Lester Wunderman

Lester Wunderman was a successful advertising executive, renowned as the father of direct marketing which he created in the late 1950s. Lester was also an avid collector of Dogon African art, having amassed a “world class” collection which now resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Musee Du Quai Branly in Paris.

I knew Lester as an investor in my hedge fund in the late 1980s. However, as we both had an interest in tribal art, we spoke more about art than investing.

Lester started collecting Dogon art from Mali in a chance view of a figurative object at a gallery in LA. He didn’t quite know why this artwork stirred a passion, but “it spoke to me.” After much time and money spent on amassing his collection, Lester visited the Dogon people who lived at desert’s edge and for whom sourcing water was often a preoccupation. Warmly received and aware of the water issues facing the Dogon, upon his return to NY, Lester contracted geologists and engineers to drill several drinking water wells for the Dogon. He later returned to visit the Dogon and was initiated as a shaman, with a animist festival highlighted by singing and dancing at a village where he had connected the Dogon to a water source.

The singing and dancing resonated within him. It was then he realized the artworks in his collection were essentially empty; for what he was seeking was not artworks, but the singing and dancing connecting him and all in the community as one. Soon after, Lester distributed his collection to museums for those less fortunate than himself to experience the life of the Dogon vicariously.

Merton Simpson

Merton Simpson was a black man born in 1928 in racially segregated South Carolina. Merton was a musician, painter and, after settling in New York, a world-renowned tribal art dealer.

As a collector of tribal art, I met Merton in 1991 and over the years purchased a few objects he had on offer. More significantly, we became friends; that is, we were completely open in our talks; taking vicarious joy in each other’s tales and perspectives, without judgement.

I did much of the talking as Merton was not a man of many words or paragraphs. Yet, Merton conveyed his feelings by laughing which is what he did much of our time together.

Merton loved the physical experience of being alive. He loved looking at art, listening to music, eating and fucking. I could appreciate that.

While in his day Merton was considered a top tribal art dealer, in his later years there was much talk about some of the objects he had on offer being of dubious authenticity. (Authenticity is the foundation of the collectible art market, without which art prices could not rise to as high as the sky. For if art was simply a visual experience, high quality “fakes” would be as valuable as authentic artworks.)

Some in the field of tribal art collecting suggested that Merton’s “fakes” were not offered with malintent, but perhaps Merton with age lost his critical “eye” for identifying artworks that were “real” or “fake.” However, I suspect Merton evolved beyond these artificial categorizations. Merton came to simply enjoy and appreciate art things, as well as things generally, as there were, not as a function of how they were categorized or relative to other objects. He saw things not as this, that or another, but as is.

In one of our many get-togethers, we looked at an African Nkisi figure, commonly called a “nail fetish,” to consider whether it was “real” or a “fake.” After some minutes, I asked Merton what he thought, to which he responded: “It is what it is.”

That’s as God self-identified to Moses: “I am what I am.” Simply, Merton delighted at the light from the “Burning Bush.”


My Awakening

When I was 16, living in Brooklyn with my parents, one summer night I drove to Brighton Beach and sat on the rocks along the shore. Reflections from the moon danced on the water, the ocean breathed in the surf and breathed out a roar. The night sky was a black blanket with pinholes to unknowable worlds on its other side. Lights and sounds vibrating the air, every-thing teeming with aliveness; unique, unlike anything experienced before.

I wondered why the ocean, expressing itself with motion and sound, was not considered as alive as are plants and animals. What did it mean to be alive? The “alive” classification made little sense. Classifications, descriptions and thoughts generally felt artificial, man-made; helpful for organizing and communicating, but otherwise empty of aliveness.

Who am I in all this?

The sounds, the lights, the ever-changing shapes unfolding from nothing, the ocean smells; overwhelmingly beautiful, yet eerie as in the presence of a great spirit. Then, the infinite number of finite things were no longer finite, but manifestations of one infinite thing. I was infinitesimal before the infinite, until I realized I was the infinite.

This was a religious experience, but not connected to an organized religion. It was initially animism and then pantheism. This was my awakening and realization of our immortality.

Antiquities dealer in Jerusalem

Some 25 years back, in the “old city” section of Jerusalem, I stepped into a shop selling antiquities. As I looked at various objects in glass cases, the owner of the shop introduced himself and said he’d been an antiquities dealer for more than fifty years, had dealt in very fine and desirable objects and was sure he had something I’d like. I told him I’d been collecting antiquities for some time and wanted to look around. He then asked: “What are you looking for.”  I replied: “I don’t know what I’m looking for until I find it.” To which he said: “In that case, you’re looking for nothing.” While not apparent to me at the time, ultimately he was right.

Now, after many years of collecting antiquities and tribal art and generally living to pursue personal desires, eureka: nothing. Looking for nothing, desiring nothing; not because I have everything, but as I am the everything.

Be Careful For What You Wish

All our wishes come true but not in the forms we imagine.

In 1973 I graduated from college and planned to start working, have a family and take a year at a Zen monastery when I reached 40, like Philip Kapleau who wrote The Three Pillars of Zen. At 40, my family and business partners would not have been encouraging had I taken a year-long sabbatical. However, at 43 my family and 140 friends threw a farewell party for me at the Harvard Club before I left for a 13 month stay at a Federal prison.

What landed me in prison was my involvement in an “insider trading” case. I personally profited $50K. Legal fees cost me roughly $2M and fines and penalties another $1.8M. Moreover, I was no longer allowed to manage other people’s money, though all of my investors stayed with me until I was prohibited from working. As a result of my not being allow to work, my net worth today is not even a tiny fraction of what it would have been otherwise.

I didn’t think that my trading was criminal. But others obviously did. In any event, the cost of going to trial, fines, penalties and the sanctions placed upon me undoubtedly were punitive to an extreme.  How do I feel? Pretty good as I play squash 4 – 5 times a week and I play with the prosecutor in my case. Why? Because I was born with the gene of happiness and the prosecutor is a wonderful guy, good squash player.

I did learn something from this ordeal: best be careful what we wish for as every wish will come true but not in the form we imagine. While I didn’t go to a traditional Zen monastery, prison was a Zen monastery of sorts. It did provide an awakening moment.

During my stay, my interactions with the other prisoners was for the most part fun. As well, I generously paid some to make my bed, clean the shower before I used it and make me foods like hand-cut French fries. The night before I left the prison, I asked a group of inmates whether they would miss me as we had a good time together. Seemingly in unison, they said no, because they hated me. I was a bit shocked. They said they hated me because I had such a good time. Maybe they needed a Zen monastery more than I did.