The Kaufman Collection: The pursuit of excellence and a gift to the nation

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts

Photography by Gavin Ashworth | from The Magazine ANTIQUES, May/June 2012 |

In my catalogue of friends, mentors, scholars, and collectors, Linda H. and the late George M. Kaufman fill all the roles. From my earliest acquaintance with them in 1974, I have been in awe of their collection and of their indefatigable focus on beauty and excellence in their Norfolk, Virginia, home. I cannot count the number of times I heard George exclaim, “isn’t that the greatest”- whether it was an extraordinary tulip or rose, an exceptional Massachusetts marble-top table, or his very own homemade brownies. As generous donors and supporters of American arts and scholarship, the Kaufmans have left an indelible mark on this field.

  • The focal point of the dining room is the elaborately inlaid New York sideboard, c. 1793-1795, labeled by William Mills and Simeon Deming, and made for either Oliver Wolcott (1726-1797) or his son Oliver Wolcott Jr. (1760-1833), both of whom served as governors of Connecticut. The Dutch floral still life, c. 1645, over the sideboard is by Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-1683/84). The Baltimore marble-top sideboard table on the left, c. 1795-1810, is from a group attributed to Levin Tarr (1772-1821)and identified primarily by distinctive bellflower inlay. The set of four side and two armchairs around the table is from NewYork, c. 1785-1800.


    Photgraphy by Gavin Ashworth

  • The vista looking from the dining room through the front hallway and the living room to the gallery highlights the cohesive nature of the architecture through a series of arches repeated from the original structure to the newer addition.

    Photgraphy by Gavin Ashworth

  • Tucked into a space that overlooks the lawn and waterfront is a symmetrical ensemble of a Massachusetts veneered high chest, c. 1735-1745, and a pair of Philadelphia Queen Anne side chairs, c. 1735-1750. The brass chandelier is seventeenth-century Dutch; the five piece Chinese Imari porcelain garniture was once in the collection of Augustus II (1670-1733), elector of Saxony and king of Poland.

    Photgraphy by Gavin Ashworth


  • One of the glories of the classical painted furniture in the collection is a rosewood grained Baltimore Grecian couch, c. 1810-1830, with gilded stenciled decoration. Complementing this southern object in the garden hallway is an exceptional Boston classical worktable of highly figured rosewood, c. 1815-1825.

    Photgraphy by Gavin Ashworth

  • The rarest and most commanding piece in the collection is this monumental Philadelphia desk-and-bookcase, c. 1755-1765, inspired by plate 78 in the 1754 edition of Thomas Chippendale’s ‘Gentleman and Cabinetmaker’s Director.’ The carved mahogany portrait bust in the pediment has been identified as Catharine Macaulay (1731-1791), an English historian who wrote the eight-volume History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line (1763-1791), and also toured America giving speeches before the Revolutionary War. To the right of the desk-and-bookcase is one of two of seven known side chairs made by Thomas Affleck (1740-1795) c. 1770-1771 for John and Elizabeth Cadwalader’s house on Second Street in Philadelphia.

    Photgraphy by Gavin Ashworth

From their early years of collecting in the late 1950s, they focused on acquisitions of the highest quality, learning from curators, professors, and dealers-among them Charles F. Montgomery, Morrison H. Heckscher, Patricia E. Kane, and Harold and Albert Sack. They first met Montgomery at Winterthur and later, when he was at Yale, he became a friend and mentor. George was a founding chairman of the Friends of American Arts at Yale, and Linda fondly recalls how much they learned during Montgomery’s workshops there. He fostered their interest in furniture, and inspired George’s love of English brass, which resulted in a stellar collection of rare forms. The Kaufmans’ passion for American arts has involved them with many institutions, to which they have given generously of their collection, as well as of their time and talents, serving on innumerable boards and committees. In 1977 they established the Kaufman Americana Foundation, which has supported collection catalogues, special exhibition publications, acquisitions, and scholarly research at numerous museums. Their generosity has not been limited to the arts, for in 1997-following George’s successful heart transplant in 1995-they founded and endowed the Kaufman Center for Heart Failure at the Cleveland Clinic.

In 1986, after almost three decades of extraordinary collecting, an exhibition of the Kaufmans’ American furniture was presented at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., accompanied by a superb publication that won an Award of Distinction in the 1987 American Association of Museums Publications Competition.1  The Kaufmans became aware that the nation’s capital offered little opportunity for those interested in American decorative arts to experience and learn about eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century American furniture-except through special tours at the Diplomatic Reception Rooms and the White House. Certainly, none of the museums in Washington had a collection equal to theirs. Inspired by the success of the 1986 exhibition, they embraced the idea of giving the collection to the nation. Though George died in November 2001, he would be thrilled that this longtime desire will come to fruition on October 7, 2012, when more than 120 pieces of exceptional American furniture and related arts from the Kaufman Collection will go on permanent view at the National Gallery of Art.and mentor. George was a founding chairman of the Friends of American Arts at Yale, and Linda fondly recalls how much they learned during Montgomery’s workshops there. He fostered their interest in furniture, and inspired George’s love of English brass, which resulted in a stellar collection of rare forms. The Kaufmans’ passion for American arts has involved them with many institutions, to which they have given generously of their time and talents, serving on innumerable boards and committees. In 1977 they established the Kaufman Americana Foundation, which has supported collection catalogues, special exhibition publications, acquisitions, and scholarly research at numerous museums. Their generosity has not been limited to the arts, for in 1997 – following George’s successful heart transplant in 1995- they founded and endowed the Kaufman Center for Heart Failure at the Cleveland Clinic.

How did a young couple, natives of Norfolk, come to assemble such an extraordinary collection?  Certainly, it sprang in part from Linda’s having grown up with American furniture, superb Worcester porcelain, and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century maps of the new world collected by her parents, Elise and Henry Clay Hofheimer II. With amusement she recalls that her family wanted to visit Winterthur shortly after it opened in 1951: she was barely a teenager and children were not admitted then, so her mother dressed her in stockings, high heels, lipstick, and earrings, and Linda tottered around the museum for her first lesson in American antiques. In 1952 she and her two sisters accompanied their parents to the first ever exhibition of southern furniture, held at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. So it is not surprising that when the Kaufmans married in 1958 they acquired a few American antiques. Their first purchase was a Massachusetts Queen Anne high chest that George bought at Israel Sack when he stepped into the shop to get out of the rain. By the early 1970s they were focused on acquiring objects of great quality and beauty, and they delighted in living with, learning from, and sharing their collection with others. The circa 1915 house they bought soon after their marriage has been enlarged twice; first, about 1962, to accommodate their family of two active children, Claire and Ted, and again in 1991 to create more space, especially an extraordinary light-filled gallery, for their collection.

Their interest in collecting Dutch paintings began in the early 1980s when Ted took a course called “Rembrandt and his Friends” in college, and the family traveled to Europe to study the Old Masters. About the same time they became intensely interested in gardens, focusing first on the numerous varieties of daffodils and tulips (large boxes of which George would FedEx to friends in the North), and eventually creating a landscape with seasonal gardens, so that there is almost always something in bloom. They always had an interest in orchids as well; Linda grew the ones in the photographs shown here.

Their delight in the quest for the important and the beautiful was summed up by Linda in January 2002 on accepting the tenth Henry Francis du Pont Award for Decorative Arts and Architecture:  “Collecting was such fun for us. We never played golf or tennis, never had a boat, rarely traveled except to New York for auctions-we just loved chasing old wood.”2 In 2008 when she received the Collector of the Year award from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, she further noted, “we bought things because we thought that they were beautiful- and most often it was love at first sight. We made quick decisions often-but always out of passion!”

The breadth and depth of their collection is impressive, with significant collections within the collection. Among their holdings of Philadelphia Queen Anne and rococo furniture, for example, are a highly architectural desk-and-bookcase and exceptional side chairs (see Fig. 4), one of the finest Philadelphia card tables (Fig. 5), and the important Gratz family tea table (Fig. 1). RhodeIsland cabinetmakers, who produced some of the most innovative and skillfully executed objects in the second half of the eighteenth century, are represented by a rare tea table attributed to John Townsend and a related card table, as well as by two block-and-shell case pieces-a chest-on-chest and a  bureau table (see Figs. 6, 9). 3

Outstanding Boston and mid-Atlantic Federal furniture became the theme for the Kaufmans’ formal living room (Figs. 12,13). Particularly significant are several pieces by or attributed to John and Thomas Seymour, including a tambour desk, a nest of quartetto tables, a unique gaming table made for backgammon and chess, a later gaming table with a marble checkerboard top, and a card table bearing the label of John Seymour and Son.4 Also in this room are a towering Philadelphia cylinder desk-and-bookcase and a stunning satinwood card table of 1807 recently identified as the work of Robert McGuffin through a heretofore unnoticed signature and date (see Fig. 12).5

In more recent years they acquired later classical pieces, several with extraordinary imported sample marble tops, and others colorfully painted or grained and ornamented with gilded decoration in imitation of ormolu mounts (see Fig.  8). Their acquisition of distinguished southern furniture grew as greater knowledge of the major style centers of the South emerged and rare and important pieces came to light, including a Williamsburg tea table, and two Charleston pieces-a brilliantly inlaid Pembroke table and an impressive clothespress. To complement this furniture the Kaufmans were drawn to various other types of objects, including Chinese export and French and American porcelain. Although American glass is not one of their particular interests, they simply could not pass up a rare 1792 tumbler engraved with the Great Seal of the United States and made at the Frederick, Maryland, glasshouse of German émigré John Frederick Amelung.

Through their decades of collecting, the Kaufmans have had many wonderful experiences and made exciting discoveries. I recall particularly when they were considering an absolutely pristine and untouched claw-and-ball-foot Massachusetts marble-top table in the late 1990s. It just seemed too good to be old. George called and asked me if they could have the frame brought to Winterthur for examination. Soon it arrived-for less than twenty-four hours. As various colleagues and I scrutinized it, finding nothing damning, I noticed a small old red-edged gummed label with just one word on it-“Sever.”  The name sounded familiar, and I remembered that Winterthur’s turret-top tea table had descended in the Sever family. I hurried back to my office and pulled a research folder I had been compiling on our table. In it I found a copy of a 1947 article in Antiques about the William Sever house in Kingston, Massachusetts. There, in a photograph of the front hall taken about 1900, the marble-top table was just partially visible, but identifiable. I later learned that the Sever house had descended in the family-with numerous original furnishings in situuntil the property and contents were auctioned about 1950.6  At that time some pieces remained with descendants (like Winterthur’s tea table), while others found their way into private collections. The Sacks had bought this marble-top table and it went directly into the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell Taradash. No wonder it was in such pristine condition, it had only been “relocated” once in its life. Mystery solved-table validated-and what a wonderful acquisition. So one of Linda’s remarks was once again true: “I love the chase, the comparisons, the research. I think I was a detective in another life.”

1 J. Michael Flanigan, et al., American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C, 1986). 2 This award was established by the Winterthur board of trustees to recognize those “who have contributed significantly to the understanding and enjoyment of America’s heritage through collecting, conserving, studying, or promoting the American arts.” 3 For the tea table see Morrison H. Heckscher, John Townsend, Newport Cabinetmaker (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Yale University Press, New Haven, 2005), pp. 88-89. 4 For these pieces see Robert D. Mussey Jr., The Furniture Masterworks of John and Thomas Seymour (Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass., 2003), pp. 150-151, 340-341, 366-367, 368-369, 370-371. 5 Clark Pearce, Merri Lou Schaumann, Cathy Ebert, “Introducing Robert McGuffin: Henry Connelly’s Apprentice Extraordinaire,” Antiques and Fine Arts, Spring 2012. 6 Brock Jobe, et al., Harbor and Home: Furniture of Southeastern Massachusetts, 1710-1850 (University Press of New England, Hanover, N. H., 2009), pp. 6-7.

WENDY A. COOPER is the Lois F. and Henry S. McNeil Senior Curator of Furniture, Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library.


When I joined the curatorial team at the Chrysler Museum in October 2011, southern hospitality greeted me from every corner of the Norfolk community.  This warm welcome actually began several months earlier with a phone call from a woman who humbly identified herself as a longtime museum volunteer: Linda Kaufman. As I thanked Mrs. Kaufman for her congratulatory wishes and offers of advice on my impending relocation to Virginia, I had little idea of the vast extent of her “volunteer” work and the ways in which her passion for art have transformed the Chrysler and many other institutions. That simple phone call demonstrated a facet of her leadership and generosity that cannot be quantified: countless small gestures and genuine personal exchanges to encourage young scholars and to make the newest members of the Chrysler’s staff feel welcomed and valued.    

Crawford Alexander Mann III

Brock Curator of American Art, Chrysler Museum of Art 

Linda Kaufman is, in a word, indefatigable. She is tireless in her efforts to bring together lovers of American furniture, patrons of arts institutions, students of the decorative arts, scholars, and connoisseurs from across the globe. Her greatest pleasures are to be found in introducing new friends to old friends; in introducing enthusiastic travelers to new places; and, it must be said, in finding a new piece of Blue John. Linda’s dedication to the decorative arts, and to the people who love them, is only surpassed by her legendary dedication to her late husband, George. They were a couple who devoted their lives to their family, to scholarship, to philanthropy, and to beauty in all of its variations. To be a guest at their elegant home was to enter an era of long-gone graciousness, with fresh-cut daffodils from the garden on the breakfast room table, George, in his dressing gown, reading the morning papers, and Linda on the phone, ordering fresh crabmeat for the evening’s guests. Indeed, an extraordinary couple. 

Barbara and Ted Alfond

Friends and fellow collectors

Linda Kaufman is passionate with the energy level of five people. Nevertheless, the seventeenth-century Dutch paintings she and George collected are serene. They at once complement their great American furniture and reinforce the ambiance of their light-filled home, where windows offer stunning views onto a garden landscape that extends to the water’s edge and the sky above. Over the years Linda has been particularly attracted to Dutch flower still lifes and trompe l’oeil paintings, but landscapes, not surprisingly, are at the collection’s core. She and George were both drawn to their  depiction of the interrelationships between land and water so characteristic of the Netherlands-and, one might add, of Tidewater Virginia. 


Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

Curator of Northern Baroque Paintings, National Gallery of Art

The Kaufmans’ encyclopedic collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American masterworks of cabinetmaking is an extraordinary gift to the nation. Seeing it in situ with their collection of Dutch paintings makes a sublime kind of sense. The paintings, which originally belonged to the merchant elite of that country, are a beautiful fit with the furniture made for the merchant elite of this country.  

John A. Hays

Deputy Chairman,Christie’s America

I will never forget the first time I met George and Linda Kaufman. I had barely started at the Metropolitan, in 1979 or 1980, when I was introduced to George at a reception held at the home of a prominent New York collector.  George, in his usual gregarious way, asked what I was doing in the American Wing. When I replied that I was working with the ceramics and glass collection there, he rejoined with a grin that he and Linda owned one piece of American glass and one piece of American ceramics. When he told me the glass was by Amelung and the porcelain by Bonnin and Morris, I nearly fainted, for they were quite simply the rarest of early American glass and ceramics. In fact, the Amelung was none other than the capacious tumbler signed and dated 1792 and engraved with the Great Seal of the United States that has been described as “the most resplendently nationalistic of all of Amelung’s known glasses.” The Bonnin and Morris was the openwork basket with the unique decoration of a landscape in underglaze blue, which the Kaufmans loaned to the Metropolitan in 1989, where it remains today. Their collecting zeal saw the addition of three additional examples of Bonnin and Morris porcelain, all shell pickle stands. To own four pieces of Bonnin and Morris porcelain as a private collector is a remarkable achievement.  Such holdings are testament to George and Linda’s dedication as collectors. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to have been close to them both.

Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen
Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang
Curator of American Decorative Arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The first time I met George and Linda Kaufman–examiining the mate to their Seymour card table at a Sotheby’s preview–I was struck by their natural warmth.  Several years later, I cam to know it first hand.

In July 2001, newly ensconced at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and responsible for overseeing early American ceramics, I was asked by my colleague Luke Beckerdite to document that Philadelphia merchant John Cadwalader had used a crest with the coat of arms of his wife, Elizabeth Lloyd, and the cipher “JEC.”  I verified several instances in my thesis research on the Lloyd family-and was thrilled when Luke told me that the heraldry was emblazoned on two pickle stands made in December 1770 at Bonnin and Morris’s American China Manufactory in Philadelphia. 

George and Linda had become aware of the pickle stands in the 1980s. For almost twenty years, they had gently reminded the owner of their abiding interest in the charming 5 ½-inch-high ceramic dishes. And finally, in July 2001, he agreed to sell them. Linda flew to New York and Luke and dealers Gary and Diana Stradling went with her to authenticate them. She brought them home to a delighted George.

That October, while on a Decorative Arts Trust trip to Norfolk with Jenifer Kindig, Linda sought us out while we were visiting the Chrysler Museum. She invited us to join her and George and a small group at the house that evening. At the house George beamed. He listened as we all oooh-ed and aaah-ed, and he spoke about each work of art in his collection as knowledgeably as the best curator and as proudly as he did about his children and grandchildren. At one point I was asked if I had to use the powder room. I politely declined, but was promptly told, no, I did have to use the powder room! I dutifully scurried off. There on the vanity stood the Cadwaladers’ pickle stands. The Kaufmans always acknowledged my part in verifying the decoration, and my private interlude with those rarefied treasures was their “thank you” to me. Less than a week later, George passed away. He never let on how sick he was that evening. He was a pillar in our field as a collector and as a supporter of students, museum collections, and scholarly pursuits, and Linda continues his legacy. The gift of their collection to the National Gallery of Art puts American furniture and ceramics at center stage for the millions of people that all of us in American decorative arts aspire to reach.

Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley

Montgomery-Garvan Associate
Curator of American Decorative Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art