postcards,” he says. “To buy 1,500 pieces, I have probably seen 50,000.”

Images of mortality come from every country, and as Harris sees it, the theme belongs to high art as much as to folkart, to painting as much as to comic strips, to monuments as much as to ephemera and present-day kitsch. His collection even contains some two dozen Grateful Dead T-shirts that he bought from a catalogue for $10 each.

While pursuing this passion, Harris has received something of a crash course in the workings of the contemporary art world. To form his first collection, he made the rounds of London and New York galleries specializing in prints. During the past decade, his shopping sprees have involved works by such artists as Marlene Dumas, Vik Muniz and Sue Coe, purchases that have exposed him to the madness of the contemporary scene. “My first trip to Chelsea was maybe five years ago on a lovely spring day,” he says. “I couldn’t walk on the sidewalk, it was so crowded. I saw more people looking at art in one day than I had in many years.” When he attended the New York Armory Show for the first time, in 2004, he encountered the frenzy closeup. At the booth of the London gallery White Cube, he spotted an arresting sculpture by the Chapman brothers: bronze skulls teeming with insects and worms that seemed to crawl out of the skull’s orifices. “By the time I made up my mind to buy it,” he says, “the piece was gone.”

Harris sounds another note of regret when talking about three or four of the finest prints in the collection he liquidated. “If I were a very wealthy man, I would have kept Picasso’s La femme qui pleure and Le repas frugal,” he says, adding that most of all, he would like still to own his rare second-state example of Rembrandt’s Three Crosses, 1653, which he sold through C. G. Boerner for $1.2 million, in part to fund the new collection. Every time he took a magnifying glass to it, he discovered something new, he recalls: “I really believe The Three Crosses is the greatest print that anyone has done. Just look at the expression on the faces of the people watching the Crucifixion—the horror, the empathy. To capture that in an etching with a burin and a copper plate is a kind of magic.”

It’s Harris’s nature to sound lively even when discussing the bleak subject matter of such pictures. When pressed, he will admit that part of his interest in his current holdings stems from the stage of life he has reached, as he faces his own end. “This is not a young man’s collection,” he says, noting that he tended to acquire images from natural history and of other living things when he was younger. “Now, in the winter of my life, mortality is on my mind.”

He does not see death as necessarily a dark topic, however. “If you go to Mexico on the Day of the Dead, it’s celebratory—a reunion with friends and family who have crossed over to the other side,” he points out. “It’s joyful, it’s dance, it’s music.” Harris finds the persistence of memento mori and similar artworks reassuring. “The idea that these objects themselves are immortal really fascinates me,” he says. “Whether we as collectors keep things within our family or donate them to museums, we’re not the final owners. We are just temporary caretakers.”

"Lovely Bones" originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's October 2008 Table of Contents .