Theory of the Golden Thread: An Interview with Joel Fletcher and John Copenhaver by Mary Burruss

Posted by Carson Smith - February 18 2020

The careers of International Art Dealers, Joel Fletcher and John Copenhaver, are a study in the Zen of spontaneity and following a “golden thread” of serendipitous connections. This “open-to-what-may-come” attitude combined with their gift for detail is what sets them apart from other fine art dealers. The golden threads they have followed have yielded treasures in the form of rare art and meaningful personal relationships. Even their meeting and ultimate partnership speaks to this way of being.

 

Fletcher gets his soft-spoken Southern charm from his Louisiana upbringing. After graduating from Tulane, he enjoyed an absorbing career based in Paris working for the Council on International Educational Exchange and with the study abroad programs of City University of New York before embarking on a 40-year career in art dealing. Copenhaver, an artist who studied at the Art Students’ League of New York, is a Virginia native with degrees from both Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Tech. He was an art educator for 18 years before meeting Fletcher who would change the trajectory of his life. They met twenty-seven years ago when Fletcher was a guest lecturer to an American art study group at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. There were forty people in attendance but Copenhaver says of Fletcher, “For me, it was as if no one else was in the room.” When it was time for the audience to ask questions, Copenhaver raised his hand and instead of inquiring about the subject matter asked, “Do you have plans for lunch?” Unfortunately, Fletcher had lunch plans but the two soon scheduled a dinner at Fletcher’s home and as Copenhaver puts it, “I went for dinner and never left.”

In 1993, they formally went into business together and Fletcher/Copenhaver Fine Art was born. Fletcher is the “facts” guy and Copenhaver is the numbers and logistics guru.  Fletcher is a published author and historian with an encyclopedic mind who remembers things in detail. Copenhaver attends to the daily details of running the business. The company specializes in American and European modern figural art of the 19th through 21st centuries and growing it took the duo on junkets all over the United States and Europe. By following a “ golden thread” of meticulous research, chance connections and coincidences, they have discovered some major artists that they have introduced through exhibitions to collectors.

One cache of pieces they chanced upon was that of English artist, Derek Fowler. The duo was visiting their friend, Bob Hope (not the comedian), in London and decided to lunch in the village of Greenwich where they stopped in an antique shop. “The shop was just a charming mess, as many of those English places are, with stuff everywhere,” says Copenhaver.  Amongst the 19th century furniture and trinkets of all eras they noticed some wonderful drawings of World War II soldiers signed “Derek Fowler.” Fletcher, who is always interested in the story of things, asked the proprietor for information. He had none but thought that Fowler’s widow might still be living. Upon return to their host’s home, the two scoured the phone book to find Mrs. Fowler’s number and rang her up. Copenhaver recalls, “Within an hour we were sitting in her living room.” Mrs. Fowler opened trunk after dust laden trunk that looked like they had been untouched for at least 50 years, revealing a wonderful archive of exquisite originals. The art dealers were instantly moved by Fowler’s drawings which are like snapshots of personal moments from one of the most significant events of the 20th century. There are soldiers lounging on bunks, writing letters and passing time while they were being transported to Burma from London.  “He was there first-hand recording his experience from the sensitivity of the artist’s point of view yet with the professionalism of an officer,” says Copenhaver. “There are so many levels of importance to this collection that relate to significant aspects of that century that a serious collector of the period would want. And we have the provenance directly back to the source which is, of course, what you always want and rarely get.” More research at the Imperial War Museum in London resulted in an important exchange of information including the photocopying of several of the newly acquired pieces to add to the museum’s Fowler archive. This is the kind of deep level research that is done for every piece that Fletcher and Copenhaver have in their inventory. Anything they can possibly find out is included on the backs of the pieces.  “We supply the information that we would want to have as collectors ourselves,” says Fletcher.

 Another golden thread tale is that of their acquisition of original works by Moses Soyer who is considered among the most important of American figurative artists working in the 20th century. Fletcher was exhibiting at an antiques show in the Hamptons and happened to meet David Soyer, Moses’ son. Over the years as their friendship developed, Soyer began to offer Fletcher and Copenhaver pieces of his father’s work from his father’s estate – another direct provenance. “We introduced Soyer’s work to a new generation of collectors,” says Copenhaver. In 2018, they donated eight drawings from this collection to to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “The museum has in their permanent collection a self-portrait by Moses,” says Fletcher.  “We donated a number of drawings that include self -portraits and relate to the work that the museum already had.” The pair were so known for this collection and their meticulous research that they were invited to co-curate the exhibition Moses Soyer: My Message is People in 1996 at the Museum of Arts & Sciences in Daytona Beach, Florida, and the Polk Museum in Lakeland, Florida. They also co-curated the exhibition Moses Soyer: From Social Realism to Romantic Realism at the Ridderhof-Martin Gallery of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia in 2001.

Their peers at antique shows have often commented that there is an undefinable “extra something” about what Fletcher/Copenhaver have to offer. Buyers are assured that when they purchase a piece from Fletcher/Copenhaver it is the best it can be. “We pay a great deal of attention to presentation,” says Fletcher. “All the works on paper are matted with acid-free material. We use Museum Glass™ or sometimes Conservation Clear Glass™ to protect them from the harmful effects of light.”

Many are also beautifully framed with custom frames from France. And, of course, there is a golden thread story associated with that as well. While the pair were looking for high-quality, unique frames for their art offerings, they discovered through a European dealer, RG Les Cadres Gault, a firm that has framed art for most of the great artists working in France in the 20th century. For the last 15 years Fletcher/Copenhaver have worked with them, becoming friendly with Caroline de Courbeville who manages the gallery in Paris.” We’ve developed such a lovely relationship with Caroline that we can just send her a photograph and the dimensions of the piece we want framed, and she sends us pictures of several frames she thinks appropriate. We choose one, and then two weeks later the frame arrives at our door,” says Fletcher. This valuable relationship led to future adventures. The owner of the business, Frédéric Richard, invited them to the village of Ecuisses in Burgundy where the atelier is located and the frames are made. Copenhaver was even invited to create a frame himself, which he did under Richard’s expert instruction.

 

Another aspect that makes Fletcher/Copenhaver unique is the level of attention they pay to their customers. “We always feel that if we accept an invitation to be part of a show, part of that agreement is to make sure the patrons who come in have a positive experience of being treated like guests in a home,” says Copenhaver. They consciously create an environment where people can feel relaxed and explore.

After decades of traveling to purchase and display their wares, the partners have retired to their home in Fredericksburg. However, collectors and other interested parties will be able to see and purchase art from their collection at the Fletcher/Copenhaver Fine Art dedicated space at Crossroads Art Center in the near West End of Richmond or on the Crossroads Art Center website. “It’s exciting and fulfilling for us to share the art that we found by following the golden thread,” says Copenhaver.

Join us Saturday, February 22 fron 1:00 p.m. - 3:00 p.m. for a special Gallery Talk with Fletcher/Copenhaver Fine Art at Crossroads Art Center. The event is FREE but space is limited. Please RSVP to reserve your spot.