Art lover T.B. Walker: Where it all began

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 9, 2005 - 11:00 PM

Like many self-made 19th-century millionaires, Minneapolis lumberman Thomas Barlow Walker (1840-1928) was full of civic pride and eager to share his art collection. Born in Xenia, Ohio, he studied mathematics in college and then took to the road selling grindstones. Arriving in Minneapolis in 1862, he worked as a surveyor and began buying timber land. Within 20 years, he had built vast sawmills at Grand Forks, N.D., and Crookston, Minn. With his sons, he cornered large timber tracts in the Sierra Nevadas of California. By the time he died, he was trumpeted as one of the world's 15 richest men.

As an art collector, Walker was omnivorous, buying Chinese jades, Old Master paintings (many of them bogus), Indian portraits, gems and curios including a death mask of President Lincoln. In 1879 he invited the public to visit the sky-lit art gallery attached to his Hennepin Avenue house, and in 1927 he opened a namesake museum that evolved into Walker Art Center.

After his death, the museum gradually sold off Walker's original collection and turned to modern art. The last of his paintings, 15 stellar American landscapes, were auctioned at Sotheby's in New York in 1989. They fetched $11.5 million, including a record $8.5 million for a Frederic Edwin Church lakeside scene. In 1992 the Minneapolis Institute of Arts bought from the T. B. Walker Foundation the famous "jade mountain" and 25 other jades that Walker once owned. Curiously, it was the religious paintings he gave to decorate the Sunday-school rooms at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church that are among his most lasting legacies. Now displayed in a gallery attached to the church, they include museum-quality paintings by 16th- and 19th-century European masters.

Mary Abbe is at mabbe@startribune.com.

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