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Spencer A. Samuels; Noted Art Dealer

February 05, 1999|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Spencer A. Samuels, world-renowned art dealer and expert on Old Masters who advised J. Paul Getty on his art acquisitions and discovered an original 17th century Vermeer oil painting, has died. He was 85.

Samuels, who moved to Santa Monica from New York a few years ago, died Saturday of pneumonia at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, according to his cousin, Eugene S. Jones.

During his more than six-decade career, Samuels personally organized major acquisitions for such museums as the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Chicago Art Institute, the National Gallery of Art, the Tate Gallery and the Louvre. He advised not only his friend Getty but other major collectors, including Los Angeles' Norton Simon, on what paintings to buy.

As a dealer, Samuels sold rare works by such Old Masters as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Raphael, Goya and El Greco as well as works by Degas, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec, and more contemporary art by Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock.

Samuels discovered the world's 35th known Vermeer, "St. Praxedis," in 1969 when he bought a 40-by-32-inch oil painting from the estate of private collector Jacob Reder. It depicted a legendary Roman virgin whose unusual religious calling was to mop up the blood of beheaded Christian martyrs.

The painting, which had been exhibited at the Met in New York, was attributed to an obscure Italian artist named Felice Ficherelli.

But it was signed "Meer." Dated 1655, the painting also had a partially obscured inscription next to the signature seeming to read "after Il Riposo," Italian for "the lazy one," which was Ficherelli's nickname.

Samuels believed that he had a Vermeer valued "well into seven figures." He enlisted National Gallery curator Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., who authenticated it as Vermeer's copy of a Ficherelli work painted about 1640. Still unheralded and poor, Vermeer died in Delft, Netherlands, in 1675 at the age of 43.

"It's not what I'd call a Vermeer Vermeer," Samuels said of the work in 1987. "But it is a very fine quality work by a young artist and sheds new light on Vermeer's early career, about which we know virtually nothing."

The painting was used as the centerpiece for the Vermeer exhibition that Wheelock organized at the National Gallery in 1995-96.

Samuels was born in New York, the son of Mitchell Samuels, who co-founded French & Co. there in 1907. For more than half a century, the firm was among the world's largest and most respected art sales enterprises, with such clients as J.P. Morgan, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, Andrew and Paul Mellon, John Jacob Astor and William Randolph Hearst. The French building on East 57th Street housed more than 50 showrooms, eight fireproof vaults and a library of 10,000 art reference books.

Samuels started at French & Co. as an apprentice elevator boy and worked his way up to president. He studied at Yale, the University of Florence and the Courtauld Institute in London.

As company president, he sought to provide thorough authentication of the art he sold by acquiring sales records from major art auctions around the world dating to the 1700s. The archives of the now-defunct French & Co. were later acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Samuels had spent some of his time in Santa Monica helping Getty researchers study the historic auction records.

After French & Co. ceased to exist, Samuels worked for such art houses as Duveen Bros. and eventually formed his own Spencer A. Samuels & Co. Ltd., operating internationally. In recent years, he also prepared special exhibitions illustrating schools of art such as Symbolism and German Expressionism and the body of work by such artists as Gustav Klimt, Oscar Schlemmer, Jean Hellion and Frantisek Kupka.

Samuels is survived by his wife, Maxine Manners Samuels; a son, Geoffrey; a daughter, Susan Fung; and two grandchildren.

At his request, no services are planned. The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the Harvard University Art Museums, attention James Cuno, Director, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge, MA 02138.

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