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Closing Time for Wallace Gallery

Tue, 02/23/2021 - 13:04
On Monday, Terry Wallace's gallery in East Hampton is closing at its address of 25 years. He has not decided whether to reopen in another location.
Durell Godfrey

After spending more than 25 years offering art lovers a chance to purchase a piece of East End history, Terry Wallace, the owner of the Wallace Gallery of American Art in East Hampton, will close up shop on Monday. In a conversation last week, he reminisced about discovering artists, foiling art thieves, and the time he one-upped Guild Hall.

In the gallery's small space on Eastman Way, behind a Starbucks and cater-corner to a beauty salon, Mr. Wallace has showcased 19th and 20th-century paintings that bespeak the East End of yore. "I like the paintings, but the history is what turns me on," he said. "Paintings of what it looked like here 150 years ago, and what fascinated me was the disappearing landscape."

After growing up in Hicksville, Mr. Wallace joined the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. "I enlisted the day I got out of high school, and I was in Vietnam the last day of November." He was awarded three Purple Hearts for his service. 

He then followed a circuitous career path, working in finance, becoming the owner of a professional lacrosse team, and opening a David's Cookies franchise in East Hampton. "I've done a lot of different things but I always collected paintings," he said. "Then, in about 1978, I started to buy paintings of just eastern Long Island."

That was how he heard about a 1968 Guild Hall exhibit called "The American Barbizon," featuring American painters influenced by the French Barbizon school and noted for their simple, pastoral scenes painted directly from nature. "These artists would study in Europe and then come to East Hampton, with the windmills and thatched cottages, because it reminded them of Europe." The curators of the Guild Hall exhibit "thought there were only 50 artists that came to the East End, but I ended up re-discovering another 250."

Cappy Amundsen of Sag Harbor, who was best known for his impressionist paintings of ships, whaling scenes, and harbor views, is among a number of unsung artists Mr. Wallace has championed. Amundsen was friendly with John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, and other notables who "would all get together every single day," said the gallerist, who wrote a biography of Mr. Amundsen. "They would work in the morning and drink in the afternoon."

A North Fork colony of mostly female artists -- Caroline M. Bell, Marguerite Moore Hawkins, Clara Wells Howell, and Julia M. Wickham among them -- was another major discovery. "That's one of the biggest things I've done here," Mr. Wallace said. "I spent a lot of time promoting these artists because they were forgotten about, they never really had a place in history, and they've become very well known today." He wrote a history of that group as well, dubbing them the Peconic Bay Impressionists.

After opening his gallery in 1995, Mr. Wallace began promoting it in a big way. "I would take 12 full pages in The Star, next to the obituaries or at the front of the paper, and I would run a big ad with a big picture, the name of the artist at the top, the name of the painting, and a little bio," he recalled. "That's what really made it for me."

In the gallery's heyday, it wasn't unusual to sell $50,000 worth of paintings in a night, he said. "The village was a place where all the stores stayed open late, and people didn't want to go home. Everyone did business. It was much different than it is today."

For about 15 years, the gallery occupied three spaces on Eastman Way. Mr. Wallace used to hold fund-raising auctions there for local nonprofits: the Peconic Land Trust, the Group for the East End, the East Hampton Library and others. He enlisted his friend Alec Baldwin to welcome the crowds. "I'd be the straight man and he'd be the auctioneer. We'd get a few hundred people in here."

Hilaria and Alec Baldwin purchased five landscape paintings from the Wallace Gallery and donated them to the Village of East Hampton, for display at the new Gardiner Mill Cottage Gallery on James Lane. Mr. Wallace donated another five.

Another collection of artworks acquired by Mr. Wallace is on display at the Thomas and Mary Nimmo Moran Studio. "I have 60 paintings by the Morans," he said, "and I'm going to be looking for somebody to buy these collections so they can go to the village. I don't want them to go all over the place, I want them to go there, because that's where they belong."

In the course of his career as a gallerist, Mr. Wallace has on occasion helped the police and the F.B.I. to track down art forgers and thieves. "We had this one big case on Lily Pond Lane, the police were looking for whoever stole the paintings, and an auctioneer called me from Florida. 'Terry,' he said, 'your label is on the back.' "

In another high-profile case, he helped foil an attempt to sell forged Jackson Pollock paintings. In 2018, though, Mr. Wallace himself was the object of an investigation.

He was sued two years ago by the estate of Edith Bouvier Beale ("Big Edie") over the ownership of a small portrait of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis as a young girl, which the estate claimed had been stolen from her aunt. "I went right to the police and said, 'Could you do a search, I want to know if there's any police record of a theft,' " he said. "If there were a police record, I would have given them the painting." There was no such report, and Mr. Wallace, who'd bought the painting in 1990 from an East Hampton antiques shop, was able to prove clear provenance in court. "They sued me, and I won, so it was just a learning experience."

The gallery is closing, he said, because the landlord did not give him the option to renew his lease. "I'm not mad at himâ it's business, and I'm not paying him big rent." He has been scouting other village locations, but hasn't decided whether to reopen.

In the meantime, his artworks will be stored in a climate-controlled space, with some works available on websites such as Artsy and Artnet. Mr. Wallace believes, however, that most of his paintings aren't conducive to online sales, because, he said, buyers on those sites are looking for art that fits aesthetically with their more modern homes. "The people who go to those sites don't appreciate it," he said. "I have to find someone who number one, loves history, and number two, loves paintings." 

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