With her bright red hair, Virginia drawl and uncompromising spirit, Ginny Williams was a true original. Long before the art world understood the value of female Modernist painters, the late Denver gallery owner and collector was championing these artists, investing in the works of Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner and Yayoi Kusama. She didn’t follow taste; she led it. “Ginny was larger than life,” explains Sotheby’s Vice President Elizabeth Webb. “Fearless, curious, eccentric, eclectic — with a wicked sense of humor that was complemented by humility and a sweet dose of Southern charm.”
Williams passed away last year, and recently 18 of her coveted artworks went up for auction at Sotheby’s, part of a yearlong series of events selling some 450 of the collector’s works. The white-glove sale was part of a live-streaming auction with online and telephone bidders beamed in from all over the world. Every single piece sold, bringing in $65.5 million, with many world records being set.
Gavel after gavel, the sale proved many of Williams’ acquisitions were spot on. In 2011, she paid $818,500 for the sublime tangerine-hued “Royal Fireworks” (1975) by Helen Frankenthaler, a record price at the time. In the recent Sotheby’s auction, the piece sold for $7.9 million — a world record for the artist and proof that Williams had a shrewd eye for both art and investments. “Knowing how good the quality was, she often paid record prices for these women artists at the time,” Webb explains. “The market would catch up later.”
For Williams, loyalty was key. She often developed personal connections with creatives and supported their work for decades. She owned some 40 sculptures and works on paper by Louise Bourgeois, to whom she was not only a patron but also a close confidante. The artist’s six-foot-tall “Observer” (1947-1949) stood at the base of a stairway in Williams’ glass home, where the collector admired it daily. Amid strong bidding, this elongated abstract work sold for $2.2 million.
Lee Krasner was another of the art aficionado’s favorites. There was strong interest in her colorfully lyrical painting “Re-Echo” (1957) from her seminal Earth Green series, which captured the reawakening she experienced following the sudden death of her husband, artist Jackson Pollock. It sold for more than $9 million, the second highest price for the artist at auction.
“Not only did Ginny collect women artists decades before many museums,” Webb confides, “but she sold works by major male artists from her collection in order to buy works by female artists.” That strategy got the attention of top museums, and beginning in the nineties, Williams became a board member at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum and Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. With cowgirl determination, she spearheaded initiatives to collect important female artists, shifting curatorial perspectives and reshaping iconic museum collections for the future — her greatest legacy of all.