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Lois Torf, print collector who helped MFA ’set the highest standards,’ dies at 93

Mrs. Torf and her husband, Michael, were among the leading art collectors in Massachusetts in the late 1900s.

While building a world-renowned collection of modern prints, Lois Torf always separated the art from the artist. “I have to love the image. I never buy just the artist,” she told the Globe in 1984.

“Let’s take Picasso, for example,” she added. “I have a lot of Picasso in my collection, but I have never bought any simply because he was a great artist. You have to pick and choose, because Picasso did thousands of prints. And if you pick wrong, you’ve wasted your time and money.”

Hailed by museums, gallery owners, and collectors for her practiced eye, keen judgment, and enviable collection of prints, Mrs. Torf died Sept. 9 in her Weston home. She was 93.

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A longtime trustee for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, she was “the most important collector of modern prints in the country,” Clifford Ackley, the MFA’s curator of prints and drawings, told the Globe in 1986, during her heyday in her decades of acquiring art.

Mrs. Torf could look at prints and quickly see which were truly important. She used that ability to enhance collections at her alma mater, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and at the MFA.

“She did that out of knowledge, she did that out of understanding, she did that out of intuition,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, the MFA’s director.

"Pique" (1959) by Pablo Picasso, is part of the Torf collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.Collection Lois B. Torf, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The museum’s collection includes about 100 prints that were a direct result of Mrs. Torf — either donations from her personally or from artists she encouraged to contribute works.

“She understood artists, and I think that helped her make the judgments she did about works of art,” Teitelbaum said. “She understood motivation, she understood the approach — what we might say was the problem the artist was trying to solve — and therefore she could make a judgment about the success of the work, the importance of the work.”

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In the 1984 Globe interview, Mrs. Torf recalled that she had “met a lot of artists over the years, and many of them are charming and interesting; some of them are my best friends. But that does not influence my collecting.”

Instead, she read modern art magazines and kept in close touch with galleries “so that when something new is about to be released, they call you. I also drop in at the dealers.”

That meant traveling to Europe frequently and visiting galleries in places such as Chicago and the West Coast.

“I do this,” she said, “because I care about art, and I want to know what’s doing.”

The older of two sisters, Lois Beurman was born in Boston in 1926 and grew up in Dorchester, a daughter of Benjamin Beurman, who owned plastics and leather companies, and Augusta Davis, a homemaker.

Mrs. Torf was the first woman in her family to attend college, graduating in 1946 from the UMass Amherst with a bachelor’s degree in history.

She and Michael K. Torf, an entrepreneur in manufacturing and publishing, married in 1949. They had been introduced by a mutual friend and initially lived in Boston and West Newton before settling in Weston. The couple also had a home on St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands.

They were among Greater Boston’s most significant art collectors until Mr. Torf, who also had been heavily involved with the MFA, died in early 1988 after a boating collision off St. Croix. The couple’s son, Andrew, had died a few months earlier while on a business trip.

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Mrs. Torf’s daughter, Adrienne Torf of San Francisco, said that “nothing was more important to her than family.”

She recalled that “few things brought her more joy than when her family and her sister’s family gathered for a holiday meal.”

Mrs. Torf’s younger sister, Barbara Goldberg, was a textile artist who had taught at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Boston University, and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. She died in 2016.

In all aspects of Mrs. Torf’s life, “every choice she made about art, her home, her appearance, was intentional, informed, and purposeful,” her daughter said.

At the MFA, where Mrs. Torf remained involved after the deaths of her husband and son, she served on the collections committee, chaired the visiting committee to the department of prints, drawings, and photographs, was elected an overseer in 1977, became an elected trustee in 1985, and was named an honorary trustee in 1999.

The Lois B. and Michael K. Torf Gallery at the MFA was named in their honor in 1983.

In 1984, the MFA and the Williams College Museum of Art exhibited “The Modern Art of the Print: Selections from the Collection of Lois and Michael Torf.”

“Each successive image seems to open like a skyrocket’s burst and scatter sparks toward a crowd’s collective sigh,” Globe critic Robert Taylor wrote of the Williams exhibition.

Mrs. Torf also had served on the boards of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center. UMass awarded her an honorary doctorate in fine arts in 1986.

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An avid tennis fan, she attended the US Open seven times from her 80th to 93rd birthdays and was just as devoted to watching televised matches.

“She would watch live, and I would record,” said her longtime friend Barbara Krakow of the Krakow Witkin Gallery, who added that Mrs. Torf sometimes found it difficult to not drop hints about who won.

“She was an amazingly powerful woman, and I mean powerful in accepting who she was, knowing who she was, and staying true to that,” Krakow added.

A virtual memorial service will be announced for Mrs. Torf, whose daughter is her only immediate survivor.

Along with building a collection and working closely with the MFA, Mrs. Torf “wanted the museum to belong to all of Boston,” Teitelbaum said.

“She was from Boston. She loved Boston,” he added. "I would say one of her legacies at the museum was that she pushed for inclusion. She spoke often of that: ‘Everyone should have the opportunity I have had to learn about works of art.’ "

Over the years, Mrs. Torf said in 1984, she at times found herself disagreeing with art critics and experts. She didn’t mind.

“I have a lot of confidence in what I do,” she said. “I don’t care at all what other people think. I think I’m right.”

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Teitelbaum recalled that "she did once tell me, ‘You know, Matthew, you’ll find out that I’m always right.’ I smiled and said, ‘I already know that you are, Lois.’ And she was. Her judgment was consistently at the highest level, and she helped us set the highest standards. ‘We’re one of the great museums of the world,’ Lois would say. ‘Act like it. Push. Aim higher.’ "


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.