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James Economos: A life remembered
The legendary art dealer, passed away peacefully on July 29.

SANTA FE, NM.- James Economos, the legendary art dealer, passed away peacefully on July 29 at the age of 80. His husband of 50 years, Gilbert Hampton, was at his side. Born in New York City, James studied at Columbia University. His eye for African, Oceanic, and American Indian art established him as a leader in the field and had a major impact on the development of many significant public and private collections, including the renowned collection at the St. Louis Art Museum. After living in New York and Denver, he settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he had an eponymous gallery.

From Harmer Johnson, April 2008

James Economos was born into a life of passion and business: for him, this manifest itself in a life of finding, collecting, buying and selling art. His parents, Peter and Pauline, Greek immigrants welcomed their second son into their life in 1938, in their apartment on the corner of 57th Street and Third Avenue, New York City. Surrounded by his extended family, James was raised among generations of entrepreneurs – aunts, uncles and cousins, who gathered regularly at his grandmother’s seafood restaurant down the block from his home.

A chance winter encounter in 1946, at the age of eight, created a monumental opportunity. Walking in his neighbor, James passed Mrs. Julius Carlebach shoveling snow outside her husband’s influential primitive art gallery. The well brought up young gentleman offered to help, and Mrs. Carlebach gratefully accepted, attempting to pay him when the job was done. He explained that he couldn’t “take money” from a lady, and suggested he speak with her husband. His charm and manners won the hearts of both Carlebachs, and his career began. Hired by the gallery in 1947 as a delivery boy and assistant, he found himself immersed in the captivating world of American Indian, Pre-Columbian, African and Oceanic art. Each day new objects were introduced and identified, and their meaning explained by Julius Carlebach.

It was the perfect climate in which to learn. Being one of the very few galleries devoted to selling the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, the gallery provided an environment for meeting with major artists, dealers, collectors and curators. Salvador Dali, William de Kooning, Jacques Lipschitz, Maurice Bonnefoy, Henri Kamer, Stanley Marcus, Rene d’Harnoncourt, Douglas Newton.

Years later, when Economos was in graduate school studying American Indian Art at Columbia University, Carlebach introduced him to one noteworthy client who became the pivotal connection in his professional life, Morton D. May, Board Chairman of the May Department Stores. May met James in the gallery and was convinced by him to purchase an Ashanti goldweight converted into a tie bar. After the sale was complete, May remarked that anyone who could actually convince him to buy such an article should come to work for him in sales. Economos left Columbia and accepted the job of curator for the May Company Fine Arts Department based in St. Louis. James’ eye for the fields of African, Oceanic, and American Indian art had a major impact on the development of the May collection, which later became the basis for the renowned collections in these fields at the St. Louis Art Museum.

‘Working with Julius Carlebach from a young age, I was exposed to a wide range of great Tribal art and was excited by all of it. One specific memory I have is from 1958, while working for Carlebach. He was providing the artwork for the film Bell, Book and Candle starring Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart, in which Novak’s character is a gallery director. While I was packing up the artwork, I had a visceral reaction to a Kwakiutl mask of a sea monster; I was awed and slightly terrified by it. In hindsight, it was total aesthetic arrest. That moment really kindled my desire to learn everything there was to know about Northwest Coast and Native cultures. (As it turns out, that mask was eventually acquired by Ted Coe, the former Director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City and curator of the groundbreaking exhibition of Native art entitled Sacred Circles, and is now on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
-James Economos, April 2008

From 1964 to 1968 Economos designed displays, and bought and sold large collections of African, American Indian, Pre-Columbian art and antiquities in stores across the United States, keeping the prime pieces for the May collection. Lectures, scheduled in conjunction with exhibitions, were given by experts such as Ted Coe, Frederick Dockstader, Eliot Elisofon, and Alan Sawyer.

Relationships are critical to any successful business, and Economos excelled in the arena. Lifelong friendships evolved from fundamental business relationships. His work with the Denver Art Museum introduced him to Robert Stroessner (Curator of Pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial Arts) and Norman Feder (Curator of Native American Indian Arts), individuals who enthusiastically shared their scholarship and left a profound imprint on his appreciation of the art.

In the ensuing years Economos would establish a remarkable niche for himself in the art world. He relocated to New York in the seventies to take advantage of the resurgence in interest generated by the seminal 1971 Whitney Museum exhibition, “Two Hundred Years of North American Indian Art.” This was a period of growth in the market for American Indian Art in America, and Economos was a major force in this development. Private dealing with important clients, museums and institutions, and international work in London and Mexico, offered new adventures, new friends, great finds, and amazing possibilities. His regular visits to London led to a close relationship with John Hewitt, whose appreciation for loyalty resulted in the gift of a lovely flat in Evelyn Gardens. While in England, Economos was also introduced to Robert and Lisa Sainsbury, and helped build their magnificent collection (now at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia).

During this period in London, while working in the bathroom of the Evelyn Gardens flat, a tile worker casually commented on the display of Northwest Coast art; his future father-in-law “had a collection of similar curiosities.” At that time, Patrick Brody, the owner of the collection, was the target of every major dealer and auction house in the world. Economos convinced the workman to arrange a meeting at the St. James Club, and succeeded in buying the collection, thus thwarting Christie’s attempt for a single owner sale.

Constant vigilance, energy, strategy, and the experienced eye, produced astonishingly successful deals. Throughout this period of exceptional activity Economos always kept a small but select group of objects for his own collection. A superb Hawaiian feather cape from the 11977 Hooper Collection auction at Christie’s, London, was traded to the DeMenils for a fine collection of Northwest Coast objects, including the exceptional Haida portrait mask (lot 2).

‘After all these years, I still learn something every time I look at a great object. The unique language of the Northwest Coast art when expressed by a master artist creates unparalleled drama, and captures a magical spirit. I often try to imagine the hand that created a great mask or rattle, or the ceremony in which it might have been used. It never fails to move me; it can even be transcendent.’

-James Economos

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