‘Tom Petrie is a very different type of collector’
By Noah Seeman, Vail Symposium intern
In a series of gray warehouses in the center of Geneva, behind climate controlled rooms, locked doors and barbed wire fences lies an art collection impressive enough to rival that of the Louvre. Locked up in the Geneva free ports are over 1,000 works by Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci’s “Christ as Salvador Mundi” one of the only major da Vinci works in a private collection.
These works are owned by some of the world’s wealthiest collectors and are stored in the Geneva free ports like one might store jewelry in a bank vault. The paintings are kept out of the sight of the public. For the owners of these paintings and sculptures, art is like a commodity, an investment. They purchase it a high prices at auctions across the world, then consign it to warehouses in tax free zones and leave it there until they bring it out for auction again. The price of art has skyrocketed in recent years, making it more and more valuable as a commodity. In one week in May 2015 Christie’s sold over a billion dollars worth of art, setting an art market record.
Tom Petrie is a very different type of collector. Growing up, he read books illustrated by the western artist, Charles Marion Russell, that inspired in him a passion for western art. He always thought that he might like to own a C.M. Russell one day and, in 1995, that dream became a reality when Petrie purchased his first C.M. Russell, a water color titled “Friends or Enemies” showing Native Americans in a Montana Landscape. By 2016, Petrie had become the foremost private collector of C.M. Russell’s work in the world. He has a true passion for this artist’s works. He attends the annual auction of Russell’s work every year at the Russell museum in Montana and has made a landmark gift to the Denver Museum of Art of his collection of western art. He believes that a collector’s art collection must have meaning for the collector, like his collection of C.M. Russell has meaning for him.
Russell’s work is unique. Many of Russell’s works are painted from the perspective of the Native Americans they depict, something unique in western art. Russell is also particularly well known for his ability as a storyteller—each painting, each sculpture tells a specific story of life on the west. A reoccurring theme in Russell’s work is the fading of the west, a fading of what it once was and the fantasies surrounding it. These fantasies are what draw people like Tom Petrie to western art, and why it has had such an enduring legacy in the national psyche. Russell’s work is art that is meant to be viewed and experienced by all Americans, and Tom Petrie has ensured that it will be.