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Boston collector fills an art gap at MFA

John Axelrod in front of a 1926 piece by Archibald John Motley Jr., one of several prominent African-American artists whose works will go on display today.
John Axelrod in front of a 1926 piece by Archibald John Motley Jr., one of several prominent African-American artists whose works will go on display today. Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

“It’s a disease,’’ John Axelrod says when asked to explain his art buying, the reason more than 50 works are on display in his Beacon Street home.

It may be a stretch to call his compulsion a disease, but whatever drives Axelrod, the Museum of Fine Arts is only too happy to display his purchases. Today, the museum will unveil some of the latest Axelrod additions: seven works by important African-American artists, pieces that fill a hole in the museum’s collection.

“This is absolutely transformative,’’ says MFA Director Malcolm Rogers. “It would have been absolutely impossible to buy these on the open market.’’

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As it is, the MFA will pay Axelrod a discounted price - between $5 million and $10 million - for the seven works and another 60 from his collection. To raise the money the MFA will sell off some of the lesser works by artists already represented in the museum.

It’s no secret that the MFA failed to collect much modern and contemporary art during the 20th century. The MFA’s record for acquiring works by African-Americans is even spottier: Of the 250 works the museum owned before the latest seven from Axelrod, 140 were acquired in the last decade.

Axelrod’s work as a lawyer and his family’s hotel business - sold in the 1980s - made it possible for him to become an art collector. The MFA honorary overseer started collecting in this area in the early 1990s and acquired works by a range of prominent African-American artists, including Archibald Motley Jr., Beauford Delaney, and Norman Lewis.

The seven works going on display today, on the third floor of the MFA’s Art of the Americas Wing, include pieces by Motley, Delaney, Aaron Douglas, Eldzier Cortor, John Biggers, and Hale Woodruff.

“This is going to fill a giant lacuna,’’ said Yale University Art Gallery director Jock Reynolds, who has borrowed works from Axelrod in the past. “I can’t imagine any institution in America that wouldn’t have wanted that collection. To try to even find some of these works is impossible today, and you’re going to pay a lot more.’’

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For Axelrod, the decision to sell these works to the MFA actually mirrors his longstanding pattern of giving to the museum, to which he donated his first works in 1985. Axelrod discovers an area of art he feels is underappreciated, builds a strong collection, and then, when he’s done, finds a home for the work at the MFA. In 2008, he gave the museum the more than 300 works in his collection of American decorative arts. In response, the MFA named a gallery in its Americas wing after him.

“He has a very good track record,’’ said Cody Hartley, the recently named director of gifts for the MFA and, before that, an assistant curator of paintings. “Multiple times he’s been out ahead of the curve, identifying areas that not only the MFA but many private collectors aren’t even aware of yet.’’

The African-American artists Axelrod collected were, in many cases, much neglected during their lives. In recent years, they have been better recognized. The Motley painting that’s part of the acquisition has been shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and Hayward Gallery in London. The Cortor pictures were shown at the Worcester Art Museum. The Delaney was recently part of an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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“This is an area that I think it’s hard to make progress in, and it’s very hard for a museum of our stature to step up to the top tier without being able to acquire a collection like this,’’ said Elliot Bostwick Davis, the chair of the museum’s Art of the Americas department.

In an interview at his Back Bay home, Axelrod talked of discovering the works of African-American artists, largely through a New York gallery owned by Michael Rosenfeld. He frowns on hearing the paintings described as African-American art. He calls these works American art.

“The fact that these artists were black or whatever didn’t make a difference,’’ he said. “They were great artists.’’

Axelrod, 64, grew up in Andover, one of several towns in which his father, Harry, built homes and hotels. He attended Phillips Academy, Yale University, and Harvard Law School. For a time, Axelrod ran a fashion company.

Years ago, Axelrod was known for being outspoken when he felt other MFA trustees were not contributing enough to the museum. But in recent years, as donors have given generously, he’s become known for his gifts of art. He also served on the museum’s Diversity Advisory Committee. In recent years, he’s recognized the MFA’s desire to add more of the artists who were in his collection.

“They would borrow pieces, and I knew it was a high priority,’’ Axelrod said. “I felt they had this great American wing, and I knew they were turning a page and wanted to collect these artists.’’

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Of his decision to not give the collection outright, Axelrod laughed.

“I have this thought that I’m at the Shaw’s and the bill is $131 and I say, ‘I have this thank-you note from the MFA.’ ’’

Today, he says, he’s largely retired, with time to wheel and deal for his latest passion: Graffiti art.

During a tour of his home, he shows off his latest spoils, works by the graffiti artists who came of age in New York City during the early 1980s. A sprawling canvas by Dondi is on the wall. A recent purchase of a David Wojnarowicz piece sits on a cabinet, waiting to be hung. And he displays a printed image of a Keith Haring work that’s not yet arrived.

As always, Axelrod has a very specific collecting focus. He won’t buy anything created after 1984, when he feels graffiti artists became commercial and legitimized.

On this day, he’s raving about Lee Quinones, one of the graffiti pioneers whom he can’t get to take his calls.

“He’s the one I’m missing,’’ Axelrod says. “He’s supposed to be, how do I say it, difficult.’’

A few years ago, his walls were covered with the works of African-American artists. Today, they display canvases by the great graffiti artists. Is this the next area the MFA will collect?

“I’m not saying the MFA will ever love graffiti art,’’ he says. “But some museum will.’’

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Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.