My Favorite Piece

By Ilene Denton Photography by Salvatore Brancifort & Jennifer Soos August 1, 2011

Sarasota has more than its share of connoisseurs with interest and knowledge in all sorts of specialized niches. Some have amassed important collections of world-class art and objects; others don’t consider themselves collectors at all, but have acquired what they love and could afford. We asked the owners of some diverse treasures about the pieces they love most.


Steven High, Director, John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art (Rhonda, Rainer Gross)Steven High, Director, John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

Rhonda, Rainer Gross 

I don’t have a collection; rather, I have pieces that I’ve acquired over time, each one with a very personal connection, normally because I know the artist well.

My favorite piece is called Rhonda, and it’s by Rainer Gross, a German artist. It’s an oil painting on canvas that’s six by eight feet. I actually exhibited it at one point. It was owned by a private collector, and the collector ended up having a sale of the work, so I was able to acquire it that way.

I particularly respect the artist, who is still working today, but it’s also a hugely powerful, bright canvas. The artist goes into dime stores and buys dime store paintings, cuts them out and glues them onto the canvas so they become part of the overall image and are then integrated into the painting itself. Gross’s paintings connect with early abstract expressionism—there are vestiges of Hans Hofmann and an overall element of figuration through this particular classic Rubenesque bust. Wherever we move, I have to find a house that’s big enough for it to fit—it’s not a subtle piece, that’s for sure! But after 20 years, I still love to look at it.

Valentino Couture handbag

Susan Jones, vice president, JCI Jones ChemicalSusan Jones, vice president, JCI Jones Chemical

Valentino couture handbag 

I have three or four dozen handbags. Some of them are in extremely limited production worldwide, and I consider them works of art—I actually name them.

My new favorite is an evening bag my husband surprised me with in December. It’s a Valentino couture off the runway, very hard to obtain and absolutely gorgeous.

We used to go to Monaco frequently, and Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV restaurant there is the closest thing I will ever experience to being a true princess. On the table, otherwise plainly adorned, are small cinches, maybe two inches high. In late November, my husband was looking through a magazine and saw this handbag. It has three cinches across the top encrusted with Swarovski crystals, and he immediately thought of Louis XV. It wasn’t even in the States yet; he and his assistant went over hill and dale to track it down. It was so sweet.

The bag is a clutch with a metal chain. It’s adorned with white feathers with iridescent green-black-blue tips and black beading. You can wear it with your finest evening gown or with your favorite jeans. Every time I wear it I feel very special; I’m transported right back to Monaco. I named the bag Louis XV; I call it Louis for short.

I use my handbags. Life is too short not to sparkle.

1930 Rolls-Royce Springfield Phantom I

Tom Coundit, retired attorneyTom Coundit, retired attorney

1930 Rolls-Royce Springfield Phantom I

I have 21 cars, including three Rolls, three Ferraris, three Corvettes, an Aston Martin, a Jaguar. This is my favorite because it’s been to Pebble Beach, where Jay Leno posed with it, and it’s won a lot of awards from the Rolls-Royce Auto Club.

I got it from a friend in Batavia, N.Y., 18 years ago. The original owner was Jacob Lang, a bakery and beer baron in Buffalo. It cost $20,000 brand-new, which was a lot of money back in the 1930s. It’s yellow and black. In the movie The Great Gatsby, Daisy was driving a yellow Phantom 1 Rolls-Royce a couple of years older than mine when she had her unfortunate accident.

The car was made in Springfield, Mass. Most people don’t know that for eight or nine years, Rolls-Royce had a factory in Springfield because their greatest market was the United States. It’s got a straight six-cylinder engine, large, very well made. I still have the owner’s manual, which taught you how to fix things, and all the tools, which came with the car.

I drive it around sometimes. You have to remember it’s not air-conditioned and there’s no power steering or power brakes or synchronization of the gears, so it’s a little bit of a task. People love it; I consider it a rolling sculpture.

Poughkeepsie, New York, 1937, Andre Kertesz

Jay Crouse, fine art photography collectorJay Crouse, fine art photography collector

Poughkeepsie, New York, 1937, André Kertész

Dad was an amateur photographer; that’s how I developed a love for photography. When I went to school in Washington, D.C., there was a photography gallery near where I lived, and I was overwhelmed by the works of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, the great photographers of the 20th century. I studied photography for a year, but I realized I was not going to be a photographer. In 1977, I moved to Atlanta and opened the first fine art photography gallery in the Southeast. It was a golden age of photography. I represented Avedon, Cartier-Bresson, Imogen Cunningham, William Eggleston and a lot of other Southeastern photographers.

André Kertész was a Hungarian photographer who came to America to work for Harper’s in the 1930s. I tracked him down in New York; he was in his late 80s, and we struck up a wonderful friendship. One day he pulled this photograph out and said, “I’d like you to consider this for your private collection.” It was printed in 1942. In the middle ’40s, Kertész developed an allergy to the chemicals in the printing process. So this is one of the last photographs he ever personally printed.

When he took this photograph in 1937, 35-mm roll film was brand-new; prior to that everybody used glass plates. He set up his camera in the Poughkeepsie train station and waited for the right composition—the decisive moment—which was so new in photography then. This photo captured for me what fine art photography is all about: It’s an abstract piece of work created with a camera in everyday life.


Michael Saunders, Founder and CEO, Michael Saunders & Company (Light Shift, by Syd Solomon)Michael Saunders, Founder and CEO, Michael Saunders & Company

Light Shift, by Syd Solomon

I met Syd and Annie Solomon in the 1970s through John D. MacDonald and his wife. Annie would create Sunday soirees with their friends—artists, writers, musicians, people like Mitch Miller, Jerry Wexler, Betty Friedan. She’d cook a big pot of cassoulet, bring out a jug of wine. We’d all gravitate to Syd’s studio, a work of art in itself, and have fascinating conversations. In the courtyard, on an easel, there would be Syd’s latest piece, or a piece Annie thought he should sell. This particular Sunday, this painting was like a magnet; I said I just have to have it. There’s so much reflective light in it—that’s what I love. Annie let me buy it on time.

In the 1990s, my house burned down, and if the painting had not been in my office, I would have lost it. [That fire] has made collecting so much more important to me. When you’ve lost everything, you collect for a whole new reason: It’s about memories, friends, that fatal attraction when you just have to have something.

When I look at this painting, I think of Syd’s laugh, his generosity and wit. He was just bigger than life, and Annie as well. There couldn’t have been a better pair to represent the art colony that was Sarasota in those days. This painting is not just about Syd and Annie Solomon; it’s about a time in Sarasota history.

La Romanée-Conti Burgundy, 2008

Michael Klauber, co-founder, Michael’s On EastMichael Klauber, co-founder, Michael’s On East

La Romanée-Conti Burgundy, 2008 

In t he fall of 2009, my wife, Terri, and I got to visit the vineyard that makes our favorite wines in the world—the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, a Grand Cru vineyard in the Côte de Nuits region of Burgundy, whose history dates back over five centuries. The owner, Aubert de Villaine, is a dear friend. His wines taste like heaven, or as close to heaven as you can get. It’s very rare that visitors ever see the centuries-old caves; it is a truly emotional experience. Third-generation winemaker Bernard Noble led us through barrel-tasting the 2008 vintage and then played a game with us, digging bottles out of the ancient cellar and having us guess the vintage by tasting wines more than 30 years old. No small challenge indeed!   

The current vintage we tasted in the barrel, La Romanée-Conti 2008, sells for more than $4,000 a bottle. It’s one of the rarest and most perfect wines in the world as well as the most expensive. It has an amazing bouquet of violet mixed with a hint of cherry, a pure velvet texture, and a lingering finish of almost two minutes. I bought some cases of that recently and it all sold out in one day, mostly to Sarasota collectors. We don’t own that wine, but we did buy a case of the 2000, in honor of our daughter Mikayla’s birth year. We may drink it at her wedding one day.  

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