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Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Biographical / Historical Note
  • Administrative Information
  • Related Archival Materials
  • Separated Materials
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Samuel Wagstaff papers
    Date (inclusive): 1796-1987 (bulk 1952-1986)
    Number: 2005.M.46
    Creator/Collector: Wagstaff, Samuel J., Jr., 1921-1987
    Physical Description: 96 Linear Feet (126 boxes, 5 rolls, 19 flatfiles)
    The Getty Research Institute
    Special Collections
    1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 1100
    Los Angeles 90049-1688
    URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10020/askref
    (310) 440-7390
    Abstract: The papers document Sam Wagstaff's activities as curator and collector, with a focus on his collections and collecting processes. The papers are rich in correspondence and include letters from artists, photographers and cultural institutions. Original photographs and non-photographic original artworks are included, as well as slides, negatives, postcards, film reels, prints and drawings.
    Request Materials: Request access to the physical materials described in this inventory through the catalog record   for this collection. Click here for the access policy  .
    Language: Collection material is in English.

    Biographical / Historical Note

    Curator and visionary photography collector Samuel Wagstaff Jr. was born 1921, in New York City. The son of a lawyer from an old New York family and fashion designer Olga Piorkowska, Wagstaff graduated from Yale University and served in the Navy during World War II. After the war and a short career in advertising he studied Renaissance art at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts under the mentorship of Richard Offner. In 1959 he received a David E. Finley art history fellowship at the National Gallery of Art. He assumed a curatorial position in contemporary art at the Wadsworth Atheneum from 1961 to 1968 and then at the Detroit Institute of Arts from 1968 to 1971. At both institutions Wagstaff pursued his interest in the avant garde and helped promote the careers of artists such as Michael Heizer, Tony Smith, Gordon Newton and Richard Tuttle.
    In addition to his curatorial work, Wagstaff was a noted collector. He originally concentrated on avant-garde paintings. Following his return to New York in the 1970s, he turned his attention to photography, with an initial focus on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French, British and American photography. Influenced by his long-term partner, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Wagstaff's collecting later shifted toward more daring and contemporary photography. At a time when scholarship on the subject was limited, Wagstaff promoted the significance of photography in lectures, on panels, and famously on the Dick Cavett television show. Wagstaff loaned works from his photography collection for national and international exhibitions, often served as a freelance curator, and regularly responded to requests for curatorial advice. In 1977 his own press published A Book of Photographs from the Collection of Sam Wagstaff .
    When Wagstaff's photography holdings numbered more than 2,500 masterworks, he sold the collection to the J. Paul Getty Museum and focused on building a collection of 19th-century American silver. The New York Historical Society exhibited more than 100 examples from his silver collection in 1987, the last show curated by Wagstaff. His silver collection was sold at auction following his death. Wagstaff died in 1987.

    Administrative Information


    Open for use by qualified researchers with the following exceptions. Film reels are unavailable until reformatting is complete.

    Publication Rights

    Preferred Citation

    Samuel Wagstaff papers, 1796-1987 (bulk 1952-1986), The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, Accession no. 2005.M.46

    Acquisition Information

    Acquired from the Mapplethorpe Foundation in 2005.

    Processing History

    The Samuel Wagstaff papers were initially processed and a preliminary inventory was made by Rheim Alkahdi in 2009. Laura Schroffel completed processing the collection and created a finding aid under the supervision of Andra Darlington in 2011.

    Related Archival Materials

    Sam Wagstaff postcard collection, ca. 1880-1980, Accession no. 96.R.13*.

    Separated Materials

    Some books were transferred to the Getty Research Library general collection and may be found by searching the library catalog  for the Samuel Wagstaff Source Collection.

    Scope and Content of Collection

    The Samuel Wagstaff papers document his activities as curator and collector, with a focus on his collections and collecting processes. The papers are rich in correspondence and include letters from artists, photographers and staff from cultural institutions. Also included are original photographs, both contemporary and historic, as well as non-photographic original artworks. Among other materials are slides, negatives, postcards, film reels, prints and drawings.
    Series I is a collection of snapshots by Wagstaff, including color photographs (sometimes housed in albums), color negatives, color slides, black-and-white contact prints and black-and-white negatives. The collection highlights cultural institutions, landmarks, urban and industrial landscapes, various exteriors and city inhabitants. New York City is featured heavily. London, Paris, Spain, Italy, Belgium and Detroit are also documented. This series is also rich in portraiture, including nudes, self-portraits, portraits of Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith and others.
    Series II traces the development of Wagstaff's various collections through correspondence, receipts and other documentation, and also includes original works of art by Dan Basen, Robert Morris and Gordon Newton. The focus of the series is Wagstaff's collections of photography, silver, postcards, and contemporary art, but items from his less-known collections of prints, flowers, currency and postage are also included. Correspondents represented in this series include artists Agnes Martin, Michael Heizer, Alan Saret, Tony Smith and H.C. Westermann. Letters received, receipts and papers in this series often provide substantial provenance information related to items in Wagstaff's collections. The papers include information on photographs and other materials now owned by the Getty Museum.
    Series III contains family photographs, including pictures of Wagstaff at various ages, and members of his immediate and extended family. The series also contains assorted financial and personal documents, such as estate papers, tax records, property ownership documents, medical records, astrological papers and identification.
    Series IV contains the letters that were not filed by Wagstaff in another series. The bulk of the correspondence in this series is from the 1970s and 1980s, after Wagstaff had stopped working as a professional curator and moved back to New York to focus on collecting.
    Series V contains photographs and documents regarding exhibitions, publications and artist research by Wagstaff. This series includes documents regarding the founding of Wagstaff's publishing company, Gray Press, and its only publication, A Book of Photographs from the Collection of Sam Wagstaff . Also in this series is a collection of cat photographs assembled by Wagstaff in relation to an article he wrote for Artforum (1986).
    The ephemera in Series VI consists of posters and exhibition announcements. Clippings include articles profiling Wagstaff and his collections.
    Series VII contains a film reel labeled, "Potatoes on a Studio Floor," as well as seven unidentified film reels and four undeveloped reels. Films are unavailable until reformatting is complete.


    Arranged in seven series: Series I. Snapshots, 1969-1983, undated; Series II. Collections, 1819-1987; Series III. Personal papers, 1796-1986; Series IV. Correspondence, 1909-1986; Series V. Projects, 1914-1986; Series VI. Ephemera and assorted papers, 1941-1986; Series VII. Film reels, undated.

    Indexing Terms

    Subjects - Names

    Heizer, Michael, 1944-
    Smith, Patti
    Mapplethorpe, Robert
    Westermann, H. C. (Horace Clifford), 1922-1981
    Martin, Agnes, 1912-2004
    Smith, Tony, 1912-1980

    Subjects - Corporate Bodies

    Detroit Institute of Arts
    Wadsworth Atheneum

    Subjects - Topics

    Artists -- Correspondence
    Art -- Private collections -- United States
    Silver -- United States -- Collectors and collecting
    Photography -- Collectors and collecting
    Photographs -- Collectors and collecting -- United States
    Photography -- Exhibitions
    Art, Modern -- 20th century -- Collectors and collecting -- United States

    Genres and Forms of Material

    Gelatin silver prints
    Contact prints
    Photograph albums
    Stereoscopic photographs
    Albumen prints
    Art objects
    Photographs, Original
    Color slides
    Color photographs
    Color negatives
    Photographic prints


    Martin, Agnes, 1912-2004
    Westermann, H. C. (Horace Clifford), 1922-1981
    Smith, Tony, 1912-1980
    Heizer, Michael, 1944-
    Morris, Robert, 1931-2018
    Basen, Dan
    Newton, Gordon, 1948-
    Wagstaff, Samuel J., Jr., 1921-1987