Art of a lifetime

Worcester man is curator for expansive Anthony Quinn Collection

By  Pamela  H.  Sacks



Were he alive today, actor Anthony Quinn would most likely be delighted at the synergy his art collection has created between his wife, Katherine Quinn, and Benjamin Bergenholtz, a historical preservationist who has spent much of his life in Worcester.

Quinn, who won Oscars for his roles in “Viva Zapata!” and “Lust for Life,” was an artist as well as an avid collector. In the foreword to the sumptuous art book “Anthony Quinn’s Eye,” Mrs. Quinn recalled that her husband was full of curiosity and had a hunger for knowledge and discovery. “Being around Tony, one couldn’t help but be energized, feeling that anything was possible,” she wrote.

Three years ago, Bergenholtz arrived at the Quinn estate in Bristol, R.I., to catalog what the actor had amassed over a lifetime. He quickly sensed the energy and passion the actor’s wife describes. Bergenholtz was astonished to find room after room of great artwork – some 3,000 pieces, among them works by Renoir, Henry Moore, Sir Jacob Epstein and Jean Jansem. He discovered a library of 10,000 volumes and encountered paintings, sketchbooks and sculptures by Quinn, along with correspondence, journals, photographs and other archival materials. Nothing had been touched since Quinn’s death in 2001.

“He collected broadly and with a good eye,” Bergenholtz said. “He would go and film in exotic locations and seek out galleries and places to purchase art. Quinn was in these places for months and had a unique opportunity to become familiar with the local culture.”

Mrs. Quinn watched as Bergenholtz grasped the significance of the collection. “When the initial project was finished, I loved his passion and connection to the work,” she said. “I had seen him grow and recognize the potential of the collection and what it does to people.”

She invited Bergenholtz to become the curator of the Anthony Quinn Collection. It was an invitation he could not resist. “Katherine could keep the collection under lock and key, but she’s all about sharing it with the world,” Bergenholtz said.

Bergenholtz has taken the lead in mounting two exhibitions now on tour and is working on a third, a retrospective of Quinn’s work that will open in the winter at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, Calif.

The initial display, “Anthony Quinn’s Eye: A Lifetime of Creating and Collecting Art,” has made stops at museums in Kentucky, Florida and Texas and is now in Louisiana. “It’s received positive press everywhere,” Bergenholtz said. “Visitation rates go up 75 percent, partly because of the name recognition.” Another exhibition, “Monumental Works,” features sculptures by Quinn. It has been in Providence and Boston and will go to Qatar and Dubai.

On a spring day, Bergenholtz, clad in black, sipped coffee and chatted about his work while seated in the elegant living room of his parents’ English Tudor house on Chiltern Hill Road on Worcester’s West Side. He resides in an 18th-century house on Plantation Street that is believed to be the oldest in the city. He and his parents, Thomas and Marianne Bergenholtz, bought and restored the house 10 years ago. “I love to entertain there,” he said. “It’s a nice little nest to have in Worcester.” The family also owns a historic cottage in Bristol, not far from the Quinn estate, where Ben spends his summers. Another house in the lakes region of New Hampshire serves as a family ski retreat.

The worlds of art and history have long been the dominant forces in the 29-year-old curator’s life. He studied at both the Chateau de la Petite Maison in Paris and the Savannah College of Art and Design, then completed his education in art history and historical preservation at Roger Williams University. The Bergenholtz family, which includes Ben’s younger brother, Nate, often visits Paris to soak up the cultural riches.

A 1996 graduate of Worcester Academy, Bergenholtz sits on the school’s Board of Visitors, an advisory panel to the Board of Trustees; additionally, he has played a key role in the formation of an Arts Task Force. Headmaster Dexter P. Morse credits the task force with helping to enrich the school’s offerings in theater and the arts. “It’s great to have an alumnus as young as Ben who is so active and involved,” Morse said.

Bergenholtz recently joined the Algonquin Club of Boston and is busy documenting its extensive art collection and archival materials. What remains of his free time is dedicated to collecting furniture and paintings in the Boston Classical period, which lasted from 1810 to 1830. He pointed to a sofa covered in cream-colored fabric that now graces his parents’ living room. He acquired it at an auction at Skinner in Bolton. “It went to a conservator in Connecticut,” he explained, “and then to an upholsterer who does historical pieces.”

As he cataloged the Quinn collection, Bergenholtz realized that there was a methodology to the actor’s eclectic acquisitions, which ranged from African masks to decorative eggs to Impressionist paintings. The art has never before been shown, and Bergenholtz embarked on research worldwide to track down documentation and detailed information about the circumstances in which Quinn made his selections or created his artwork.

For her part, Mrs. Quinn prefers not to choose what pieces to put on public display. “I don’t want to make it too personal,” she said.

When not overseeing the development of an exhibition, Bergenholtz wears another hat: He is executive director of the Anthony Quinn Foundation, which will award scholarships and grants to those studying for a career in the arts and develop the Anthony Quinn Foundation Research Center to make available the collection’s archival materials.

“Certain things are meant to be,” Mrs. Quinn said. “It’s how I met my husband. Ben is so suited to this.”