Reader tells me more about artist Collins Thomas
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    Auction Finds

    Who was Phila. artist Collins Thomas?

    Friday at Auction Finds is readers’ questions day. I try to guide readers to resources to help them determine the value of their items. I’m not able to appraise their treasures, but I can do some preliminary research to get them started. So, these are market values based on prices I find on the web, not appraisal for insurance purposes that I suggest for items that have been determined to be of great value.

    Today, I have a query of my own. I am seeking help in identifying a Philadelphia artist named Collins Thomas.

    I came across a small collage by Thomas at auction recently, It showed three African American men, one seated, looking down, and another standing and staring down over his shoulder. Another man stood far away from them. They all looked forlorn but I could not figure out why. The canvas was an amalgam of contrasting colors and designs with a big number “5” in the center. It was signed “Collins 1997.”

    Phila. artist Collins Thomas

    “The News Collage,” a painting by Philadelphia artist Collins Thomas.

    Turning to the back, I found this inscription: “11/ The News Collage. 75. Collins Thomas,” ($75 was apparently the price) in black ball-point pen on white paper glued to a piece of brown wall paneling, which was his canvas. The painting was in a standard blonde wooden frame that had been painted gold.

    After reading the title, I looked at the image again and saw a swatch of white on the ground in front of the seated man. He was reading a newspaper, and the news must have been troubling.

    Obviously, I was curious about who Collins Thomas was, so I went Googling. I suspected that he was local artist, because I’m always stumbling onto works by local artists familiar and unfamiliar to me, including Roland Ayers, Columbus P. Knox, Ed Loper (actually a Delaware artist), Stuart M. Egnal, Ed Jones, Henry Bozeman Jones and Frank J. Dillon (a New Jersey artist).

    Phila. artist Collins Thomas

    The ID label on the back of the painting by artist Collins Thomas.

    I wasn’t sure if Thomas was an African American artist, but I assumed that he was based on his subject matter. (Note: I later learned that I was wrong. He was a white artist, very shy and unassuming, according to a friend who knew him and has a large collection of his works. The friend came across this blog post about Thomas and left a comment, below). I Googled “Collins Thomas artist,” and got plenty of results for a Thomas Collins, including an artist who lived during the 19th century and the director of the Perez Art Museum Miami. Neither of these men were the artist of my auction painting.

    Next, I searched for “Collins Thomas African American artist,” but could not find him as a listed artist. I was about to donate the painting to a silent auction when I decided to search for him again. I’m usually reticent about giving up art that I know little about.

    Finally, I came upon a similar Thomas painting listed on eBay titled “6 People and Dog” (1995). It featured children and adults on a sidewalk, and was being sold by ArtRooms Gallery in Red Bank, NJ. The gallery had only minimal information about Thomas:

    “Collins Thomas 1928-1998

    Philadelphia PA Artist, Philadelphia Academy of art.

    Known for his street collages and oil paintings.”

    Phila. artist Collins Thomas

    The back of the painting by artist Collins Thomas shows the wall paneling he used as a canvas.

    Thomas apparently attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. According to the gallery, the paintings were mixed media (which is a little different from a collage) and part of a series that showed Philadelphia street scenes. Maybe the numbers on the auction painting corresponded to series numbers.

    Searching the gallery website for Collins Thomas, I found three other street scenes (one of which is also for sale on eBay), all in the same style of a mixture of paint and paper, with asking prices ranging from $225 to $395.

    I’d love to know more about Thomas. If you have information about him, please drop me a line in the Comments box below.

    Phila. artist Collins Thomas

    Three paintings by artist Collins Thomas. Photos from ArtRooms Gallery website.


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    1. My wife and I and some friends have met Collins several times in his studio in Philly when he was alive. We have the largest private collection of his work and love every piece. Collins was very shy and a bit of a recluse. He was Caucasian and looked a bit like Andy Warhol–you hardly knew he was there, even standing in his presence. It took several years for Collins to get comfortable with us buying his work. He did not like to part with it and seldom sold or exhibited his work and never invited people to his studio in Philly, on South Street, except those close friends we introduced, personally, to Collins.

      We have one piece in particular, which might be his masterpiece and won best in show at a gallery in Philly, but he refused to sell it. Finally, years later after getting to know Collins, he sold it to me, but only after I stopped asking him. I think he sold it to me, knowing I would never re-sell it. From looking at his work, especially the ones depicted on this site, you would imagine Collins travelled, but surprisingly, he did not. I believe he went to Italy once in his life and that may have been it. He travelled by looking through magazines, which he also incorporated into some of his collage work, but all his subjects and composition were Philadelphian, and once you know that, it becomes a picture as clear as day. One of his works in particular that we have in our bedroom, at first appearance, seems like a scene in the French West Indies, but if you look closely and above the fence you can make out the distinctive Philly skyline. Some of the words he displays in his paintings are meaningless, although they look like words. I asked Collins about that and he replied, “I just liked the way the letters looked and sounded together.” He also loved numbers and many of his works will display that. We have two self-portraits and the only self portraits I have ever seen of Collins—both of him shaving.

      He died, sadly. I seem to remember he subscribed to the thinkings of Christian Science and when he had a stroke, he opted not to seek out medical help and that led to complications. He lived with a woman, above a shoe store in the building he owned, which upstairs had a living quarters and above that his studio. I never knew the relationship of the woman he lived with, but a year after his death, I called Collins to arrange another visit and the woman answered and informed me Collins had died—very matter of fact. I asked what became of his art, of which he had hundreds of painting, some finished, some started and abandoned, some painted over and her reply left me speechless—It was all thrown away.

      He was a brilliant painter and quite an interesting artist that the world should have known more of. He grew up in Harve de Grace, MD and later settled in Philly, where he lived out his days.

      We miss him, but his art lives on and everyone who has ever visited our home becomes transfixed on his work—as I do every time I open the door.


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