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Pryor Dodge: The Bicycling Collector

Jeanne Schinto | June 16th, 2013


Pryor Dodge in his SoHo loft in April 2013. The bicycle on the wall, patented by John McCloskey of Ontario, Canada, in 1896, has a one-piece bentwood hickory frame. Schinto photo.


Dodge on Rue Saint-Vincent in Montmartre in 1971, just a few months after he bought his first high-wheel bicycle and moved to Paris.


This is the photo of Dodge in the Brooklyn Bridge Centennial parade. It appeared in the New York Post. He’s riding a British Matchless that is no longer in the collection.


Dodge’s circa 1898 Cygnet bicycle was made by the Stoddard Manufacturing Company of Dayton, Ohio. A similar one sold April 20 at the Copake Auction sale of the Pedaling History Bicycle Museum for $24,150 (including buyer’s premium).


Dodge and the Flatiron building. The photo appeared in the New York Observer on April 17, 1989.


The cover of The Bicycle by Pryor Dodge. Copies are available on Internet sites such as Amazon.


Henry Ford pictured on the 1925 BSA “safety” bicycle in 1940 on his 77th birthday.


A selection of photographs from the Pryor Dodge collection.

 

This circa 1869 roulette de café, made in France, is a gambling device placed on bars in cafes to occupy the clientele and stimulate trade. The base served to hold matches and has a striker at bottom.

It looks like a pipe, but it is a circa 1885 Meerschaum cigarette holder with amber mouthpiece.






Photos courtesy Pryor Dodge

When Pryor Dodge of New York City was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he bought a bicycle. It was 1971, and after graduation, the French major was planning a move to Paris and expected to get around the City of Light on that bike.

The bike was a late 19th-century high-wheeled British-inspired variety, and at the time, Dodge’s attraction to it struck him as strange. “I didn’t know why—but it all goes back to a film,” he said during an interview in his loft in SoHo in the  spring.

The film was Around the World in Eighty Days, released in 1956. Forty years later, when Dodge published his well-regarded history, The Bicycle, he wrote: “This book is dedicated to Cantinflas who, in the role of Passepartout, rides a high-wheel bicycle in London at the beginning of the film, based on the Jules Verne classic...Many years after I had begun my collection of bicycles, I realized that my attraction to high-wheelers had started when at the age of seven I saw Cantinflas in this scene.”

While still in Madison, Dodge took apart the bike, known as a penny-farthing, and had certain parts polished and nickel-plated. Then with a friend he built a crate for it and had the bike air-lifted to Paris. While Dodge studied classical flute, he sent the frame to a Parisian bicycle factory to be properly enameled.

“And then I rode around Paris, mostly on Sundays, when there wasn’t much traffic,” Dodge recounted. “And I made up an outfit for myself.” It consisted of knickers, high socks, turtleneck sweater, and cap. Theatrics was the point. “Totally, no question about it, I had a role. I had a photograph taken of me with the bike, had postcards made, and sent them out as Christmas cards.”

Today Dodge has 125 bicycles, many of them world-class antique examples predominantly from three countries, England, France, and the United States. He also has more than 2000 pieces of bicycle-related visual art, especially posters, prints, trade cards, and photographs, along with decorative arts and artifacts such as racing medals. Together with his book, this is a collection that, in Dodge’s words, “gives the sense of how the bicycle entered the public mind and into our lives.”

There is no argument about what is the greatest single piece in the collection. It is a Michaux & Cie. velocipede tricycle with a carved dragon’s head attached to the body, in front of the handlebars, like a figurehead. Made circa 1867 in Paris, the Michaux is considered by bicycle historians to be one of the most important historical examples in the world.

The tricycle was exhibited at the Exposition Rétrospective du Cycle at the Grand Palais in 1907, the first historical bicycle exhibition. It was illustrated in the catalog published in the Revue mensuelle du touring-club de France, where it was listed as belonging to the prominent French industrialist Gustave Adolphe Clément (or Clément-Bayard)—the most important manufacturer of bicycles in France and pioneer manufacturer of automobiles and airships—who was often compared to his American counterpart, Henry Ford. Michaux is not known to have made other bicycles or tricycles with carvings; this piece was undoubtedly a special order and is therefore unique.

The Dodge collection also includes these 19th- and early 20th-century examples: a Terrot Levocyclette, the first manufactured bicycle with ten speeds; a Phantom velocipede, the first to have a rubber tire; an Ariel, the first manufactured all-metal high-wheeler; a BSA “safety” bicycle, one of the earliest manufactured chain-driven models; and a Columbia chainless bicycle that once belonged to John D. Rockefeller.

As a collector, Dodge is typical in many ways. He may as well have been describing himself when he said: “Collectors buy their first piece, whatever it is, and fully learn about it, because they want to understand what it is they have. Then they buy their second piece. The first one they most likely didn’t look for. Then [the collection] grows step by step.”

As do many collectors, Dodge feels he “inherited a sense of collecting.” It came from his father, Roger Pryor Dodge (1898-1974), a dancer, choreographer, and writer, whose collection of photographs of the Russian ballet dancer Nijinsky is considered the most important one in the world. The elder Dodge, being a jazz critic—one of the first serious writers to recognize jazz as great music—also had an important collection of 78 rpm jazz records.

Collectors are often serial collectors, and bicycles are not the only collecting category Dodge has explored. He has also had a collection of antique flutes, which he sold in 1985, and continues to add to his collection of prints, photos, and other imagery of the Palais du Trocadero, built across from the Eiffel Tower for the 1878 Exposition Universelle. (It no longer exists.)

There is one thing that sets Dodge apart from his fellow collectors. For many years, he has organized and mounted a touring exhibition of his bicycle collection in venues in the U.S. and abroad. In fact, he collected most of the bicycle material he has with exhibiting in mind. The desire to share his collection and knowledge is also mainly why he wrote his excellent book, which was published by the esteemed company Flammarion and has been translated into French and German.

Another important reason why Dodge is different from many collectors is because he is working toward a sensible exit strategy. “I am looking for a sponsor interested in creating a bicycle museum, be it an individual, corporation or government entity,” he said. “As far as location, I’m open to any cosmopolitan city, regardless of country.” This may take some doing, but that’s why, at age 63, he has already started.

***

Within a year of Dodge’s move to Paris in 1971, he bought a second high-wheel bicycle at a flea market. “And then there was a gallery near where I lived, and they had bicycle posters in the window, and I bought a few of those,” he recalled. But it wasn’t until a friend gave him a book, 100 Years of Bicycle Posters by Jack Rennert, that the spark lit. Dodge said, “I got that book, and I thought, ‘I want to have all these posters.’”

The bicycle-riding fad of the late 19th century coincided with a craze for poster collecting. Dodge said the first poster catalog for collectors was published in 1891. Les Maîtres de l’Affiche (The Masters of the Poster), 1895-1900, was part of a series of 256 small-scale reproductions of posters on heavy paper. Bicycles and posters were “a marriage made in heaven,” said Dodge. “There were more advertising posters for bikes than for any other product in the 1890’s,” he maintained.

Dodge wasn’t spending much on his posters in those days. “And I figured they would at least give me the same return as interest rates,” he said. “Also I knew American dealers were coming to Paris to buy,” where they were essentially buying wholesale. Today, of course, the situation is very different. A bicycle poster of the kind he was buying 40 years ago can easily cost several thousand dollars. “I don’t know how I would start a collection now,” said Dodge. “And because of the Internet, there are no more deals. It’s very, very difficult to find a sleeper. Information is all over the place.”

Through the 1970’s, Dodge worked producing and playing in chamber music concerts in Paris. He also became, and is still, executive director of the estate of Camilla “Ylla” Koffler (1911-1955), perhaps the best- known animal photographer in the world at the time of her death after a fall from a Jeep while photographing a bullock-cart race in Bharatpur, North India. Koffler was a family friend. In a sense, she was Dodge’s patron. The income he derived from the estate’s royalties on books and commercial sales of her prints “helped me to collect,” said Dodge.

By the end of the decade, Dodge had bought a few more bicycles at auction. He had also bought some prints despite the “fierce competition.” As he made the rounds at antiques shops and flea markets, he stayed focused, not veering off into, say, posters or prints on other subjects. A disciplined collector, just as he was a disciplined musician, he also kept to a time frame: bicycle history’s first 100 years, from circa 1818 through World War I. Still, the collection grew. When he got ready to return to the U.S. in 1981, he had over 200 posters rolled up in tubes. Moving for a collector is always a challenge. Dodge solved the poster shipping problem by acquiring 6" diameter PVC for air freight. The bikes went to the U.S. in a container with furniture.

Having the posters in tubes and the bikes in storage—except for the one he rode around the city—was frustrating for Dodge. He wanted to share with the public his excitement about the material. “I felt it was beautiful, important, and wanted people to be exposed to what they might not be familiar with. That was the impetus for the exhibitions. It wasn’t a business idea.”

Down the street from where he lived at the time, in Little Italy, New York City, was the OK Harris gallery, founded by Ivan C. Karp (1926-2012). As in everything in life, it helps to know somebody, and Dodge knew someone “friendly with the gallery.” In 1983, this friend—a collector of playing cards and “everything to do with gambling”—had been given a show by Karp, who asked Dodge if he would be interested in having a show there next.

Dodge didn’t immediately agree to it. Exhibiting was one thing, selling another. “I said, ‘I’m not selling my stuff.’ But I realized I didn’t have to put prices on things, and Ivan was just as happy to have the exhibition, because he’d get press attention in a way he normally wouldn’t. Also, he was an antiques collector. He loved the stuff.” The catch was that Karp asked Dodge if he could open in five weeks. “I gulped. I’d never done an exhibition before. It seemed impossible, but I went like a madman and put it together.”

The reaction of Dodge’s friends to the exhibition was gratifying. “They knew I had some bicycles and thought it was just some crazy folly. When I had the exhibition,” which also resulted in an article in the New York Times, “they all of a sudden began to take me seriously.”

The Times article yielded another unexpected result. André Farkas, a Hungarian-born photographer living in Connecticut, read it, and told Dodge he wanted to photograph the installation. “He’d been a bicycle racer and escaped during the 1956 revolution on a bike. Bicycles meant everything to him,” said Dodge.

Farkas kindly gave his superb photos to Dodge,  who approached other venues with them in hand, and in 1987, he was invited to bring the exhibition to Tucson’s Old Pueblo Museum, developed by David Hupert, one-time director of the I.B.M. Gallery in New York City. As a result of the Tucson show, Dodge was contacted by Elsa Cameron, who in 1980 had pioneered an exhibition program at the San Francisco Airport. A 1993 date for a show at one of the airport’s venues was set, and with that contract in hand, Dodge started thinking more ambitiously about creating a genuine bicycle-history survey.

To do this, he knew he needed to add more machines, and in 1992, he bought one of America’s greatest bicycle collections. The approximately 100 pieces belonged to Carl Wiedman of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, who owned representative examples from each of the historic eras in which major transitions in design took place. These ranged from velocipedes (with pedals) to high-wheels (with a large front wheel and smaller rear wheel) and chain-driven “safety” bicycles (usually with wheels of equal size). The collection also included the fabulous Michaux.

Dodge chose slightly more than 30 bikes for his touring collection. “That was enough to tell the story,” he said. He arranged them thematically within their periods creating narratives around such ideas as sport (racing) and performance (circus acts) and themes such as love (popularly associated with cycling). There was also a section on automobiles and flight, which developed from bicycle technology.

Now Dodge was ready to start making cold calls. As a result, curators at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu offered to host the collection. It wasn’t easy to persuade them. Dodge estimates it took “six to nine months” of phone conversations with the Hawaiian institution and required “extreme diligence, patience, and perseverance.”

Why did many museums hesitate to commit? Even after seeing the photos and a 100-page detailed description of what the exhibition was to entail, curators still “didn’t understand how great a bicycle exhibition could be,” said Dodge. “Even after they took me on, it was only when the exhibition was going up that they ‘got’ it. Only then did they start making plans to get the media in.”

Riding a bike means freedom to a child. Learning to ride one is a primary achievement of childhood. But eventually every youth’s fancy turns to the freedom of an internal combustion machine. “This is a huge problem in terms of people’s understanding and appreciation of the bicycle,” said Dodge. “The bicycle is something one graduates from. After that you want a car or a motorcycle. With a car you can take your date out somewhere. A motorcycle makes a lot of noise; it’s macho. Cars and motorcycles are status symbols. Bicycles, no.” He cited that as one reason why in the 1910’s, 20’s, and 30’s companies such as  Schwinn came up with bicycles that look like motorcycles—with fat tires, fake gas tanks, and accessories such as sirens.

The sex appeal of motorcycles is one reason why the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City was able to put together a motorcycle show, said Dodge, referring to The Art of the Motorcycle, which ran from June 26 to September 20, 1998. “And as you may know, it was the most successful exhibition ever at that museum, with a humongous catalog, subsidized by BMW, which had about two dozen machines in the show.” From New York it went on to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and Guggenheim Las Vegas. “Bicycles don’t get that attention.”

 Nonetheless, Dodge was a bold solicitor. “I even called the Kimbell [Art Museum] in Fort Worth and talked to the curator of prints,” he said. “But when I mentioned bicycles, she started snickering, which is OK, because I knew I was really shooting high there.” Interestingly, science museums weren’t necessarily a good fit, either. “They tend to be kiddie playgrounds with lots of buttons and modules,” and his was not a hands-on kind of exhibition.

“I need to be sure that the exhibition is designed so that the public cannot actually physically reach the bicycles, because if they can reach them, they will,” said Dodge. “I have a photograph of an adult wearing a bicycle helmet, reaching over an exhibition barrier and touching one of my bicycles. Again this is a problem of general perception: ‘They’re bicycles.’ It’s not sculpture. ‘They’re bicycles. We can touch them.’ Therefore, the distance has to be such that it takes up more exhibition space.”

To be sure, Dodge’s exhibitions were not the American public’s only opportunity to see historical bicycle collections. Permanent collections range from the one at the Bicycle Museum of America (www.bicyclemuseum.com) in New Bremen, Ohio, to the one at the Old Spokes Home (www.oldspokeshome.com) in Burlington, Vermont. The Pedaling History Bicycle Museum of Orchard Park, New York, welcomed visitors for more than a decade until it closed in 2009. After the death of its founder, Carl Burgwardt (1931-2012),  Copake Auction, Copake, New York, began selling off the contents.

These collections have a more populist approach in contrast to Dodge’s. All along, Dodge wanted his bicycles to be “treated as sculpture, as in art museums.” If seen as sculpture, he believes, bikes will be treated with more “reverence.”

The more typical bicycle exhibitions include “everything,” said Dodge. His approach wasn’t minimalist, but he did want people “to understand what they’re looking at and why things have been grouped. There has to be clarity.” This was especially true for the artifacts and decorative arts. In some cases, when there wasn’t enough space to exhibit them separately, Dodge created a series of “Victorian jumbles,” never congested, but carefully composed in vitrines. If you’re interested, you can stay awhile; if not, you move on.

This sounds like an artistic mind at work, and given Dodge’s musical training, which began at age six, that is what he’s got. Like collecting, it’s also something he inherited. Besides his dancer-writer father, Dodge has other artists in the family. His grandfather William de Leftwich Dodge (1867-1935) was a painter best known for his murals, including ones commissioned for the U.S. Library of Congress, State Capitol in Albany, New York, and the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. His mother, Lyena Dodge (1911-2004), was a designer of haute couture in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s and then a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

Dodge found the “right” museum environment in far-flung places, such as the [Durham] Western Heritage Museum in Omaha, Nebraska; Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Washington; Pink Palace Museum in Memphis, Tennessee; Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science in Evansville, Indiana; and Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey. With each showing, finding the next  museum got easier. The publication of the book, which took two and a half years to produce, also helped the cause.

When the book came out in 1996, Dodge got a show at the PaineWebber Gallery in New York City, along with prominent press notice. In 1997, the Design Museum in London showed his collection. The British institution also issued a second edition of the book in soft cover to serve as the show’s catalog.

After that came more shows on the West Coast, including the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at UCLA, the Oakland Museum of California, and the San Diego Historical Society. Those were followed by participation in group shows at the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum in Norwalk, Connecticut, and the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, Massachusetts, among others. Most recently, the Coronado Historical Association and Museum of History and Art in Coronado, California, a small venue, featured just a part of the touring show, Bicycles and Bloomers: Women’s Emancipation and the Bicycle. As Dodge has observed, the tricycle and bicycle helped to liberate women from their clothes and by extension from their domesticity and isolation. Riding bikes also helped the cause of suffrage. No less a figure than American suffragist Susan B. Anthony once declared in a newspaper interview: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling…I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

***

On display today in Dodge’s SoHo loft, which he shares with his wife, musicologist Tina Frühauf, are several of his bicycles. One hangs on the wall. He also has some fine pieces of rustic French furniture and reproductions of some of his father’s Nijinsky photos. In this stylish setting, the bikes truly live up to their billing as elegant sculptural forms.

Except for three bicycle posters, which hang in the bedroom, where light won’t damage them, the rest of the collection is in storage. And there it will remain while Dodge looks for “a sponsor interested in creating a bicycle museum, be it an individual, corporation or government entity.” He says that he is open to locating the museum in “any cosmopolitan city.”

He doesn’t see any purpose to holding onto the collection now that no more exhibitions are planned. “The only time in the past when I got to enjoy it was when it was on exhibition,” he said. “Then I could see it in all its glory. Here, I don’t.”

To the suggestion that he has been a very rational collector who never let the objects overwhelm, overtake, or rule him, as has happened to so many other collectors (for example, the fictional Meissen collector in Bruce Chatwin’s novel Utz), he said: “A certain amount of it is rational. One has to be satisfied with what one has. That’s extremely important, and it’s difficult for many collectors to achieve because they see something and they want it. And I don’t allow myself at this point.” He mentioned the temptations of the Copake Auction sales. “But I’m not adding to my collection anymore, except in very, very small ways—just photos that I find now and again on eBay, from the 1950’s, ‘60’s, and ‘70’s, for example, celebrities riding their bicycles.”

Asked if he would start another collection once the bicycle collection is placed and gone, Dodge said, “No, but there might be something I might buy for the museum [or other place where the collection goes].”

As for the idea that he enriched the life of his neighborhood and his city by riding around on his high-wheeler in those years when he did it with frequency, he smiled doubtfully. But when he “crashed” the Brooklyn Bridge Centennial parade in 1993, riding his British Matchless high-wheeler, a photographer saw him as a fitting representative of the period when the bridge was built.

Nor was that the only time photographers put him and a bike of his in the paper. In one of several other memorable images—this time for readers of the New York Observer—he is wheeling down Fifth Avenue near 23rd Street with the period-correct 1902 Flatiron building in view up ahead.

Even today Dodge’s long-ago reputation for being picturesque persists. On a visit to the Museum of Modern Art, shortly before this interview took place, he was recognized by a woman who lives a block away from him in SoHo. “She said, ‘Oh, you’re the guy with that big bicycle.”

For more information, see Dodge’s Web site (www.pryordodge.com).


Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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