- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2000

Collector Michael Dershowitz of Chevy Chase says he was an unlikely art collector.

He grew up in a working-class family in New York City that had little money to spare. His father commuted three hours a day, six days a week to his job at the Sabrett hot dog factory in Jersey City, N.J.

Mr. Dershowitz used scholarships, student loans and his earnings to attend law school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He specialized in public service law and has prosecuted consumer fraud cases for the Federal Trade Commission since 1973.

"It was a lucky accident that got me into art," the youngish-looking, 58-year-old collector says. Original prints, antiques and Oriental rugs decorate his well-appointed home. Daughter Suzie, 11, who is fascinated by her father's collection, and wife Sheila look on as he points to prints on the walls and reverently removes others from storage boxes.

"I was still in law school in 1970 when I stumbled on the annual arts fair at the state Capitol in Madison. I was browsing through hundreds of prints when I found three hand-colored lithographs of bewigged English jurists," he recalls.

"I didn't intend to buy, but the prints excited me as I was about to become a lawyer."

Mr. Dershowitz paid the artist $35 for the three prints. He opted for the hand-colored ones rather than lower-priced black-and-whites, which cost $25. "I bought them because they were better. I like to think I had a good eye even then," he says.

That purchase started a print collection that includes such stellar artists as Rockwell Kent, Robert Riggs, Peter Milton, Thomas Hart Benton, Leonard Baskin, Peggy Bacon, Harry Sternberg, Joseph Pennell, Raphael Soyer, Adolf Dehn and John Taylor Arms. The collection numbers 150 prints and is still growing.

He came to Washington after graduation from law school, started work for the FTC and began buying prints seriously. William Gropper's 1930s courtroom scenes were his first interest. "But then I did some reading and found that there was much more to Gropper. He was a well-known supporter of the poor and left-wing politics. His 'Sweatshop' print, which shows the unspeakable working conditions of New York's garment industry in the Great Depression, is still one of my favorites," he says.

Mr. Dershowitz went on to delve into the diverse and engaging world of American prints, especially those of the working-class men like his father in New York City. The prints of the 1930s and 1940s celebrated people similar to his family and neighbors. "I was hooked. The prints were so close to my childhood," he says.

He had some adventures along the way. He went to auctions held by dealer Cornell Gabos at the Key Bridge Marriott Hotel. The collector says Gabos began the tradition of traveling art auctions throughout the country. His firm was Renaissance Fine Arts in Cleveland. In 1995, a federal court in Ohio banned Gabos from deceptively marketing artwork and ordered him to pay $2.3 million to victims. The case grew out of charges by the FTC that Gabos was forging signed prints by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall. Mr. Dershowitz was not involved in handling the case.

"Luckily I wasn't buying in that price range," Mr. Dershowitz jokes. He says Gabos later was jailed.

Mr. Dershowitz became active in the Washington Print Club early, helping to organize exhibitions and member tours. He's served on the board of directors for the past eight years.

He also looked further to New York galleries and the Bethesda Art Gallery for prints picturing "the masses," as he calls them. Works by Benton, Sternberg, Isabel Bishop, Kent and Soyer brought alive the 1930s for him.

Soyer depicted the squalor of New York City's Lower East Side. Kent gave a clear message with a 1937 wood engraving titled, "Workers of the World Unite." Claire Leighton poignantly showed the depths of the Great Depression with figures huddled together for warmth in "Bread Line."

Mr. Dershowitz pointed to the blacks and whites in the Kent and Leighton works. "The range of tone shows what can be done with modulations of black and how effective they can be. The perfection of detail is also important for me," he says.

The Benton lithograph called "Mine," showing striking miners, was an unusual purchase. Benton usually painted and printed rolling Midwestern wheat fields, and the collector has "Cradling Wheat" of this genre also.

Mr. Dershowitz says he knew he had to have "Mine" when he saw it at the home of Ella Lerner in Lenox, Mass. He and his family had visited the Tanglewood Music Festival in 1985 and heard that Miss Lerner, a retired New York art dealer, had good things.

He remembers the dealer asked him, "How much would you pay for that print?" Not knowing what to say, he responded "$400."

"Sold," she said. The collector says the print now is worth more than $7,000 because it was only printed in an edition of 50.

Printmakers who use black and white are obviously the collector's first love, and he's placed three of these prints — Baskin's woodcut "Eakins," Riggs' lithograph "Club Fighter" and Milton's enormous mixed media "Interiors IV, Hotel Paradiso Cafe" — prominently on his walls.

The artists exploit these print mediums in different, but highly effective, ways. Baskin chiseled deeply into the wood for this arresting and tragic portrait of the American painter. It is one of the collector's favorites. "Baskin's portrait of Thomas Eakins, emanating from deep blackness, stands out in my living room as a monumental tribute to this great American artist," he says.

By contrast, Riggs liked action and portrayed both circus and boxing scenes. Often underrated as a copier of artist George Bellows, who depicted prizefighters, Riggs packed a lot of drama into this print. "Riggs had a sense of humor to him and an edginess that took him beyond being merely representational," Mr. Dershowitz says.

Milton's haunting "Paradiso" is the most surrealist of the collector's prints and recalls the flapper days of the 1920s and 1930s. It gives a complex view of different parts of a cafe where couples dance and views suddenly tunnel to the background landscape.

He explains that the artist etched over photographic film to achieve the velvet blacks of the background and silvery outlines of the figures and tables and chairs. "It's a unique technique that allows a lot of reflections because of the layering," Mr. Dershowitz explains.

Recently, the collector branched out to prints by foreign-born artists such as the late Frenchman Jean Jacques Tissot; Japanese artist Mikio Watanabe, who is remarkable for mezzotints of his wife in dozens of poses; and Uruguay-born Antonio Frasconi, who portrays the common man in colorful woodcuts.

With Mr. Frasconi, Mr. Dershowitz returns to his favorite subject, the working man. He says he learned the value of hard work from his father and believes his collection is a tribute to his family.

"These prints are worth studying, viewing and collecting precisely because they depict the common man, the man on the street, a man just like my father — or in fact, a man just like you and me," he says.

His father didn't live to see his collection, but Mr. Dershowitz thinks he would have liked it.

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