Don Sanders: Caves of wonder

Andrea Blanch: You work with many charity causes, has the association with charity in any way influenced the way you have developed your collection?  

Probably not. I have been incredibly fortunate. I've always said I'm probably the luckiest person in the world. I wouldn't change anything in my life that has occurred. Not everything is good, but far more good than bad. I have just always tried to be a charitable person. For no other reason than that I have been amazingly fortunate in my life, and I think when that happens, you give back. I have never felt that any thing that I have ever given has been detrimental to my welfare, and so I have been involved in many different charities and donated a lot of money to a lot of different things.


I've always tried to be a very balanced person, and never let one thing I did overshadow the others. I have been on various boards, the board of regents of the University of Houston, I founded the Houston Police Foundation. I was on the financial board of the police department. I have done a lot of fun things; I think I have done a lot of things that I feel make a difference. I think everything a person does in life is important, sometimes more than others. That's the way I look at things. I think sometimes people get enamored with something they do or something they accomplish, and I think that everything I have done is important, certainly important to me, you look at things as a package.


AB: When did you realize you wanted to collect art and what was the first purchase you made?


I have always been a collector. Some years ago, I started collecting watches, and at the end, I had about 125 watches. It reached a point where they all started to look the same; there wasn't a whole lot of difference. Then I started collecting fountain pens, and wound up with over 500 fountain pens. They certainly started looking all the same.


I guess it was 2002 or 2003, and I don’t know if there was anything that made me decide to collect, but I have always enjoyed looking at Helmut Newton photographs. I do remember that when I was at the fair in Miami Florida, I was looking at some Helmut Newton prints that I had seen a year earlier, and I was amazed at how the price had appreciated. So I decided, if I was going to buy them, I had better buy them now, while I can afford them. So I bought four prints, which I still have. That was the beginning.


Then I started looking at photography, particularly the nudes. I decided I would collect a few more, and a few more became a lot more.


AB: Is there any photograph that you wanted that got away from you?


No, not really. In my collections, I collect what I really like, and not so much what someone says is a great photograph or that I need it for my collection. I have never felt that my collection warranted spending a lot of money or going after one specific state of the art photograph. I have some great photographs, and some very expensive photographs, but they were bought because I liked them, not because I felt like I had to have them or because they had to be part of my collection.


AB: Why do you collect photography?


I don't know that there is any one specific reason. I don't have a goal to be a great photography collector, I enjoy the photography, the nudes, I enjoy looking at nudes and most people do. I have found that women seem to enjoy the collection as much as men.  I have just enjoyed nude photography and I think I keep everything in perspective. Certainly I don't go off the deep end. But some of the most beautiful photographs ever are nudes, and always have been. So that's where it started, and my interest grew. I've spent a lot of time, energy, effort, and obviously money, putting together what I think ended up being a great collection.


AB: You find pubic hair to be a very artistic aspect of the nude.


I think pubic hair in photography is very important. I don't like the explicit part of the body that pubic hair covers, and I think my views are shared by a tremendous majority of photographers. I think the lack of pubic hair, the shaving of pubic hair, however we want to describe it, has been really detrimental to a lot of photography, particularly old-time photographers, who during most of their lives, every woman had pubic hair. I just think it adds a certain amount of quality, a certain amount of beauty, and it is part of a woman.


AB: So if you saw today a photograph of a shaved woman, a beautiful photograph, you wouldn't buy it?


Probably not. I have bought photographs with women that are shaven, but that's more when I buy a package of them, or a group of photographs and some of them are that way. I think it just changes the whole look of the female body.


AB: You mentioned buying in bulk, in groups. Why do you do that?


I don't think that there's any goal to buying in bulk or groups. I probably wouldn't use that terminology. I find photographers whose work I really like, and most photographers don't make one or two photographs; they make maybe hundreds of photographs. If I find a photographer I like, I'll buy his books, and I'll buy magazines with his photographs and all of a sudden, you wake up one day and you've got twenty, thirty, forty, fifty photographs. All different, all things that you are glad to add to your collection, but the numbers start to add up.


AB: Do you deal with the photographer more than the gallery?


I try not to go through galleries, and I guess the reason is that I do buy a lot of work. It really ends up being a great opportunity for me, and a great opportunity for the photographer, because as we all know, photographers normally don't sell a lot of photographs to one person. Someone may walk in the gallery, buy one, two, three photographs at most. Whereas in my case, if I buy twenty, thirty, forty photographs, and the photographer knows I am probably going to buy more, then he can offer me a very advantageous price, which enables me to buy more and secondly, he makes more money. It is just a win for everybody. As we all know, with most galleries, it's a 50/50 deal. If a photographer can offer me a 50% discount, he is making just as much money, and it is certainly saving me a lot. Galleries have to make money, that's how they stay open. I am not opposed to it, but I don't want to spend the kind of money it takes to buy thirty or forty photographs of a well-known photographer [in a gallery]. I can't tell you how many photographers are absolutely thrilled that I'm interested in their work.


AB: Would you ever consider buying from photographers who don't have a reputation?


The reputation is not what I buy. I have bought photographs from photographers that you haven't heard of, or a lot of other people haven't heard of, but the photography is the kind that I like. It portrays what interests me. They don't have to have a big name, they could be anybody.


AB: Do you have any photographs that are just of a woman who is bare breasted, that don't show pubic hair?


Yeah, I have a few, and I have beautiful faces by great photographers where it's just a portrait, but for the most part, most of my work is nudes, basically frontal nudes.


AB: What captivates you when you look at a photograph?


First of all, with any nude, you certainly want a beautiful person. I don't know that an ugly nude is something you'd want to collect. So you look for beautiful women, and I think most photographers do the same. I think you just want a quality picture, the right kind of color, the right kind of lighting, and the right kind of pose. What may be absolutely perfect and gorgeous to me, might not be to you and vice versa. But if you think of what you are looking for, you are looking for an attractive woman with a good body, pleasant smile, and a pleasant look.


AB: Can you name any photographers that you are interested in right now?


The photographers that I have the most work of in my collection are Ralph Gibson, Jock Sturges, Guido Argentini, and David Levinthal, plus a few others.


AB: Which one of your photographs was the most interesting to buy?


The Stephanie Seymour by Avedon probably took the longest to buy, because it was held up in the estate by the government. So I spent three or four years waiting to buy it, trying to buy it until it was cleared and I bought it.


AB: How do you envision the photographic art market evolving in the future?


As with my business, the stock market, there are ups and downs, periods of higher prices and higher demand in both art and photography. But you have got to think that as the economy gets better, and economically, as people feel a little bit better about where they stand, money's going to be spent. I think that art, from day one, has always been a big thing in people's lives. I'm not saying that everyone wants a huge collection of nude women, but there are probably a lot of people that would probably be interested.


AB: What do you think the role of a private collector is, and how has that changed since you started collecting?


I think collecting is like donating. It's like a charity. For example, I have donated an enormous amount of money to animal shelters. And that's because I really enjoy and have a wonderful feeling toward animals. If you don't like animals, you are going to be less enthusiastic about donating, or less interested. I think art is the same way. Why do I have 125 Blue Dogs by George Rodrigue's? When you see a Blue Dog, it makes you happy.


AB: How many photographs do you have now?


I would imagine close to 9,000.


AB: What is your goal? You can't possibly look at all those photographs!


I think the way they are displayed has been fine, I think it is very easy for people to come in and see a very small portion of my collection, but a pretty descriptive portion. I think that my interest, it hasn't died, but it has certainly slowed down to some extent. Maybe it is just that I've kind of done it, and now adding photographs, if you have 100 and you add 10, you are adding 10%. But when you have 9,000, it's minuscule. I don't know if I have lost interest or not, but I don't look for photographers like I did.


AB: In your opinion, what makes for a good collection? Are there any other collectors that you know personally that you think have outstanding collections?


In photography, I am sure there are, but I don't know of any of them. I certainly don't know that there is a nude collection that is as extensive as mine. I think if I include my Playboy photographers, I have got about 140 different photographers.


For me, it's the variety. An awful lot of photographers I have are well known, and a lot of photographers are just photographers and maybe as good as the larger names, but nobody knows them.


AB: What would the ideal viewing location be for your collection?


I guess the ideal space, and this would never happen, would be an area big enough to fit 9,000 photographs on the wall.


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