U.K. Jewish Art Dealer Turns Attention From Bigwigs to Beggars

Hephzibah Anderson
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Hephzibah Anderson

Art dealer John Kasmin has helped create some of the biggest and most bankable names in the business. He famously discovered David Hockney in a student art exhibition, and showed everyone from Frank Stella to Anthony Caro in his New Bond Street gallery, a cultural hub of the Swinging Sixties.

Today, those artists’ works share space in his London home with a more ephemeral art form: the humble postcard.

When Kasmin began winding down his dealership in the 1990s, he busied himself collecting ancient artifacts. He still owns esoteric curios like a fertility god from 5,000 B.C.E. and part of a Roman sarcophagus. It was after U.K. antiquities laws tightened that he turned to antique postcards, and in little more than a decade he’s built up a collection estimated to be somewhere between 5,000- and 10,000-strong.

Purchased at specialist international fairs and costing anything from a few pounds to several thousand, they mostly date back to a pre-WWI golden age when, as he puts it, ‘‘the world was aflutter with postcards.’’

A hundred of these now feature in a new book, ‘‘Want: Kasmin’s Postcards.’’ All depict beggars, a theme chosen partly to suit the global economic mood and partly because he finds them beautiful, he tells me.

We’re sitting in his kitchen where exotic figurines perch among the pots and pans, and framed etchings and photographs beckon the viewer closer. It’s a display of postcards grouped around the theme of age that dominates, though − an impish nod to a recent birthday, Kasmin’s 79th. Not that you’d know it.

Wearing a cranberry-red sweater, round hazel specs and a chunky gold ring, he is a self-taught connoisseur of everything from rare books to silent movies. His postcard collection is filed in large display binders whose headings index the breadth and whimsy of his enthusiasms: street food, empty armchairs, minorities. “That’s dwarves, giants, Jews, gypsies and royalty,” he explains of the latter category.

A beggar by choice

Born in London and raised in Oxford, Kasmin’s family was in the schmatte business. He had his own ideas for his future, however, and at 16 used his bar mitzvah money to run away to New Zealand, determined to become a poet.

Three-and-a-half years later he washed up back in London, gravitating to a Soho gallery run by Victor Musgrave, eventually becoming his assistant. (He also became first the lover, then the manager, of Musgrave’s wife, a celebrated Armenian photographer named Ida Kar.)

‘‘I found that I was almost completely satisfied making other people look at what I liked. So from then on all I had to do was find people with money,’’ he says.

Postcard dealers consider him an “aesthetic collector” as opposed to one who collects sets and series. He’s always been acquisitive where beauty is concerned, and even as a penniless aspiring poet would pin leaves to the walls of his digs.

The beggars mightn’t be everyone’s idea of art. Photographed by professionals and amateurs alike, they’re shown soliciting for alms in French churches, Vietnamese villages and English cities. They are a weatherworn, wrinkled lot − even the children − their poor bodies mummified in rags and propped up on crutches, occasionally flashing a toothless grin.

Many of them were professional beggars, though as Kasmin points out, the book encompasses a large variety from those who could, if they put their minds to it, pull themselves out of destitution, to people whose worlds have been shattered by war and calamity. “And then some are, let’s say, halfwits who were kept by their village. There’s a Yiddish expression for it − not schlemiel, not schnorrer …”

But does he look at a postcard differently from a painting? “It has different associations,” he says. “A postcard often is reminding you of a specific past moment or type of life.”

Before I leave, Kasmin shows me his latest acquisitions, which all take their turn in his “gloat album” before being filed away. Turning the pages, we pass Dutch sailors, Hungarian cowboys, a shoeshine boy in Algiers. Many trigger memories, whether it’s travelling with his late friend Bruce Chatwin in Benin, or teaching an elderly Maori lady to jive in exchange for food.

His fondness for the beggars also has a personal dimension. ‘‘It’s not completely foreign because I have begged myself,” he says, recalling days he had to ask priests for bread and nights spent sleeping beneath bridges in Paris. “But usually by choice, by being a bum on the road, avoiding the bourgeois settled life.’’

“Want: Kasmin’s Postcards” by John Kasmin is published by Royal Academy Publications.

From 'Want: Kasmin’s Postcards by John Kasmin'Credit: Royal Academy of Arts, London
From 'Want: Kasmin’s Postcards by John Kasmin'.Credit: Royal Academy of Arts, London
From 'Want: Kasmin’s Postcards by John Kasmin'Credit: Royal Academy of Arts, London

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