Artful legacy

Bill and Terry Vose were not encouraged to take over the Boston gallery their family had run for 150 years. Today they're two of the country's leading private dealers.

By Stephen J. Simurda

When your family's been selling paintings for five generations, longer than anyone else in the country, you're bound to have heard some pretty good stories.

There's the time in 1938 when Robert C. Vose Jr., while bringing an exhibition slowly across the country to revive lagging sales, found himself in Houston, working out of a borrowed office at the Museum of Fine Arts. One afternoon, Robert lost track of the time and realized the museum had closed. As he opened the office door he was charged by a German Shepherd. "That's the only time I remember having left a museum by a second story window," he recalls.

Robert's favorite is the tale of the U.S. soldier leaving Italy at the end of World War II, who was enamored of an old painting hanging in an antique shop. A dealer told him the work was so valuable it would never be let across the border, and suggested painting a portrait of Mussolini over it. Once home, the soldier brought the painting to a conservator to have the Mussolini overlay removed. It came off easily, but so did the old master, obviously a fake. Underneath it all? A portrait of Mussolini.

Perhaps the best story concerns Seth M. Vose, the son of the founder, who, sometime in the 1880s, received a painting attributed to Gericault depicting a muscular, but nude, blacksmith. The prominent and proper New England art dealer felt obliged to cut the painting in half and sell only the torso. Fifty years later, Robert stumbled across the lower half of the blacksmith in a storage room, and gave it to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, which by then owned the top half and was able to patch the whole painting back together.

Despite their share of tough times over nearly 150 years, the Vose family has built an impeccable reputation for collecting and selling renowned paintings—a reputation based on the family's ability to discern quality in art and nurtured through the trust of loyal customers. Currently running the gallery on Boston's fashionable Newbury Street are Robert Jr.'s twin sons Robert C. Vose III and Abbot Williams Vose (Terry and Bill to almost everyone), along with Marcia Vose, Bill's wife, who serves as treasurer.

Among their clients are many people whose forebears first bought paintings from Seth Vose more than 100 years ago. William B. Osgood, a Boston banker and art collector who over 40 years has known three generations of the Vose family, says, "I regard them as friends more than as people with whom I do business."

"I've found them to be an extraordinary family, and to run a great art gallery," adds Tbeodore E. Stebbins Jr., curator of American paintings at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The art community views them as the gem of the Boston art world."

The family business was started by Joseph Vose, who bought a nine-year-old art store in Providence, Rhode Island, in the late1840s. It was not long before he began selling paintings, together with his son, Seth.

In subsequent decades, Seth and his son, Robert, ran a successful gallery in Providence, handling French and American painters such as Corot, Millet, Inness, and Bierstadt. In the 1880s, the Voses expanded, and by 1923 had decided to move everything to Boston. Business was booming and the family took over a new gallery built especially for them on Copley Square. For years, Bill says, it was the largest art gallery in the United States. But six years after the doors opened, the Depression hit and everything changed. People simply stopped buying art. Robert Vose was forced to ask his son, Robert Jr., to leave Harvard to help save the gallery. Robert Jr. and his brother S. Morton Vose II became the fourth generation to run it.

"Business was floundering," Bill Vose says. "It took 30 years to work out of the debt." That was the main reason Robert Jr. never pushed his sons into the art business.

"Up until the last generation it was just understood that each male member of the family was going into the business," says Robert Jr., 79, who remembers selling postcards in the gallery shop when he was nine years old. During the years following the Depression, Robert Jr. says he realized that "it's really a hard way to make a living," and he decided not to encourage his sons to succeed him.

Bill Vose, 48, goes a step further."We were discouraged from year one from coming into the business," he says. Sometime in the early 1960s, while Bill and Terry were in college, their father and their uncle decided to write up plans for the dissolution of the business. By the time the fraternal twins graduated, the plan seemed to be the right solution. In 1964, Bill went to work for a division of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company that ran retail stores in Connecticut and New York. Two years later he was named a store manager. "I was really moving up at a rapid rate," Bill says.

But tragedy nearly struck in 1966, just days after Bill received his promotion. He and Terry were racing around in a 150-horsepower speedboat on a small lake by the Adirondack Mountain town of Old Forge, New York. Bill ran the racing boat onto the shore, hit his head upon impact, and went unconscious. Terry, who stayed conscious, saved his brother's life by administering mouth-to-mouth rescuscitation. Bill was in a coma for four weeks and his family was told he might never awaken. It took him two years to recover from a fractured skull.

Bill lived at home during his recuperation, and as he grew stronger, started working around the gallery, mostly cleaning up old files. Although he returned to Goodyear for about a year, he decided he preferred working in the family business and returned there full-time in 1969. His father began the slow process of teaching him what he would need to know to someday run an art gallery.

"When I first started, my father told me to go through the racks, touch up the frames, and learn about the paintings," Bill says. At about this time, Terry was in Sydney working on high-rise construction projects and pondering his own future. "I realized that while I was in Australia a lot of my friends had already been in a business for three or four years, becoming experts in their fields," says Terry. He wrote his father, asking if he could come back and work in the gallery. His father's response was predictably unencouraging.

"He said, 'Well, maybe, we'll see. Why don't you come back and try it. It may work out and it may not'," Terry recalls. His father remembers that he and Morton were not quite sure how to work the twins into the gallery. "We didn't know what the heck to do with them ... a couple of untrained kids coming into the business," Robert Jr. says.

It was Bill who encouraged his brother to return, realizing the future of the gallery was in their hands. "I really needed his help," Bill says. "I couldn't do it myself." The gallery had always been designed to be operated by more than one family member. When Terry joined in the summer of 1970, there were still five Mr. Voses and two Mrs. Voses to answer the telephone. Today there's just Terry, Bill, and Marcia. In addition to serving as receptionist and treasurer, Marcia also handles advertising (in which she often includes vignettes of family history). The brothers handle all the buying and most of the selling.

As two of the leading private art dealers in the country, Bill and Terry must trust their own artistic eye, just as their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather did. If nothing else, they need to distinguish between good paintings and "buckeyes" (paintings that, while old, were done by amateurs, according to Terry).

They also need the confidence to distinguish a really fine piece of art from art that is simply respectable. Making such fine judgments when buying art can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. The brothers honed their judgment by immersing themselves in the study of art for more than 15 years while their father and uncle continued to run the gallery. They took classes at Harvard and Boston Universities to learn about American painting. "But," says Bill, "you don't really develop an eye from taking courses and seeing slides on machines. Actually seeing the paintings makes all the difference." The brothers pored over dozens of paintings every day and frequently asked their father about them. The busy nature of the gallery meant that Bill and Terry also had plenty of chances to buy and sell pieces of art long before their father retired in December 1985. "When you're actually putting your money down on something, you learn quickly," Bill says.

The long years of preparation paid off. Vose Gallery attracts a steady stream of collectors, browsers, and other gallery owners through the iron gate and three doors that guard the entrance. A talk with the brothers is often interrupted by the telephone or clients strolling in. If there is a prospective customer in the adjacent room, Terry Vose always has one ear to the conversation. Bill, a deliberate and cheerful man, gets up more than once to make sure people are well attended to. Lunch with both is out of the question: one of them must stay in the gallery at all times.

And there's no place to hide either. The eight gallery rooms in the converted brick and brownstone building, just a short walk from the financial district, are small, have no doors, and overflow with art. Vose moved in 1962, after abandoning the huge Copley Square space. Moving the gallery helped reverse its fortunes, no doubt making it much more appealing to Bill and Terry by the time they got there. With its Depression-era debt finally paid off and the business growing steadily, the gallery's financial standing was much better for them than it had been for most of their father's life.

The decision to move was not universally popular, however. Robert Vose Sr. criticized the new space as too small, but he had retired by this time. When Robert Jr. and Morton moved, they also decided to discontinue handling the work of living artists, due to the lack of space. "Besides," says Terry, "my father was just sick and tired of dealing with living artists." This decision was roundly criticized in the Boston media and to this day the area's media critics rarely attend a Vose opening.

Today, the gallery specializes in the work of deceased American painters, especially impressionists, including Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase, and John Twachtman—not exactly household names, but well known to art collectors and museum curators who will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for their work. Although it occasionally finds itself in the limelight (as it did in 1972 when the Voses sold "Cranberry Harvest" by Eastman Johnson for $400,000—at that time the highest price ever paid for an American painting), the gallery does not generally handle celebrity artists.

Andrew Wyeth, for example, is a family friend—paintings by Terry and Bill's mother, Ann P. Vose, were once exhibited with Wyeth's, when both artists' work sold for the same, modest price. "It would be easy to handle his work," says Terry, "but we have to draw the line." Though they sold some of his earlier work, they do not represent him.

It's difficult to argue with success. Terry says the gallery sold about 350 paintings in 1989, fetching from $300 to $900,000 for each. He puts annual revenues at $5 million and says that makes them the biggest gallery in Boston. In addition to collectors, Vose also deals frequently with other galleries and with some of the nation's finest museums.

The gallery was not an overnight success for Bill and Terry. Terry, unfailingly polite and somewhat more serious than his twin, says he considers the time he spent working at the gallery before his father's retirement as an apprenticeship, adding that most of it was essential. "In this business you need 10 years to really feel comfortable," Terry says, adding that they passed fairly quickly. And with the gallery open long hours, six days a week, he says, "You don't have time to sit back and reflect, 'Gee, someday this will be mine.'"

Robert Vose Jr., who spent so many years discouraging his sons from selling paintings, says their decision to take over the business has brought him unmistakable pleasure. "They've taken to it like ducks to water. It's absolutely great. I'm one of the luckiest men alive."