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Art Dealer Sean Kelly on Giving His Prodigious James Joyce Holdings to Morgan Library

Sean Kelly in the library of his gallery.

BEN POLSKY

A fact not widely known about contemporary art dealer Sean Kelly is that over the past 25 years he has amassed one of the largest collections of James Joyce material in private hands. Speaking with ARTnews about his Joyce holdings in 2016, he said he’d been passionate about the writer’s work since he was a teenager, when he first read Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses. “For me it’s much more about the intellectual pursuit and the passion of collecting,” he said of the books and other materials he’d amassed. Now, Kelly is donating that collection to New York’s Morgan Library.

The gift, which Kelly estimates to be worth multiple millions of dollars, consists of around 130 original unique items (what Kelly refers to as “great things”) as well as 250 supporting documents and books. Those great things include four first editions of Ulysses as well as a manuscript page, and an intact record album—one of only three recordings of Joyce reading from his work.

Around two years ago, Kelly said, a professor friend visited the collection, which he housed in his home in Chatham, New York, and remarked that it had to be the best collection of Joyce in private hands in the world. It was then, Kelly said, that he began thinking about his stewardship of it, and where he would like it to end up. “I had to really think about what I was going to do with it,” he said. He resolved that the collection would be kept together, and that it would go to an institution. And his first thought was of the Morgan.

“The Frick and the Morgan are two of the world’s great jewels,” he said. “I happen to love the Morgan, they are doing amazing work. And we knew that the collection going there would be a transformative gift, that it would bring them into the 20th and 21st century in a very profound way—that it would be an update on J. P. Morgan’s collection and would move the conversation about the holdings firmly into the postmodern era. I felt it was the right scale of institution, and somewhere the collection would be visible, and valuable, and change the dialogue, and be available for future generations. And not just scholars—future generations of enthusiasts.”

Kelly said he thought the Joyce material would make sense at the Morgan because J.P. Morgan amassed a prodigious collection of books up to the beginning of the 20th century. The Morgan has some Joyce holdings, but not a lot. They have works by T.S. Eliot, who wrote his famous poem “The Wasteland” in 1922, the same year Joyce completed Ulysses. His holdings, Kelly said, will put the Morgan “on the map, in Joyce terms.” Other strong collections of Joyce in the U.S. are at the University of Buffalo Libraries and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. (The dealer also has a significant Marcel Duchamp collection.)

As part of the agreement for the gift, the Morgan will do a Joyce exhibition in 2022, the 100-year anniversary of the release of Ulysses, and publish a book in conjunction with it. The institution is also working on a new tradition, where they would put one of the original copies of Ulysses on display every June 16, the day on which the action of Joyce’s novel—Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom’s perambulations around Dublin—takes place. Avid Joyce fans refer to June 16 as “Bloomsday.” (The Morgan puts its copy of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol on display annually for that holiday.)

Kelly, who opened his New York gallery in 1991 after a stint as a museum director in the U.K., said that his friends and colleagues were surprised he didn’t want to live with the collection longer. “Everybody told me you are too young to do this, you are going to regret it,” he said. “But I felt it was the right moment to do it. I think it’s exciting to do something good when you can still enjoy it, and you don’t feel like you are making a decision for the wrong reasons. This is a decision we can enjoy.”

In 2012, Kelly moved his gallery from West 29th Street to a much larger space on the corner of 10th Avenue and 36th Street. The Morgan Library is across town, on 36th and Madison. “I can always go visit it,” he said of his Joyce collection. “It’s just down the block.”

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