The Quinn collection

Worcester native becomes curator for late actor’s extensive art holdings

By Pamela H. Sacks
TELEGRAM & GAZETTE

2005

BRISTOL, R.I. – When Benjamin Bergenholtz was a student at Roger Williams University, he used to see the actor Anthony Quinn around town.

Mr. Bergenholtz knew that Mr. Quinn was a celebrity, but he was not really familiar with the actor’s movies. “And I had no idea about his art collection,” Mr. Bergenholtz, 26, said.

The late Mr. Quinn not only was an avid art collector, he was a painter and sculptor in his own right. In interviews, he would say he considered himself an artist first, then an art collector, and finally an actor.

As it happened, Mr. Bergenholtz was destined to become a good deal more familiar with Mr. Quinn, who won Oscars for supporting roles in “Viva Zapata!” and “Lust for Life” and became permanently identified with the title role of the earthy peasant in the 1964 film, “Zorba the Greek.”

Last spring, Mr. Bergenholtz, a historical preservationist, got a call from a former professor inquiring whether he might be interested in cataloging an art collection for a local resident. His curiosity piqued, Mr. Bergenholtz drove to Bristol from Worcester, where he was the curator of the Salisbury Mansion, which is owned and operated by the Worcester Historical Museum.

The actor’s widow, Katherine Quinn, ushered him into her sprawling hilltop home on a peninsula overlooking Narragansett Bay to the east and Mt. Hope Bay to the west. Mr. Quinn had purchased the 25-acre estate in 1995, seeking a place to bring together and display his extensive collection. He lived on the estate with his wife and their two young children, Antonia and Ryan, until his death in 2001, at the age of 86.

Mrs. Quinn gave Mr. Bergenholtz a tour of all 14 rooms. It proved to be much like a visit to a museum. Paintings and sculpture by Renoir, Henry Moore, Sir Jacob Epstein, Jean Jansem, Josef Herman and many other renowned artists were placed near rows of ancient Roman statuary, pre-Columbian artifacts, African masks and portraits painted of Mr. Quinn throughout his long career.

“It was overwhelming, the volume of art and the documentation that went along with the pieces – letters of correspondence and all sorts of papers,” Mr. Bergenholtz recalled on a recent day, still sounding a bit flabbergasted, as he ushered a visitor past a fountain and into the foyer of the elegant single-story house, where several of Mr. Quinn’s own contemporary paintings in vivid colors are on display.

A graduate of Worcester Academy, Mr. Bergenholtz studied at the Savannah College of Art and Design and then spent a year at the Chateau de la Petite Maison in Paris. He completed his education with a double major in art history and historical preservation at Roger Williams. Thus he was well qualified when Mrs. Quinn asked him to take time out from his job in Worcester to document the collection – some 6,000 items, a third of them paintings and sculpture, the balance decorative arts objects, furniture, photographs, letters and journals.

Since her husband’s death, Mrs. Quinn had not touched a thing, not even his clothing, briefcase and other personal belongings.

“We both agreed to document everything as he left it, for historical purposes,” Mr. Bergenholtz said.

Once the documentation was completed, the next step called for creating a computerized catalog for easy access to the collection. Mrs. Quinn asked Mr. Bergenholtz to take on the task. Realizing he could no longer split his time, Mr. Bergenholtz resigned last month from his position at the Salisbury Mansion to become curator of the Anthony Quinn Collection.

In a room that once was Mr. Quinn’s studio, Mr. Bergenholtz currently spends much of his time entering digital images and all pertinent information on each piece of the collection into a computer program created for museum use. He numbers the items and then has them packed and moved to temperature- and humidity-controlled storage facilities. “It’s great to work for someone you can explain the best way to do things, and that’s the way it’s done,” Mr. Bergenholtz said.

As he moved from room to room on a warm mid-June afternoon, Mr. Bergenholtz pointed out Russian icons hanging in the master bedroom, a photograph of Mr. Quinn with the Greek royal family and a portrait of the actor John Barrymore by early Hollywood photographer John Decker. He remarked about Barrymore’s large leather-bound volumes of Shakespeare kept high on a shelf in the library.

Mr. Bergenholtz explained that it has been an exciting year for Mrs. Quinn. The art book she compiled on her husband’s collection, “Anthony Quinn’s Eye: A Lifetime of Creating and Collecting Art,” was published in October. It contains essays by three scholars in art history, poetry and literature, in which they discuss various aspects of Mr. Quinn’s artistic persona, as well as memoirs by her and actor Kirk Douglas, a longtime friend. Additionally, the first exhibition of pieces from the Quinn collection went on display at the Newport Art Museum this spring. The exhibition recently came down.

Indeed, this was a particularly busy day for Mrs. Quinn, a dark-haired, energetic woman in her early 40s, who was directing activities in the kitchen. That evening, she would host a benefit for the Providence Public Library and talk about the book, describing how she put it together. She was expecting 80 of the library’s largest contributors, and Mr. Bergenholtz would play an important role, escorting guests around the house and describing the art.

Despite the press of time, Mrs. Quinn said she was happy to take a few minutes to talk. She settled into a cream-colored sofa in her airy living room, with picture windows overlooking an expansive lawn and the bay in the distance. Behind her was sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein’s Alabaster Arms. On a nearby wall was a Jean Jansem portrait of Mr. Quinn.

“I just love having Ben around,” Mrs. Quinn said with a warm smile. “Before, it was just overwhelming. He’s doing a wonderful job and then some. He has helped with what to do with the exhibit – carrying it forward. He understands the value of the collection and appreciates it. Now, I’m looking forward to using it.”

The collection is a top priority, she said, because it was extremely important to her husband.

“He went through an ugly divorce, and he went through a lot of trouble to keep it,” Mrs. Quinn explained. “It’s important to keep it. He gave up a lot of assets and homes and property to save his art.”

Over the years, Mr. Quinn, who was married several times and had 13 children, resided in Italy, Greece, Manhattan, and Beverly Hills, among other places. The Bristol estate, which also comprises two guest houses, a greenhouse, and a pool with a pool house, was the one home where he was able to bring the entire collection together.

Mrs. Quinn remarked that people are often surprised about Mr. Quinn’s role in the art world. “They ask, `How did he create all this? When did he find time? What a wonderful energy the art has as a collection,’” she said.

Her husband loved Bristol, she said, and so does she. “It’s more down to earth,” Mrs. Quinn said. “There’s a sense of roots and family.”

The rambling main house, however, is too big for her and the children, and she has put it, along with the other buildings and 10 acres, on the market for $4.5 million. She is keeping about 15 acres and has converted a barn and stables on the property to a contemporary house with lots of windows and spectacular views. She has preserved the old stone walls from the barn as part of the walls for her living room. She will put on display certain pieces from the art collection and has selected Torso of Uma, a piece of Khmer sculpture from the 12th century, as a focal point for the living areas on the first floor.

Mrs. Quinn has not decided just what she will do with her husband’s art collection. And that’s where Mr. Bergenholtz fits in nicely. She is eager for the public to be able to see what Mr. Quinn amassed in a lifetime of collecting, and Mr. Bergenholtz is looking forward to putting together a traveling exhibition.

“I’m taking it a step at a time,” she said. “It’s very personal. I’ll be happier if it’s out there being seen as a collection. I would hope it would end up in a museum.”

As for Mr. Bergenholtz, he readily acknowledges that his new job is “the opportunity of a lifetime.”