Collector Jerry Freeman, a regular in many galleries, celebrates his love of Western art on the occasion of his 95th birthday.
In Dallas, on March 9, more than 215 guests rose to their feet at the sound of Proud to be an American played by a live band. American and Army flags lined the room, with another large American flag filling the space behind the bandstand, where the Grammy-winning band was playing. The man of the hour was escorted in, flanked by an Army officer and an ROTC student on each side. A military color guard followed, as did Texas congressman Pete Sessions, who led the audience in the Pledge of the Allegiance. “[It was] a grand entrance for an amazing man,” one guest says.
Jerry Freeman’s 95th birthday party was not just the marking of a milestone—it was a celebration of one man’s magnificent life and his remarkable accomplishments. Freeman had risen from almost nothing to become one of the most prominent businessmen in Dallas as an owner of car dealerships and a bank. Along the way he grew up plowing and harvesting with his sharecropper father, fought in World War II, became a savvy car salesman and, notably for our purposes, rose to become a noteworthy and respected collector of fine Western art.
The art always came easy for Jerry, says his wife, Frances, who says she was the reason he found fine art in the first place. “He was a natural at it, and he enjoyed it immensely when he started,” she says. “Today the only two things that interest him are World
War II and the military, and art. He just wants to dedicate his time on those things.”
It wasn’t always Western art that fascinated Jerry; in fact, early interests had roots thousands of miles away from the West. “My wife, Frances, opened an antique shop in 1974. The Tea Leaf Antiques and Art was basically an oriental [gallery] specializing in cloisonné and that was the beginning of my appreciation of art,” he says, referring to the intricate form of art that involved metal, enamel and glass. “The Meiji period of Japanese cloisonné was fascinating and beautifully executed. In fact, we ultimately had the finest collection in this country, and it was featured in a sale by a prominent London gallery in 1990.”
He continues, “The art of cloisonné enamel is very delicate and after we sold the collection we decided that bronzes would be our next collection. We had a customer of varied art interests who first introduced me to the world of Western art, which led to our attending the Cowboy Western Art Show in Phoenix,” Jerry says. “At that time we met [dealer] David Defrancesca who spoke to me about his interest in Charles Marion Russell’s work. David came to Dallas the next week with several Russell paintings. He told me that they were for sale… i advised him if he could locate more Russells, we would finance buying, with him selling, splitting the profit—thus began the financing of David travelling across the country selling Russell’s work.”
Jerry and Frances eventually closed the antique shop, but pursued collecting and selling art under the Tea Leaf name. Their buying led them to more Russells as well as works by Frederic Remington, Frank Tenney Johnson, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran and members of the Taos Society of Artists—a work by Eanger Irving Couse was their first major Taos purchase. “We began to travel to the auctions… so the by’s and Christie’s in New York, Scottsdale and Coeur d’alene. We purchased and also partnered with Texas Art Gallery, Altermann Gallery and others in Dallas, and all of the Western art dealers in Santa Fe including dealers in New York and throughout the U.S.,” Jerry says, adding they only bought historic artists. Once a prominent Western bronze artist asked Jerry why he didn’t buy her work. “You’re not dead yet,” Jerry told her. “[She gave] a big laugh but little did she know that we were partnering many of her bronzes with dealers.”
Today their collection is stunning and vast. Much of their Western work is in their Santa Fe home, where walls are lined with pieces by Joseph Henry Sharp, William R. Leigh, William Gollings, Thomas Moran, Frank
Tenney Johnson, Clark Hulings, Birger Sandzén and two of their favorite artists, Nicolai Fechin and Leon Gaspard. They also have works by Evelyne Boren, a neighbor, and a collection of Dan Ostermiller bronzes both inside and outside the house.
Long before the art collection came together, Jerry grew up as a sharecropper’s son in Oklahoma, where he would tend to fields with a team of mules. After attending what is today Southeastern Oklahoma State University, the Oklahoma teenager was drafted to the University of Kentucky under the Army Specialized Training Program. As World War II progressed in Europe, the training program was cancelled and the young men were sent overseas to fight in the European Theater. As part of the 14th Armored Division in France, Jerry saw heavy combat, at one point under the command of Gen. George S. Patton, who took charge of the division on December 1, 1944. Nearly two weeks later, the division was in the thick of the Battle of the Bulge. “One of the fiercest defensive battles in the campaign was
fought at the little towns of Hatten-rittershoffen where the 14th held their line against all odds when others were overrun,” writes Barb Ivey, Jerry’s niece, in a small biography on her uncle. “The 14th Armored Division was known as ‘The Liberators’ as they liberated two Stalags”— German prison camps—“the largest being at Moosberg. Jerry seldom speaks about the atrocities he witnessed, and when he does it brings tears to his eyes.”
After the war, Jerry moved to Texas where he talked his way into a job selling cars. A local dealer told him he could have a job if he sold an old Packard, which Jerry did on short notice. “When he returned to the dealership, the surprised owner hired him as a salesman, however he was told he could not have any of the leads on the lot he had to go out into the community and scare up his own sales,” Ivey writes. “He printed 5,000 business cards and gave them out in a town of 15,000. Over time, he became the top salesman. He was recruited to a Buick dealership in Garland, Texas, and his legacy in the auto industry began. He never looked back, although even in his later years he never lost his love for plowing and harvesting with a team of mules. Upon semi-retirement Jerry bought a farm in East Texas and went ‘back to his roots chasing a team of mules’ as a hobby.”
It’s that small-town humbleness that many friends and colleagues say made Jerry the successful and kind man he is today. Carlos Acosta, with Acosta Strong Fine Art in Santa Fe, says Jerry has been a legend in Santa Fe for many years. “As soon as he came in we all hit it off and became friends. He’s a great supporter of galleries and we’re just so grateful to him—he’s a true friend and role model,” Acosta says. “He’s a fun guy to be around, especially his energy, his enthusiasm for art— it’s all contagious. When he comes in he lights up the room. There is a whole array of things that make him special, but really what it comes down to is he’s just a good person.”
Acosta says the Freemans adore Fechin, especially Frances, whose favorite piece by the artist was once in their possession, but eventually was sold. “About five years ago, for Frances’ birthday, he bought her the Fechin piece they had previously owned together,” he remembers. “He got it back for her, and it was a really special moment for both them. That’s the kind of person he is.”
Thomas Nygard, who owns a gallery in Bozeman, Montana, has also worked frequently with Jerry over the last 30 years, including on Russell bronzes. “He was an incredibly forward thinker, and probably the most dominant individual responsible for the uptick in interest and subsequent value of Charles M. Russell bronzes,” Nygard says. “He started buying Russell bronzes when they were generally inexpensive and in the time he started collecting to now they’ve gone up exponentially in price.”
The dealer continues, “I tend to ask and suggest to collectors when they are about to spend appreciable money on something, they need to ask themselves three questions: First, which they can answer themselves, do I like it? Does it speak to me? Is this something I want to live with? Number two, is it a good work of art? Not every artist nailed it every time. Edgar Payne and Joseph Sharp did 10,000 paintings, and they were on and off—more on than off. And third, is it a good value? People that can answer these questions confidently are people who know the market. That’s not just smart buying, it’s connoisseurship. And Jerry can answer those questions every time. You have to have good eyes to do it, and he has very good eyes.”
Nygard adds: “When I grow up I want to be just like Jerry Freeman.”
“My business was automobiles—an Oldsmobile dealer for 50 years—and I am blessed that my wife introduced me to the world of art,” Jerry says. “It has been my passion and lucrative hobby for the past 40 years and we have experienced dynamic associations with the best of dealers, museums and art collectors in the entire country. The love of art indeed represents a home of love!”
Jerry and Frances Freeman at Jerry’s 95th birthday party in Dallas in March. Photo courtesy Frances Freeman.
Birger Sandzén’s Santa Fe Poplars is above the fireplace near a number of bronzes, including a buffalo by Dan Ostermiller on the lower right.
Charlie Dye’s Old Blue, left, hangs next to a Tony Abeyta work in a hallway.
Aspens by Night, by Jerry Jordan, hangs in the bedroom.
William R. Leigh’s Wash Day above Acoma.
Thomas Moran’s Venice with a Dan Ostermiller bronze of a wolf in front of it.