Sandy Besser

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Sanford Michael Besser

Birthdate: (75)
Birthplace: St Louis, MO, USA
Death: November 25, 2011 (75)
Immediate Family:

Son of Herbert Besser and Ida Besser
Husband of Diane P Besser
Ex-husband of <private> Besser (Holt)
Father of Matt Besser; Grant Michael Besser and <private> Besser
Brother of <private> Marshall (Besser)

Managed by: Hatte Blejer
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Immediate Family

About Sandy Besser

Sanford (Sandy) Michael Besser A full-time resident of Santa Fe since 1997, died at the age of 75 at his home on Friday, November 25th. Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1936, son of Ida and Herbert Besser, Sandy moved to Little Rock, Arkansas in 1944 at the age 8 and lived there until 1997. Sandy graduated from Vanderbilt University on a ROTC scholarship (B.A. '58) and was stationed at Treasure Island in San Francisco while in the Navy. He spent the majority of his career with the investment banking firm Stephens Inc. of Little Rock, Arkansas. Sandy and his wife Diane Pettit Besser, whom preceded him in death in 2001 after 36 years of marriage in which they found the perfect balance of Sandy's sharp wit and Diane's signature grace, earned a strong local and national recognition as art collectors. A voracious collector since childhood (post-cards, swizzle sticks, to name a few), he was collecting art in earnest by the mid-1960s and was instrumental in the growth of the Arkansas Arts Center. He also was responsible for overseeing the building of a corporate art collection for Stephens Inc. The Bessers' eclectic collections ranged across 20th century drawings, tribal arts from Indonesia and Africa, contemporary Hispanic carvings and straw appliqué from New Mexico, figurate ceramics, and perhaps most popular of all, the crazy teapots. He was recognized as one of the top 100 collectors in the country by Art & Antiques magazine in 2002 and is credited with helping emerging artists gain recognition in the competitive world of contemporary art. He truly loved artists as well as their art. Sandy and Diane made a commitment to sharing their collection with both the novice and the aficionado, including gifting the majority of their collection over time to a number of institutions, including: Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, Spanish Colonial Arts Society, and International Folk Art in Santa Fe, Arizona State University Art Museum in Tempe and the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock. In 2007, following a large gift to de Young Museum in San Francisco, Besser celebrated his 70th birthday with the opening of the eponymously named exhibit, The Diane and Sandy Besser Collection. Sandy's personality was one of a kind. A king of word play, he was always ready to engage both friends and strangers with his wickedly dry sense of humor. Everyone who knew him remembers the laughs he provided the most. Sandy, also known as "Scrappy Besser", was not afraid of confrontation. In the art world his opinions were strong. Some battles created enemies, but more battles created change for the good of the appreciation of art. He is survived by his sons and their spouses, Matthew Besser and Danielle Schneider of Los Angeles, and Grant and Alexandra Besser of Boulder, and Kenneth and Virginia Besser of San Francisco. He is further survived by grandchildren, Cole, Carson, Quinn and Natalie; his sister, Maxine Marshall of Scottsdale, Arizona; his beloved dog, Ruby. Memorial services for family and friends will be held at his home on Wednesday, November 30th at noon. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Coming Home Connection, 418 Cerrillos Rd., suite #27, Santa Fe, NM, 87501, Inquiries into purchasing art from his collection can be directed to Matt Besser at

Sanford "Sandy" Besser, who died at age 79 Friday at his Santa Fe home, was a man of first-rate parts.

Husband, father, grandfather. Navy veteran, investment banker, nonprofit volunteer and burr. Good friend, enthusiastic foe, community gadfly. And, of course, intensely perceptive and influential art collector.

There was only one small problem in keeping track of Besser. He wouldn't stay put. If you looked where he really belonged, at No. 1 on a list, you'd find that he had percolated right up over the top of the page, and stayed there.

"Sandy was a complicated guy and a collector of such stature," said Michael Bergt, one of the notable artists whose work Besser patronized over the years. "He had absolute confidence in his decisions. I don't think I've met but two or three other people like that in my career.

"The thing I admired most about him, he would go to a show and go right to the toughest work, the one most in your face, the one hardest to take. It would be the piece you knew was your best work, but that no one would ever want. And he would buy it."

Acclaimed blacksmith Tom Joyce, a close Besser friend and recipient of a 2003 MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, agreed.

"The art he collected of mine started out with the bulls I showed at the Barbara Okun Gallery in the early '90s. After that, every step I took, he was buying what other people didn't want to buy. At my EVO show, he bought two charred paper drawings, the first I'd ever done. No one else would."

Besser didn't buy because he was sorry for the artist, Joyce stressed. He bought because the difficult always attracted him. Perhaps because of his own busy and exuberant life, perhaps because he never hesitated to be difficult with other people or an organization when he thought it was deserved.

That included newspapers, editors and reporters, state government officials, nonprofit boards, gallery owners, and for an intense period of time, the Museum of New Mexico Foundation and the state's Department of Cultural Affairs. Besser's letters to the editor and thought pieces were seldom examples of overflowing cheer or kindness, but he never left one in doubt of his views.

Born in St. Louis in 1936, the son of Ida and Herbert Besser, Sandy moved with his family to Little Rock, Ark., when he was 8. A Vanderbilt University graduate on an ROTC scholarship, he was stationed at Treasure Island in San Francisco while in the Navy. He spent the majority of his professional career as an investment banker with the Little Rock firm of Stephen Inc.

His collecting delight — perhaps mania is a more accurate word — began early, with items ranging from swizzle sticks to postcards. Later, he and his wife of 36 years — Diane Pettit Besser, who died in 2001 — collected avidly but with keen eyes. Their collection was weirdly eclectic, huge, and it never stopped growing.

One artistic concept Besser especially doted on, Bergt said, was that of the vessel — from small-scale and famously wild teapots to massive ceramics and varied glass pieces. Other genres included 20th-century drawings, Indonesian and African tribal art, and Northern New Mexican carvings and straw appliqué.

Among the institutions the Bessers supported with pieces from their treasure cave were the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, Spanish Colonial Arts Society and the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe; Arizona State University Art Museum in Tempe; and the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock. In 2007, following on a large gift to the de Young Museum in San Francisco, Besser celebrated his 70th birthday there with a party among the Diane and Sandy Besser Collection.

"Sandy was the kind of collector that everyone in the field knew, but otherwise he was as quiet about it as he could be," Bergt recalled. "He also served on a lot of nonprofit board where he was not quiet."

"Sandy was interested in stretching the known and predictable," Joyce said. "He was interested in supporting an artist to the degree they were willing to jump the track for him — artists at a transitional stage in their careers.

"He gave you permission to dare."

Besser is survived by his sons and their spouses: Matthew Besser and Danielle Schneider of Los Angeles, Grant and Alexandra Besser of Boulder, Colo., and Kenneth and Virginia Besser of San Francisco; grandchildren Cole, Carson, Quinn and Natalie; his sister, Maxine Marshall of Scottsdale, Ariz.; and his beloved dog, Ruby.

A memorial service for family and friends will be held Wednesday at the Besser home. In lieu of flowers, donations are requested to Coming Home Connection, Anyone interested in purchasing remaining art from the Besser collection should email for information.


Sandy Besser says he still had a lot to learn in the early 1960s, when he bought his first works of art: two drawings made on paper with a high acid content. He paid around $1.50 for each, and they both rotted.

He and his wife, Diane Besser, who died in 2001, went on to assemble a legendary art collection, with extensive holdings in 20th-century drawings, tribal arts from Indonesia and Africa, contemporary Hispanic carvings and straw appliqué from New Mexico, figurative ceramics, and sculptural teapots.

By the mid-1960s, Besser and his wife were collecting in earnest, and he was also overseeing the purchasing of a corporate art collection for the investment banking firm Stephens Inc., based in Little Rock, Arkansas. Among the works Besser chose for the company were a Jackson Pollock and pieces from the estate of Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline. "In my office at Stephens, everything was abstract," Besser said in a recent interview at his home in Santa Fe. "I had a Rothko and a Pollock. In the busy-ness of commerce, I like abstraction. But at home I always had figures."

Besser's house remains filled with figures. Many lack clothes, but unlike classical nudes, they're seldom serene and composed. Even when clothed, the people depicted in Besser's art reveal a great deal. For instance, Renee Audette's life-size ceramic sculpture of a little girl wearing a pretty dress sits in the middle of his bedroom. Her face is twisted into a snarl, and she appears to be followed by a handful of filthy dolls and toy horses. "Kids at this age are not nice, and this one comes with a lot of baggage," Besser said. "My taste is edgy. I don't collect flowery stuff — no landscapes, no still lifes. I'm interested in the figure. I'm a voyeur. ... I feel that there are things from everyday life that need to be portrayed, and when they are, I want to own them."

From a sculpture of a pig — with an ecstatic expression and an erect penis — to a strangely beautiful teapot — which, according to Besser, represents a convicted murderer giving birth to his feminine side — the collection includes a lot of art depicting emotions that are usually suppressed in everyday life.

When asked why he collects, Besser replied that he loves the thrill of the chase. "I also love the research part." If there is a definitive monograph on an artist, chances are Besser has a copy in his library, which fills two rooms. "I didn't buy books for show," he continued.

"I read about the field and talked to people."

Every work in Besser's collection reveals an artist's deft confidence and mastery of materials. Though framed drawings cover every wall, the works are not crammed together; each piece is given room for full appreciation. But there's just too much to see in one visit.

Getting it all and letting go

As overwhelming as Besser's collection is, it's a shadow of its former self — and shrinking fast. "In the next 18-month period, I will be giving away 2,000 pieces," he said. A portion of one of those gifts is featured in The Diane and Sandy Besser Collection, a show which opened on Oct. 26 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. The exhibit — which includes 75 figurative teapots, 75 drawings, and 75 pieces of African beadwork — runs through Jan. 13, 2008. Also in January, A Human Impulse: Figuration From the Diane and Sandy Besser Collection opens at the Arizona State University Art Museum in Tempe; the show is curated from the 150 ceramic works Besser is donating to the university's Ceramics Research Center. Last year, Besser gave much of the art presented in Variations: Selections From the Diane and Sandy Besser Collection to Santa Fe's Museum of International Folk Art. All of Besser's Indonesian beadwork and keris hilts (from ceremonial daggers) were included in the gift. In 2004, the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture exhibited nearly 200 Navajo and Pueblo silver boxes, another of Besser's recent donations.

Examples of high-quality items, like the beadwork and keris hilts he gave to the Museum of International Folk Art, left the countries where they were produced in three great waves, Besser explained. First, he said, colonists left with shiploads of art. Then missionaries arrived and destroyed anything they thought held religious significance. "The third wave was the Peace Corps," he continued. "It happened all over the world. It was natural: you get down there; you're right out of college, and you see these beautiful things that even you can afford. If you are street-smart, you bring back 10,000 of them." Today, a fine textile or beaded headgear that might have been purchased for a few dollars can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, he added.

Besser said he and his wife traveled to Indonesia to study its culture and understand the art they were collecting but never attempted to buy tribal arts there. "When we made the decision we wanted to collect keris handles, we were in London at the time, and we sent the same letter to 27 of the best dealers. We said, 'Send me the best keris handles you have, and by the way, we are sending this letter to 26 other dealers.'" The Bessers were able to buy a collection of prime dagger hilts from among the items that were shipped to them for approval. And Besser says he's convinced he bought them all at fair prices. Once a collector has a reputation for having a good eye, it's easier to buy art of the highest quality. "You collect primo by having a collection that dealers want to send things to."

Buy low, give high

Besser describes himself as having grown up in St. Louis with "less than zilch." He moved to Little Rock in 1944 at age 8 and lived there until 11 years ago. He speaks with a drawl and is reluctant to hurry when telling a good tale — and for Besser, every work in his collection has a great story. But the tale Besser tells may not be the one the artist intended. He said he doesn't press an artist to explain why he or she made a piece or what it means. "You have to be careful with questions like that," he said. "Some artists don't like them, and they'll clam up and tell you nothing."

Megan Vossler's huge drawing of miserable men and women dressed in rags and trudging through a bleak, corpse-ridden landscape is one of the largest works in Besser's living room. When he first saw the drawing, Besser told Vossler he thought it was about global warming, and she liked that interpretation. Besser says he cares a great deal why Vossler made the drawing, but he never asked.

As he walks visitors through the collection, Besser often points out a work and says it is by "one of my artists." During the first 20 years of collecting, the Bessers were interested in known artists. "But during the 1990s, we began collecting unrecognized artists," he said. "Every once in a while I come across an artist who is good but doesn't have any idea how to get into galleries and museums. ... Some are 70 or 80 [years old]. They're good. They just haven't gotten the attention they deserve." Besser has been known to visit graduate-thesis exhibits and purchase all of an emerging artist's work. He says hundreds of artists send him slides — he provides a critique if the artist asks and includes a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

Besser said that until about five years ago, some of the art he collected — figurative work with painful, erotic, or humorous themes — was ignored by much of the art world. Various artists that Besser has collected and introduced to galleries and museum curators are now being discovered.

Besser recalled that years ago, when buying art for the corporate collection, he was invited to see the homes of many wealthy collectors. "They all looked alike," he said, while speculating that such collectors have gotten tired of having one Pollock, one Rothko, and one French Impressionist. Perhaps, he continued, they got bored, and that is why they now want compulsive, humorous, erotic, and tragic figurative art.

Tax deductions from donating work from his ever-appreciating collection have allowed him to continue his lavish buying, Besser said. Back in the 1960s, he set a price limit of $500 for any one artwork. Over the years, that has risen to $5,000. Besser claims he has seldom broken that self-discipline and has always searched for art that was undervalued. For instance, he first became interested in tribal beadwork in the 1980s. Fine examples of Native American beading were too expensive, so he collected works from Indonesia and Africa. Today the antiquities market has caught up with Besser. "I didn't buy art because it was going to go up in value," he said. "I bought it because they were giving it away."

Although many collectors keep their acquisitions in warehouses, Besser's entire collection has always been in his home. Each year, after vetting his collection, he donates work to museums. He calls his art a legacy, and now that he is struggling with several illnesses, he is focused on giving art to institutions where it will be exhibited and preserved. Besser's voice breaks with emotion when he shows visitors around his collection or talks about this last round of large donations.

The fate of the contemporary Hispanic art in Besser's collection is still unresolved. He said he had planned to donate it to the Museum of International Folk Art but is disgusted that New Mexico is willing to pay $3 million for the Larry Frank collection, composed of 263 devotional Hispanic artworks, most of which were made in New Mexico during the 19th century. "The state has no business buying art," he said. For years, Besser has been an outspoken critic of the state's Department of Cultural Affairs and the Museum of New Mexico, which manages the folk-art museum. But, Besser acknowledged, "The Museum of International Folk Art is Santa Fe's only world-class museum." Besser smiled and his voice softened. "And I love Santa Fe."

'The Diane and Sandy Besser Collection' remains on display at the de Young Museum in San Francisco through Jan. 13, 2008. For more information visit or call 415-750-3600.


Sanford and Diane (his late wife) are teapot collectors:

For those whose interest is contemporary craft, the teapot offers a way to collect broadly in the field, with extraordinary variety, and still have what Dorothy Weiss calls "a body of work that's coherent." Sanford and Diane Besser of Little Rock, Arkansas, have teapots by more than 200 American and British ceramists, the earliest from around 1970 by Robert Brady, the "most interesting" a vision of the Mad Hatter's tea party by Michael Frimkess, featuring Freud and other offbeat guests. The couple had already been collecting ceramics for some years when they bought their first teapot, by Chris Staley, in 1984. "I assumed most, if not all, ceramic artists had done one or more," Sanford Besser recalls. "I became fascinated by the idea of how an individual takes the constants of handle, spout, lid and body and treats them."

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Sandy Besser's Timeline

October 2, 1936
St Louis, MO, USA
September 22, 1967
Age 30
Little Rock, AR, USA
November 25, 2011
Age 75