May 2008 | Nothing is more exciting to a passionate connoisseur—even a seasoned expert who has helped redefine his chosen specialty—than discovering an elusive object he’d despaired of ever finding, let alone being able to own. But when that rare opportunity presented itself last fall to the New York–based modern design aficionado John C. Waddell, he—true to form—acted fast and won one of the top prizes of his distinguished collecting career: a long-lost wooden dining chair made in 1927–1928 to the designs of Kem Weber, one of the underappreciated giants of American design and a pivotal figure in the transmission of modernism from Europe to the United States.
Waddell, now retired after decades as chairman of an electronics company, is devoting his still-undiminished energies to the third great twentieth-century collection he’s assembled—the first two of which are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Two decades ago, the Metropolitan acquired his pathbreaking 500-work survey of modernist photography, subject of a traveling exhibition and catalog, The New Vision: Photography Between the World Wars. Waddell’s holdings gave the Met instant credibility in a medium previously ruled by the Museum of Modern Art. He then moved on to create another seminal overview, of industrial design made in this country during the same period as the photography he had collected. Acquired by the Met in 2000 and memorialized in another show and publication, American Modern, 1925-1940: Design for a New Age had an even more profound effect on how its subject matter was viewed.
Given Waddell’s reputation as being one of the handful of today’s most discerning experts in his field, he is often approached by dealers with prime material fresh to the market. Rarely are these great bargains. “Things have to get to a certain price level before they’re offered to me,” he says with a resigned smile, and notes that only seldom is he contacted by antiques pickers who try to circumvent dealers. “The smart pickers are afraid to endanger their bread and butter relationships by coming directly to me,” explains Waddell, no stranger to skullduggery, having worked as a young man for the CIA during the Kennedy Administration. “And the few who try to cut out the dealers want me to swear secrecy, knowing that if word ever got out they’d be dead in the trade.”
Landing his latest treasure had less to do with undercover intrigue than Waddell’s diligent collecting ethic, which includes keeping a sharp eye on publications, both new and historical, as well as punctuality. For years there have been complaints about the alleged declining quality of New York’s pre-eminent twentieth-century decorative arts fair, Sanford Smith’s Modernism, held each November at Manhattan’s Seventh Regiment Armory. Some have noted the fair’s growing number of photography dealers as well as the absence of certain important galleries, but Waddell considers Modernism’s opening night an essential event.