PHILADELPHIA, PENN. — Dana Tillou, a lifelong Buffalo, N.Y., dealer known primarily for pre-1940 American and British art, recalled the year that his older brother, Peter, then 20, arrived home from college in a 1932 Packard with a 6-foot-tall folk art carving of Abe Lincoln that he soon sold to curator Mary Black for the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center at Colonial Williamsburg. It was the beginning, or close to it, of the never ordinary, often flamboyant career of Peter H. Tillou, who on April 13 received the antiques industry’s highest honor when the Antiques Dealers Association of America (ADA) presented Tillou with its Award of Merit.
A crowd of well-wishers gathered Saturday evening, April 13, at the Philadelphia Convention Center to fete Tillou, a Litchfield, Conn., dealer who has operated galleries in London and New York, advised celebrity clients such as Andy Williams and Teresa Heinz Kerry, built major collections and championed unheralded art and artists.
“He has inspired others with the love of art and antiques. He stands alone as an original,” said ADA President Judith Livingston Loto, introducing the speakers.
“This is going to be a fun evening. I don’t think many of us know the full extent of what this man has accomplished in his life,” said the master of ceremonies, James Kilvington. The Dover, Del., dealer and Philadelphia Antiques Show exhibitor noted that he and Tillou were drawn close by their mutual friendship with Charles A. Sterling, a Haverford, Penn., dealer who, like Tillou, wintered in Sanibel, Fla. When Sterling died in 2008, Tillou eulogized his friend as a “brilliant and eclectic generalist,” an accolade frequently bestowed on Tillou himself.
“I’ve known Peter for 76 years, which gives you an idea of my age,” said Dana Tillou, taking the podium. The dealer recalled their upstate New York upbringing, acknowledging the contributions of their mother, an artist, and father, an attorney.
“They gave us free reign,” said Dana. “At the age of 8 Peter collected coins. At 13 he began taking the trolley downtown, spending time in pawn shops in some of Buffalo’s dicier neighborhoods. I don’t think Peter attended many classes in college. He had so many interests and the auction barns kept him busy.” When Peter sold the Abe Lincoln figure to Mary Black, “it was the quickest sale a dealer ever made to a museum,” said Dana, drawing laughter from the knowing audience of mostly dealers and collectors.
“He is a collector, scholar and dealer who is courteous, modest and generous. His taste is eclectic and he hates to sell. He is quick to assess quality and, once he does, quick to buy,” said Dana, summing up.
Peter Tillou rose to prominence in the 1970s as an authority in American folk art, a reputation reinforced by two catalogs, Nineteenth-Century Folk Painting: Our Spirited National Heritage. Works of Art from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Tillou by Peter Tillou and Paul Rovetti, 1973 and Where Liberty Dwells: 19th-Century Art by the American People. Works of Art from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Tillou by Peter Tillou and Robert P. Buck Jr, 1976. He returned to his early love, self-taught art, in 2010 when he began promoting Winfred Rembert, an African American artist whose exuberant paintings on tooled leather record his hardscrabble upbringing in rural Georgia, his participation in the Civil Rights Movement and seven years in prison, where he worked on a chain gang.
“To call Peter eclectic doesn’t describe. He has vast passion for all forms of objects. I first met him in the 1960s and my wife and I later knew him in London,” said Manhattan dealer Warren Adelson, reciting the sequence of events that led to Rembert’s first show at Adelson Galleries and to the documentary film All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert.
“I have never been to an event like this before, but I can say that it could not be for a better person. Everything he promised me he has done,” said guest speaker Rembert, describing how Tillou bought his work and promised to make him famous. When the bank threatened to foreclose on Rembert’s house, Tillou helped the artist negotiate a settlement and wrote a $20,000 check to close the deal. After making their initial presentation, Rembert and his wife returned to the podium to sing “Amazing Grace.” The spiritual is also the name of a traveling exhibition of Rembert’s work organized by the Hudson River Museum.
The final speaker, Bryn Mawr, Penn., physician Chalmers “Chum” Cornelius, offered a private view of his friend, who he described as a family man.
“Peter is great man in that he can inspire others to carry out their day. His personality is the reason he has had success. He is one of the greatest spokesmen for your profession,” said Cornelius.
Accepting the carved mahogany finial that is the ADA’s trophy, Tillou said, “It is so important to me that dealers respect one another and join in long friendships. I want to thank the ADA, the people I’ve sold to who have told me how much joy they get from these objects, all the dealers who have been in my life, the interesting speakers, my family and especially my mother and father.”
Dates for the 2014 Philadelphia Antiques Show are set for April 25–29. Word has it that the ADA may have already identified next year’s award winner, so stay tuned.