Art and Fiction

Bill Acquavella '59 with Steve Martin in a New York Times photo by Ruth Fremson.

Comedian, actor, author and art collector Steve Martin’s new novel, “Object of Beauty,” has an interesting Washington and Lee connection. The novel is set in the New York City art world. Martin is a renowned art collector in his own right.

The W&L connection (actually, there are two) is the presence in the novel of real-life art dealer William Acquavella, a 1959 alumnus who heads up Acquavella Galleries in New York. Described as a “mega dealer” in a New York Times feature story about Martin’s new book, Bill is cited by name in at least two different scenes in the novel.

In one passage, Martin refers to the Italian restaurant Saint Ambroeus where the art crowd gathers. Martin describes the restaurant this way: “When Larry Gagosian, the champion art world muscle-flexing aesthete, and Bill Acquavella, the connected and straight-shooting dealer in Impressionists and beyond, were at their separate tables, the place had a nuclear afterglow.”

Martin goes on to discuss the rivalry between the two dealers, who deal with “different corners of the market, though temperatures could rise to boiling when their merchandise overlapped. Picasso was implied to be Acquavella’s, and Cy Twombly was implied to be Gagosian’s, but what if some Saudi prince wanted to swap his Picasso for a Twombly? Star wars.”

There, of course, is the other W&L connection. Artist Cy Twombly is a member of W&L’s Class of 1953.

Acquavella Galleries are located at 18 East 79th Street. The gallery was founded by Bill’s father, Nicholas Acquavella, in 1921, and originally specialized in works of the Italian Renaissance. Once Bill joined his father in 1960, the gallery expanded its focus and is now known for major works of the 19th and 20th centuries.

In 1990, Bill partnered with Sotheby’s to buy the contents of the Pierre Matisse Gallery. It was one of the largest art deals of the late 20th century — a $143 million deal for 2,300 works by Joan Miro, Jean Dubuffet, Alberto Giacommetti, Marc Chagall and other 20th-century masters.



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