Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/file
With an eye for beautiful art, and an unerring sense of historical context, Fred Sharf filled his home from boyhood onward with an ever-expanding collection that in later years was displayed at places such as the Museum of Fine Arts, where he was a trustee.
“My passion is research,” he told the Globe in 2009. “I love to buy things, and then I like to research what it is I bought. Very often that puts me in a position where I know more than anybody else knows about some of this stuff.”
Mr. Sharf was 83 when he died Monday in Florida. His health had been declining since summer, and he had divided his time for many years between homes in Palm Beach, Fla., and Chestnut Hill.
Uncommon among major museum trustees — virtually unheard of, actually — Mr. Sharf curated an MFA show, the 2009 exhibition “Showa Sophistication: Japan in the 1930s,” which included works from his personal collection. He had been a graduate student in history at Harvard University in the late-1950s, and his scholarly passions for research and writing never waned as he made a fortune in the business world.
Over the years, he wrote or cowrote more than 40 art books and exhibition catalogs for various institutions, among them at least five for the MFA. He was equally generous with his resources. Mr. Sharf and his wife, Jean, have donated more than 2,700 works to the MFA, along with millions of dollars as they became stewards of Greater Boston’s arts and health care fields.
A measure of the breadth of their philanthropy is that MFA patrons are greeted at the Sharf Visitor Center, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital patients pass through the Sharf Admitting Center.
After finishing a master’s in history, Mr. Sharf worked for his family’s business, M. Sharf and Co., which was founded in 1892. While Mr. Sharf rose to lead the company, it evolved from a wholesale distributor of sporting goods to representing sports figures, primarily in hockey and women’s tennis, and became the Sharf Marketing Group.
In the early 1980s, he estimated that his company represented about 25 percent of the top women’s tennis players, and his own work involved traveling around the world. Those trips provided opportunities to study and collect art, including in Japan, whose art became a particular focus. The interests Mr. Sharf shared with his wife ranged widely, however.
“As collectors we are known for our holdings in diverse fields: American auto design drawings; American folk art; American architectural design drawings; historic manuscript diaries and letters; vintage photography; Japanese woodblock prints,” he wrote for the 50th anniversary report of his Harvard class of 1956.
And while his primary loyalty was to the MFA, he wrote that “museums, libraries, publishers, scholars, and students all make regular use of these collections, thus enriching our life.” Along with the MFA, his collections have been displayed in places such as Brigham and Women’s, Children’s Hospital, the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline, and the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach.
Mr. Sharf’s collecting tastes were expansive enough that he helped the MFA acquire more than 100 dresses by legendary designer Arnold Scaasi. He also amassed a collection of toys, transportation models, designs, and posters that were used for the 2014 MFA exhibit “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Selections from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection.” In a review, Globe critic Mark Feeney praised the show’s “playful spirit” and added that “an abundance of playfulness does not mean an absence of seriousness. Few things are as nontrivial as delight, and delight is what the silvery sleekness of a Burlington Zephyr model train, from 1934, very much offers.”
A trusted adviser to other collectors, Mr. Sharf encouraged friends to share their collections with the MFA. “Fred is the best salesman I’ve ever met for anything, especially the MFA,” Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus of the Estee Lauder Companies, told the Globe in 2009. Several years earlier, Lauder gave the MFA 20,000 Japanese postcards. “When it comes to passion, there’s no one who has passion quite like Fred.”
The older of two siblings, Frederic Alan Sharf was born in Boston, the son of Hirsh Sharf and the former Nanette Gutman. His father had taken over the family business from Mr. Sharf’s grandfather.
In interviews, he recalled that while growing up in Chestnut Hill, his mother took him to shops, and he purchased his first painting in the mid-1940s. An Ipswich antique store sold him that landscape for $11.
He graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover, and after finishing his undergraduate studies at Harvard College, he spent the summer in Europe as a guide for a travel company before returning to Harvard for his master’s. Though he subsequently joined the family business, he kept collecting art on trips to places such as Mexico, and he published articles in art magazines and historical journals.
In 1961, he married Jean Strouse, and they had a daughter, Lisa. “Each has added great pleasure to my life,” he wrote in 1966. The family traveled together as Mr. Sharf and his wife “continued to expand our collection of 19th century American paintings.”
His family joined him in his far-reaching enthusiasms. “My business interest, my artistic interests, my charitable involvements, my love of travel, and my instinct for collecting — I have lived all of these to the fullest, while involving my small family in each aspect,” he wrote in the 25th anniversary report of his Harvard class.
As his career became centered on professional athletes, he worked with physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital in the burgeoning field of sports medicine. In 1997, while preparing to leave for a trip to Japan, Mr. Sharf tripped on a sidewalk and the resulting shoulder injury was treated at Brigham and Women’s. That led Mr. Sharf and his wife to donate funds for the admitting center, and they remained involved by displaying their art in areas where patients sat.
“He was truly an extraordinary spirit, very magical about his interests,” said Bruce Beal, a lifelong friend who is chairman of the property development company Related Beal. “He was inventive in his writing. He was extraordinary in his diligence in collecting those things he was interested in. Fred was deeply interested and committed to history, to art. He was a true renaissance man.”
In addition to his wife, Jean, Mr. Sharf leaves their daughter, Lisa Sharf Green of New York City; his sister, Nancy Kingson of New York City; and two grandchildren.
The family plans to hold a private service and will announce a public service at a later date.
In retirement, Mr. Sharf remained “fully engaged in collecting, researching, writing, organizing exhibitions, and giving away my money,” he wrote in 2011.
For many years, the headquarters for that constant activity was the basement of his Chestnut Hill home, which he converted into a space to display items, work on scholarly research, and make plans for where he could donate his art.
“He makes a collection and then gives it away,” his wife told the Globe in 2009. “He’s very project oriented. He’s come home at night after being out and starts typing away.”
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