The bountiful collection at Graves International Art

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Not everything in Graves International Art collection is on display. John and Alex Graves welcome queries on pieces not seen. Photo: Amy Jackson Not everything in Graves International Art collection is on display. John and Alex Graves welcome queries on pieces not seen. Photo: Amy Jackson

Charlottesville has had an active, if continually changing, gallery scene for many years, but there now seems to be a critical mass developing that could turn our maturing city into a serious art collector’s destination.

With the opening of some new downtown art venues there is more reason for art lovers to make a trip to town—and stay an extra day or two. One of these galleries is Graves International Art, known as GIA.

In one of Court Square’s genteel 18th- century brick homes at the corner of Jefferson and Fourth streets, John Graves and his son, Alex, run an impressive operation. Room after room is filled, from floor to ceiling, with etchings, prints and paintings by many of art’s luminaries. And add to that inventory capably executed works of a few yet-to-be-household names. Mahogany tabletops fill the center of the rooms, covered with myriad porcelain platters, figurines and framed miniatures on easels, illuminated by splendid crystal chandeliers.

John Graves ventured into the art business in Florida in the late ’70s, at a time when art was still flying off the walls of many urban galleries and into newly constructed homes with vaulted ceilings and cavernous square footage. However, with the subsequent ups and downs of the economy, the art business went through a rash of uncertainties and rough patches. Galleries struggled and tried relocating to lower rent districts, and many ultimately closed, with the big art fairs supplanting them. John Graves persevered through all of that upheaval, slowly building his gallery’s notably diverse stable of artists and developing long-standing relationships with his buyers.

In 1994, Graves International Art relocated to Orange County, and then to the handsomely renovated Dollar General Store building in Gordonsville. However, the dynamic quality and population of a university town appealed more to John and Alex, so they moved to Charlottesville to introduce us to some of the authentic greats of art’s history, direct from their own vast collection.

John and his son are passionate about what they do, and their enthusiasm is evident. John relishes the 19th century English landscape engraving as much as he loves Scottish painter Gary Thomas Morrow’s romantic impressionistic painting of slender young women demurely gazing at their gardens. He admires the surgically perfect rendering of a pair of Ron Louque’s waterfowl afloat in an icy estuary, and the brashly exuberant slashes of primary color in a limited-edition Miro poster.

His admiration is also clear as he introduces the kaleidoscopic portraits, paintings and prints of his other son, Jack, whose exhibition space is also in the gallery, and who has been making strides on the New York scene.

There are many other offerings to drink in as one wanders through GIA’s brimming rooms. Thomas Gainsborough, Jacques Villon, Edgar Degas, Georges Braque, Wassily Kandinsky, John James Audubon, William Merritt Chase, Philip Pearlstein, Jim Dine, Andy Warhol and even a Damien Hirst, just to drop a few names.

Graves does all the matting and framing for the work they sell. Rococo gold, distressed pecan or Art Deco silver leaf frames present each print or painting with added finery. John does all the frame designing, and says his clients trust him to make the aesthetic decisions on what most befits the piece. It is a charming paradox to see a painting once made by an artist with medium-stained fingernails, spattered clothing and a minimalist’s desire for reduction, shoulder-to-shoulder with a painting intended upon conception for society’s finest parlor, both dressed in hearty gold frames and fraternizing as politely as posh guests at an awards banquet.

Alex Graves’ role at GIA is to research and manage the gallery’s international Web outreach, establishing its visibility and facilitating connoisseurship in all corners of the globe. He was packing up a piece to send off to Australia when I arrived.

Purchasing something of significant value, sight unseen, has become a standard practice that relies on a solid degree of trust in the source. This is something that Graves International Art has successfully cultivated over the years.

But nothing is as satisfying to those who love art as seeing it firsthand, where the object reveals the quiet reasons behind its worth—the qualities that surpass brand-name recognition and the gift of an enriching moment spent in an individual piece of art’s presence. This, GIA offers free of charge.

The experience may require some concentration from the visitor to focus on each piece of interest amid the salon-style presentation. There is much to relish, and for those who can, to invest in. There are some small affordable matted prints to be found in the bins as well.

Outside, on the front stoop of GIA, stands a vinyl blowup of Edvard Munch’s startled protagonist from “The Scream”—a fitting mascot to welcome gallery visitors. Sotheby’s auctioning of “The Scream” for close to $120 million in 2012 heralded what is turning out to be a bright new era in contemporary art collecting and investing.

Deborah McLeod

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