Art: Andrew Wyeth's Stunning Secret

The Helga collection, a hidden treasure trove

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In May 1985, Wyeth finally referred to the cache in an interview with Art & Antiques (see box). That summer Betsy met her husband at the airport in Rockland, Me., and as their eggplant-colored Stutz Blackhawk negotiated the trip homeward, Wyeth told her his story. "I remember the dip in the road," Betsy says. "He said, 'Darling, I have something to tell you. I've given an interview to an interesting man from Art & Antiques. I mentioned some paintings that no one knows about. And that's not fair to you.' And he told me he had been doing a series. All I really remember is that dip in the road." Both deny that he was motivated by any sudden fear of death, as some early accounts had it. Nor, says Betsy, was she completely shocked by the news. "He's a very secret person. He doesn't pry in my life and I don't pry in his. And it's worth it. Look at the paintings. Oh God! The paintings are remarkable. I almost dropped dead because of the quality of the work and how many there were."

During the 15 years, he had been finishing and selling other paintings at his usual rate of two or three temperas a year. He had even allowed hints of the Helga collection. Various friends now believe they saw one or another of the paintings. In 1980 The Knapsack was used on a poster to promote a French exhibition of Wyeths. Three of the Helgas were sold in recent years to various collectors, and he gave Lovers to Betsy in 1982, though she did not realize it was part of such a vast collection.

Soon after revealing the existence of the whole group to his wife, who is his undisputed business manager, he gave her two more as presents. They decided to try quietly to find a buyer who would keep the remaining 240 works together. They found him nearby. Leonard E.B. Andrews, a Dallas-born publisher of 19 newsletters, including the National Bankruptcy Report and the Swine Flu Claim & Litigation Reporter, had a house in Newtown Square, Pa., had occasionally had dinner with the Wyeths, and already owned six of his works. After spending two hours with the collection, Andrews agreed to pay a multimillion-dollar sum for all of them and their copyrights. Not previously known as a major collector, he plans to lend the Helgas to museums and, as if she were the Rambo of art troves, he is even talking of marketing images of her on posters and calendars. (Told of this plan, Betsy mutters, "I hope not.") Andrews rapturously describes his acquisition as a "national treasure. Wyeth will go down -- I hope he stays up a long time -- but history will remember him as the incredibly finest artist to come out of America in the 20th century."

Whatever posterity's verdict, Andrews is not alone in his enthusiasm. "I couldn't believe it, they were so powerful and beautiful," waxes J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, who next May is planning to mount the first Helga exhibition. "You are looking over the shoulder of a great master at work." Thomas Hoving, editor in chief of Connoisseur magazine and the leading impresario of fine-art hyperbole, proclaims that the group is "unique in art history -- to suddenly have before you this monumental body of great American painting. It's a mighty poke, a sharp stick between the eyes of those who dismiss Wyeth as nostalgic. It's his weapon, his dissent. He's shouting, 'No one will ever write me out of history.' "

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