Henry Buhl, an 89-year-old collector, is a man with a very specific taste in art. His large art collection at his expansive, multi-million dollar SoHo loft in New York encompasses hundreds of artworks that have one unifying element: they all depict hands. Buhl’s hand-themed collection, which includes sculptures by Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, and Fernando Botero, is now for sale, and so is his 8,500 square-foot loft on Greene Street, which is on the market for $19 million.
After a handshake, Buhl gave Hyperallergic a tour into his hand-filled loft. Next to the entrance is a luminous work by Alvin Booth, protruding scores of little white hands from a backlit rectangle on the wall. On a stand nearby there’s a Bruce Nauman bronze of a pair of hands delicately touching each other by the fingertips. Farther into this museum-like loft, a rare Picasso sculpture (one of two Picassos in the collection) made from varnished plaster lies inside a protective glass box.
The lavish apartment is full of hidden gems, intermingling with Buhl’s bric-a-brac and personal items. A little Auguste Rodin hand sculpture hides between family photos on a shelf. “That’s a bad Rodin,” Buhl told Hyperallergic, explaining that the piece was cast in the artist’s studio in 1965, many years after his death in 1917. “I’ve got a better one,” the collector said about another, admittedly better looking, Rodin statue that was made by the artist himself in 1910.
Buhl’s fascination with hand art started almost by coincidence when in 1993 he was advised to buy a 1920 Alfred Stieglitz photograph of the hands of painter Georgia O’Keeffe, who later became the artist’s wife. Buhl bought the photograph for $75,000. A few days later, a different edition of the photograph sold for $399,000 at a Christie’s auction, more than quintupling the value of his new purchase (Buhl knew about the upcoming auction, but he didn’t sell the photograph until almost 20 years later). Seeing that investment pay off so quickly, he started acquiring more photographs of hands until he accumulated more than 1,000 works by leading artists including Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Rauschenberg, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and others. In 2004, Buhl’s photographic collection became the subject of the Guggenheim exhibition Speaking with Hands: Photographs from the Buhl Collection. And in 2012, Buhl sold about 400 photographs of hands from this collection at a Sotheby’s sale for a total of about $13 million, which he donated to charity.
“We’ve decided to put together the history of photography through the media of hands,” said Buhl, referring to himself and Marianne Courville, an art advisor who helped him build his collection. “We had every artist you can imagine,” he continued while leafing through a catalog of the 2004 Guggenheim exhibition, which features a photograph of one of his hands on its cover. He was sitting on a renaissance-style couch flanked by two Man Ray sculptures. Behind him a tall Ben Jackober hand, and in front of him a table designed by Do-Ho Suh which features hundreds of small human figurines lifting a glass surface. On top of it, Bauhl has stacked a few other hand sculptures but different artists, some more famous than others.
Speaking with Buhl, Hyperallergic tried to understand the source of his dogged fascination with hand-themed art beyond just an opportune beginning. Does he examine people’s hands when he meets them for the first time? Buhl replied with an indifferent, “No.” Do hands hold some therapeutic value in his opinion? “No,” Buhl said again. Does he feel lonely living by himself in this big house at his age? “No!” Is he thinking about death? “No!” Is he contemplating his legacy after his death? Well, maybe.
Buhl wouldn’t say that himself, for it would defy his stoic style, but something that his real-estate agent Victoria Vicuna said may have disclosed that as a consideration. “This is an art magazine,” she said, introducing Hyperallergic to the elderly collector, who wasn’t aware of the publication. “You’re going to finally get the recognition you deserve,” she said. Buhl replied with a quiet nod.
Born to a wealthy Detroit family, Buhl started his career as a stock analyst and institutional salesman on Wall Street in the 1950s. In 1961, he moved to Geneva to manage mutual funds for the Investors Overseas Services, a company that was dissolved a decade later after its managers were sued for defrauding clients and “spiriting away” $224 million in mutual funds. In 1972, he returned to the United States and continued working in investment banking until 1980, when he decided on a radical career change and became a high-society wedding photographer. At one point, his business employed 12 photographers and sprawled over three studios in SoHo, one of which later became his current home on Greene Street.
Now, Buhl devotes his time to a nonprofit he founded, the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless. He rejects the term philanthropy, although it is often used to describe his project. “It’s not philanthropy,” he said. “It’s work.”
Earlier this year Buhl sold a house in the Hamptons which was completely and utterly sunflower-themed. The art, rugs, furniture, rugs, chandeliers, sheets, and even the cutlery were all sunflower-themed. In addition, Buhl planted 40,000 sunflowers on a field at the Southampton estate.
Vicuna, who was in between calls from potential buyers, told Hyperallergic that the agency is hoping to sell the loft together with the art, but the chances for that are slim. If not sold, the artworks in the loft will join 400 other pieces that Buhl stores in a warehouse in New Jersey.
In another room of the house, between the living room and his office, Buhl created a “sculpture garden” carpeted with astroturf and decorated with potted plants, a fountain, and more hand artworks. It is there that Buhl shows the more contemporary works in his collection. Zhang Huan’s 10-feet-long “Buddha’s Finger” (2006) rests on the floor at the center of the room. The Chinese artist’s finger sculpture was made in protest against the destruction of cultural and religious assets in Tibet. Also in the “garden” are a chubby hand sculpture by Botero; Tom Otterness’s “Three Evils” (2002); a replica of Micheal Jackson’s iconic sequined glove; a hand-shaped chair; a hand-shaped bench; two tables held by hands; and many more.
But now, Buhl is calling it quits. “I’m downsizing,” he said, adding that he’ll be moving to a two-bedroom down the street. When asked if he’s planning to take his hand collection with him, he said, “What am I going to do with all of this?”