During the vast sweep of his career, George Abrams has lived a double life. As an attorney, he’s worked for Senator Ted Kennedy and represented the likes of media giant Sumner Redstone, Boston Expressionist painter Hyman Bloom, and basketball great Bill Russell. As a collector, he and his late wife, Maida, a prominent advocate for greater arts access for those with special needs, amassed one of the foremost private collections of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish drawings, including masterworks by Rembrandt van Rijn, Jacob van Ruisdael, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Now 90, Abrams has given roughly 500 of these works on paper to Harvard Art Museums over the years, transforming the museum’s Dutch drawings collection into perhaps the most significant in North America.
For Abrams, drawings offer an intimacy and immediacy that’s often unavailable in paintings: Frequently completed in a single session, they give a unique vantage point into the artist’s technique.
Many of these drawings are now on view alongside other works at Harvard’s “Crossroads: Drawing the Dutch Landscape” (May 21 - Aug. 14), where Abrams recently discussed the works and his adventures in collecting.
“Wooded Landscape with a Distant View toward the Sea,” (1554) Pieter Bruegel the Elder
I regard this as a bit of a miracle. It came up at a small auction outside the Hague 30 years ago, where it was called circle beyond Bruegel — an anonymous drawing. I thought it was exceptionally beautiful how the space stretched out and the white heightening brought out the trees and water off in the distance.
I couldn’t be at the sale, so I asked a dealer I knew to bid for me, and I gave him a price. I called him right after the auction to ask what happened, and he said it went for a little more than you gave me authority.
So I asked who bought it, and he said: “I did.”
That didn’t seem right. We talked about it, and he gave me a price that was three times what he’d paid. He said he loved the drawing. He wouldn’t budge. So I paid it, and I was mad at myself for having done that.
I went home and put it away. It stayed there for a while, until Bill Robinson, who was the drawings curator at the Fogg Museum, came by and found the box. He said it was really interesting, and I said, “Yeah, but I’m mad at it.” He took the drawing, got photographs taken, and sent it to Hans Mielke, the great 16th-century Netherlandish expert.
A little while later, Bill called me one morning all excited. He said he’d heard from Hans Mielke: “He said your drawing’s by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. He called it the greatest discovery in recent years.”
“Houses on the Schinkelweg,” (1650-52) Rembrandt van Rijn
This one was so wonderful. I loved it, except for one thing: When it came up for sale there was a piece of white tissue paper in the lower center area, which we thought may disguise some damage.
I came early on the morning of the sale with a conservator, who said he didn’t think there was any damage, but couldn’t be sure. So we ended up at the sale, and when this drawing came up, I bought it, favorably, and I was thrilled.
We took it to the British Museum, where the conservator took the tissue off. He looked at it and said it was just a little jam. Apparently, somebody was looking at the drawing at breakfast and had dropped a little jam on it. The [protective] paper got stuck‚ and a bit ripped off. So he removed the paper, he removed the jam, and it’s perfect.
What I love about this drawing is it’s all worked with the same pen. It almost looks as if Rembrandt never took that pen off the paper — as if he just kept the pen down and producing the drawing. It’s so special because it’s not pretentious. It’s kind of a lovely, sort of peaceful cottage.
And you see that “F” mark? That’s the Flinck collector’s mark. These drawings went to Govert Flinck, who was a student of Rembrandt’s in the 1630s and amassed a group of 27 landscapes by Rembrandt. The group later went to his son, Nicolaes, and that’s Nicolaes Flinck’s mark.
Nobody can argue with that provenance.
“Landscape with a Road and a Fence,” (1631) Cornelis Vroom
He’s an extraordinary artist. I saw this one in a catalog for a German exhibition in the early 1970s. It had a very low estimate — $2,000 or $3,000. I loved it, so I called [Boston dealer] Bob Light, who was going to the auction, and I told him about the drawing. He asked how high I’d like to go, and I told him three times the estimate.
We didn’t telephone all the time in those days, so I waited for him to come back on Sunday. I kept dialing, and when I finally got him, I asked happened with the drawing.
He said, “You won’t believe it — it went for $16,000.” I said, “Oh my God, who was the crazy fool who bought it?” And he said: “You were!”
Well, I was a little taken aback, but after a pause he said we could work out a partial trade for the purchase. I’ve never regretted it.
I love the way the road goes off and there’s an unknown beyond. There’s a little bit of a hill, so you have to work to get there, but there’s something beyond that’s special.
Bob died six years ago. At his funeral, I said I would give this drawing to Harvard. And I did, I gave it in memory of Bob Light.
“Landscape with a Distant View of Haarlem,” (1664-65) Jan Lievens
There are four wonderful Jan Lievens landscapes [in the show]. He was one Rembrandt’s great associates. He grew up in Leiden with him, and they shared a studio for a period of time. He’s very rare, but he reached a level that is almost equal to Rembrandt at times. These drawings cover his entire landscape period.
This one shows a distant view of Haarlem, a town outside Amsterdam. You can see the church, there are trees, and a woman doing some outdoor work.
I desperately wanted it, but I couldn’t swing the money. Finally, we worked out a trade: I gave [the dealer] seven small drawings by the 18th century French artist Augustin de Saint-Aubin and another good French drawing in exchange for this, plus a little bit of money.
I don’t know whether he was happy. I think he was doing me a favor, but I’ve never regretted that. Anytime I could get something wonderful and give two or three things that I liked, but weren’t quite as wonderful, I was happy.
“A Farm on the Amsteldijk,” (1648-50), Rembrandt van Rijn
This drawing was at the 1984 Chatsworth sale in London, one of the most famous sales in drawing history. The auction had 71 drawings, and they were great: Raphael, da Vinci, Rubens, and eight Rembrandt landscapes coming at the end of the sale.
I was happy about that, because I hoped some of the collectors and museums might have spent all their money by then.
A dealer friend, Johnny Van Haeften, was going to bid for me. If I had my catalog open, that meant he should keep bidding; if I closed it, that meant he should stop. When this drawing came up, I held the catalog open, and Johnny just kept bidding.
When I finally got it, Johnny said to me, “I’ll help you if you’re short money.” I said, “Short of money, I don’t know how I’m going to pay for it!”
Luckily, the British government stopped the export license for this drawing. They decided it was a national treasure, and they tried to see if they could buy it. In the meantime, I started raising the money.
Finally, I got a call from John Rowlands, who was the keeper at the British Museum. He said, “George, I’ve just signed the export license on your drawing.” I asked what drawings he’d kept instead. He said, “We kept one the Getty bought, but we thought we’d let you have yours.”
So I flew over two days later, bringing it back to Boston because I was afraid they’d change their mind.
I gave this drawing to Harvard in memory of my wife, Maida (who died in 2002). It’s such a great drawing, it seemed a fitting tribute to her and all that she did to help me.
Interview was edited and condensed.