David Teiger, Collector and Arts Patron, Dies at 85

Alanna Heiss and David Teiger, Opening night, Kristin Baker, Surge and Shadow, Deitch Projects 18 Wooster Street, March 15, 2007, Photo credit: Kristy Leibowitz

Alanna Heiss and David Teiger at a 2007 Deitch Projects opening.


David Teiger, a New Jersey management consultant who amassed a broad collection of modern, folk, and contemporary artwork, died on Sunday of natural causes following an illness at the age of 85. His personal assistant Cabrina Potence confirmed the news by phone, noting that working with Teiger was “an education every day.”

“I learned something from him every day about life, art, story telling, laughing,” she said. “All the things he was known for.”

Teiger served on the Committee on Drawings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and became an honorary trustee there in 2004. He supported exhibitions like “The Talent Show” at MoMA PS1, and established the Teiger Mentor in the Arts Program at Cornell University. He was a “benefactor” at the New Museum and on the board of overseers at the Hammer in Los Angeles. In addition to shows at PS1, he also supported at least one exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem. He makes a memorable appearance in Sarah Thornton’s 2007 book Seven Days in the Art World. “I’m just an ordinary rich person,” he told Thornton at the time. “These young billionaires with their private jets—they’re in a different league. My ‘new money’ is now ‘old money,’ which nowadays means ‘less money.'”

Teiger, who frequently sported colorful clothes that popped against his bright white hair, had already acquired significant works by Rothko, de Kooning, and Diebenkorn when he began collecting American folk art in the early 1990s. He was particularly attracted to weathervanes, especially those in the shape of horses, and assembled an important array of those before branching into pottery and then what Frank Maresca, a Chelsea dealer who sold Teiger many significant works, called “unique masterpieces of American folk sculpture.”

The collection was the subject of Spiritually Moving: A Collection of American Folk Art Sculpture (1998). The book includes an essay by Harvey Kahn, the collector and connoisseur who introduced Teiger to collecting folk art and helped him to establish himself within that arena.

“David Teiger is the first person who has come along who has bought folk art as art,” Fred Giampietro, a New York dealer told The New York Times when the book was released. “Most approach it from the decorative standpoint. He treats it as an accepted great art.”

Teiger was known for his exacting standards of excellence, though was also reputed to be flawlessly polite and gracious.

“David was very much obsessed with perfection,” said Maresca in a phone interview. “I remember once we showed him a carving—it really was a masterpiece of American folk art—a 19th-century carving, of a horse,” recalled Maresca, who noted that Teiger was an avid equestrian. Teiger praised the carving’s virtues, but then said, “‘Frank, let me show you something. Frank, you see this foot? You see what the foot is doing here? That’s incorrect. You would never have that with a horse, and if you did have that, it would mean there was something skeletally wrong with the horse.’”

“That really bothered him, because it was not his ideal,” said Maresca.

Teiger’s fascination with anatomical perfection extended to the human physique as well. The bottom floor of his lavish house in Bernardsville, N.J., contains a gigantic gym lined with mirrored walls. “Every exercise machine known to man was in that gym,” said Maresca, who recalled Teiger handily outshining visitors 40 years his junior on the equipment. The floors throughout the house are limestone, and Teiger required visitors to wear custom-made deerskin moccasins. (Even in socks, Teiger explained, the oils from human skin would affect the color of the stone over time.)

When Maresca visited the house just after its completion, Teiger showed him the lighting system he had installed to illuminate the collection. It was the “most elaborate lighting system I have ever seen,” said Maresca. “The controls were equivalent to a lunar landing spacecraft. You’ve never seen so many wires in your life.” But there were problems, Maresca said. The lights were too close to the wall and cast problematic shadows. Teiger listened carefully—“David was an incredibly logical person,” said Maresca—and tore them all out at enormous expense, moving them a matter of inches.

Later, after Maresca and a large crew came to install the artwork throughout the house, Teiger cooked and served them an elaborate meal, setting the table himself. “He proceeded to tell us about every sip of wine, instructing us every step of the way. ‘Try it with this wine. No, You have too much on your fork. Chew that bite three times.’ It sounds like an exaggeration,” said Maresca, “but it’s really not. David’s level of perfection was not human.”

It is currently unclear what will become of Teiger’s extensive collection, which includes a wealth of video art as well as work by Jeff Koons, Jenny Saville, Dana Schutz, Neo Rauch, and Yoshitomo Nara. (He jokingly disparaged it to Thornton in her book: “I don’t know if I have a collection. I have a load of stuff.”) Maresca speculated that, due to Teiger’s “complex personal life,” it will all all come up at auction.

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