Treasured objects up for sale as collector makes L.A. move

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

Graham Shearing lifts up an Italian gold frame used to hold the relics of saints, one piece from his vast collection that's up for sale next weekend at Dargate Auction Galleries.

It's a fitting gesture as this former Benedictine monk has an almost sacramental reverence for objects and the stories they tell.

"I have an oriental respect for condition. A chip or a repair of some kind can enhance an object's worth in my eyes, providing a special history that the perfect specimen may lack," said the 58-year-old Oakland resident.

His collecting philosophy is buy first, research later, but that gut instinct is tempered by a well-trained eye for European and American art, china, unusual furniture, Old Master prints and silver. There are 378 lots from his collection in this auction and many more to come in subsequent sales.

Dargate Auction Galleries summer auction
  • Where: 214 N. Lexington St., Point Breeze.
  • When: Begins at 10 a.m. Friday and continues through Aug. 9. Previews are Tuesday and Thursday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and Wednesday from noon-8 p.m.
  • Information: 412-362-3558;

"He can spot good Islamic metalwork as well as a good David Hockney print. He is indefatigable about going to every sale," said Tom Sokolowski, director of The Andy Warhol Museum.

Mr. Shearing lives in an apartment he decorated for his longtime friend, Dan Fawcett, a television executive based in Santa Monica, Calif. After more than 20 years in Pittsburgh, Mr. Shearing has decided to move to Los Angeles.

He has consigned more than 1,000 artworks and objects to Dargate, plus 4,000 books, including a copy of Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" with E.M. Forster's bookplate. You'll find everything from 18th-century Tournay porcelain to etchings by Giovanni Piranesi to a rare work by the late Joseph Fitzpatrick, a Pittsburgh artist who was Andy Warhol's favorite teacher.

After visiting Pittsburgh in 1984, he moved here permanently in 1987 and lodged in various East End apartments. By 1994, a polished brass sign that read "Mr. Shearing's rooms" hung on the door of a large Polish Hill house on Harmar Street. There, two Jack Russell terriers, Alice and Buster, kept him company. On one visit there, Mr. Sokolowski found his friend wearing a red damask jacket.

"Oh, the raj lives!" the museum director bantered. Mr. Shearing demurred, insisting his jacket was more in the mode of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

"Going to Graham's house was like picking up one of those glass domes on a terrarium and finding an enchanted world inside," Mr. Sokolowski recalled.

"There was a blind dog tripling along and dishes of dog food next to John Singer Sargent drawings, sterling silver candelabrum and books of Islamic poetry tumbling down."

His far-ranging interests include local objets d'art. As he prepares to leave for the West Coast, he ponders a mystery of Pittsburgh contained within a walnut side chair he bought at what is now the Sunnyledge Hotel in Shadyside.

Architect Henry Hobson Richardson designed the landmark mansion for Dr. James McClelland, founder of Shadyside Hospital. Did he also create this circa 1880 chair, which bears marks of his Richardsonian Romanesque style? It's a question the winning bidder will have to try to answer.

If Mr. Shearing had a title, it would be Master of Mise-En-Scene. The Oakland apartment is a skillful layering of American, English and European Arts and Crafts. Silver candelabrum are perfectly placed on the dining room table; wilting red roses droop over the sides of silver mint julep cups, which make great low vases.

"You have to be sensitive to different styles before you can start mixing them. Otherwise, it looks like a mish-mash," he said.

Mr. Shearing's passion, nurtured in England's antique shops and markets like Portobello Road, was aided by an indulgent aunt. He grew up in Norwich, about 120 miles from London, in a Georgian farmhouse set on arable land, where his family raised crops that were in great demand after the food rationing of World War II.

"I rapidly realized that I was not cut out to be a farmer," he said, adding that he's allergic to hay and pollen.

At Cambridge University, he studied law but devoted most of his time there to learning about art and attending architecture lectures by the legendary Sir Nicolaus Pevsner. Visits to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge fueled his love for prints.

After his formal education, he read for the bar in London in 1974. Arts journalism proved an irresistible lure; he wrote for The Antique Collector, Cosmopolitan, Harpers and Queen, and The Diplomatist, the journal of London's diplomatic corps.

From 1980-83, he was a Benedictine monk at Downside Abbey near Bath. By 1984, he had returned to London, and his rooms have been full of carefully arranged clutter ever since.

Collections often evolve, and Mr. Shearing's is no exception.

"I collected what I always had ... white man's 18th-century stuff" such as prints and period frames, he said. Shortly after he arrived in Pittsburgh, he turned his English eye on American art and bought an African-American mantelpiece with carved masks that remind him of Nigerian art.

"I then started to collect Southern face jugs, some made by blacks, some by white potters. That gave rise to an interest in faces and portraiture until I had a wall of faces staring at me all the time," he said.

One of the best buys he made in Pittsburgh is a little clay head with grass seeds inserted into its mouth to represent teeth. But you won't find it at the auction. He believes it was made by American Indians and won't sell it.

From the late 1980s through 1993, Mr. Shearing ran an antique shop in Shadyside called The Golden Calf. But he has played many other parts, too -- art show curator, art critic and chef, host and raconteur for umpteen dinner parties. His most recent gathering for 22 guests featured summer pudding, an English favorite.

Earlier this year, one of his dinner guests was sipping a cocktail on the open-air balcony and noticed a woman on the street wearing a headscarf. At least it's not a burka, another guest commented.

At that, Mr. Shearing disappeared and reappeared, wearing a 19th-century burka made of horsehair.

"This was the only time that it crept up in conversation. One has a bag of conversational tricks ready. Most of my guests are prepared for anything. They are seldom surprised," he said.

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at or 412-263-1648.

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here