In a nondescript building in downtown Miami, Micky Wolfson is eyeing the new artifacts from Paris — propaganda posters from World War II, catalogs for an eyeglass maker from the 1930s and a promotional handout extolling the virtues of selling spices in a new product called cellophane. Micky goes through the stack, his eyes lighting up with each discovery. “Ooh, stunning,” he says about a brochure for a French steamship company sailing to Jakarta, Indonesia. “That’s brilliant,” he says, thumbing through a book on onion-skin paper from the Public Works Administration in the 1930s. He then picks up an anti-war poster from 1933 that vows “Never Again.”
“Haha,” says Micky, mirthlessly. “Then came the second World War.”
We’re in Micky’s secret archives, one of four buildings where he stashes 150,000 objects he’s collected from the period of 1885 to 1945 — the height of the Industrial Revolution to the end of World War II. In his collection are sports medals and art deco ceramics, furniture from the Arts and Crafts movement and Austrian textiles, jukeboxes, champagne buckets and more than 2,000 posters.
We walk by a hooked rug from Newfoundland made of silk stockings that have runs in them. “Early recycling,” Micky observes. Next are two fringed floor lamps from the Adirondacks cabins of collector Marjorie Merriweather Post and, nearby, a Frank Lloyd Wright cabinet with the bust of a Japanese oligarch sitting on top. (Micky retrieved the bust from a pile in a garage.)
He’s been called the “Tasmanian devil of collecting.” At the Wolfsonian in the Art Deco District on Miami Beach, the public can view some 300 pieces culled from his collection — everything from posters of world’s fairs to art nouveau furniture. In Italy, there is the Wolfsoniana, a 17th-century villa outside Genoa that houses yet more pieces of his decorative arts collection. Just don’t call any of them “museums.”
“This is not a museum. This isn’t a house of the muses. It’s an educational resource,” says Micky, who donated the Wolfsonian collection and its state-of-the-art headquarters to Florida International University in 1997. “These objects tell a tale, a visual tale of our history.” Where others see a confusing mix of collectibles, Micky says his collection paints a true picture of mankind at the dawn of the modern age. “We don’t believe in history because history is always written from a point of view,” he says. “We don’t believe in the spoken word because you can manipulate language to convince people against their will, which dictatorial regimes do. The only thing you can really trust is the language of the object, what men and women make.”
Micky is primarily interested in the message conveyed by the object. “It’s not art for art’s sake,” he says. “It’s art as a function of ideas.” There is, for instance, propaganda from the Nazi and Fascist eras — pieces that people might shy away from collecting. Micky even has tourist postcards showing Hitler practicing his speeches. To search for new objects, Micky has moved to Paris for two years. His latest finds include a poster hailing Frenchmen who worked in Nazi factories and another showing French fathers sending their sons off to fight.
Other kids collected stamps. Micky collected hotel keys. (He has 500 now — the real kind, not plastic keycards.) He started collecting “seriously” at age 12 when he purchased The Rime of the Ancient Mariner with illustrations by Gustave Doré for five francs at a Parisian stall along the River Seine. “I made a mistake; it was not a first edition,” Micky says. “I learned you couldn’t just buy things. You had to learn.” His obsession with objects took off in the ’80s after his stock in the Wometco movie chain — of which his father was a co-founder; the elder Wolfson was also the first Jewish mayor of Miami Beach — paid huge dividends.
Micky — Mitchell Wolfson Jr. — has a sense of humor about his life’s work. He was in the U.S. diplomatic corps in Italy, but when he applied for a posting in Algeria or South Africa, his mother tried to steer him into a corporate job. He rebelled and started an art import-export firm in Italy, which landed him in jail “for about a minute” for supposedly importing capital illegally. “I decided to do what I wanted to do,” he says. “Build a collection and open it to the public.” When Miami became a hot art town with Art Basel attracting the art hordes, Micky realized the city was short on professionals to mount and curate exhibits. Now his foundation works with students at Miami Dade College Wolfson campus to mount exhibitions from the collection, giving them real-world experience.
Micky, who turns 74 this month, says he’s still buying “big time.” And with that, he pulls out his latest find from the Kuna Indians of Panama. Make that 150,000 objects plus one.