NEW YORK — Adrienne Ruger Conzelman has one regret regarding her new book, “After the Hunt: The Art Collection of William B. Ruger” (Stackpole Books). Its subject, her grandfather, never got to hold it.
“The day I received my first color proof of everything, he died,” says the 32-year-old author. “It was dramatic — and tragic in a way.” But its contents — an in-depth look at the 200-plus works in his extensive American art collection — were certainly no mystery to him.
The cofounder of the firearms company Sturm, Ruger & Co., he began collecting in the Fifties and according to Conzelman, his bookkeeping was haphazard, to say the least. After college, she approached him about cataloging his collection. “None of it had been documented,” she says of his invaluable Bierstadts and Homers. “He just bought a picture and then an invoice was sent to an office, because he lived in three different houses in three different states.” Described as a tough and domineering “man’s man,” Ruger collected works linked to his favorite pastimes: hunting, boating and the Wild West. In the book, she explores his collection under such headers as “Cowboys and Indians,” “Hunters and Prey” and “At Sea and by the Shore.”
“Nowadays, people have advisers and put together collections that make sense, something of every period or different examples of one artist’s work,” says Conzelman, who does such consulting. (She worked at Christie’s after receiving her master’s degree from Williams.) Some of Ruger’s works were purchased for as little as a couple of hundred dollars, or at the most, a few thousand. Now, they’re worth more. A lot more.
Ruger left his art collection to his children, but since Conzelman’s father died 10 years ago, his share went to her and her two siblings, Charlie Ruger and Amy Ruger Whiteley. “My uncle and aunt were incredibly generous and willing to work with us and figure out what everybody wanted,” she says. “We sat down for not even a full day and worked it all out. People had various interests and tastes. Somehow, nobody ended up wanting the same thing.”
The family sold 30 works at a Christie’s auction in December, but kept the top pieces, including two Bierstadts and Alfred Jacob Miller’s painting of Fort Laramie. “We felt like we should hang on to as much as we could because, to find these pieces now, it’s really impossible,” she says. “They’re all in museums or collections that may or may not come up again.” Conzelman took home 10 of the more valuable works, including her favorite, “Cloud World,” by Maynard Dixon.
And now that the book has been published, what does she think her grandfather would have said? “It’s a tough call,” she says. “But probably, ‘Goddamnit, Adrienne, you did a great job,’ and banged his fist on the table.”