Back in the late 1950s, when Murray Frum, the son of Polish immigrants, was a young dentist, he went to New York with his wife, Barbara. After touring the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the couple dropped into the gift shop, where Murray spotted a remarkably good collection of reproduction Egyptian sculptures. “Oh, they aren’t copies,” the sales clerk confided, “they are extras from the museum collection.” She then showed the Frums a basement storeroom crammed with stone and wood sculptures, some of which were 4,000 years old, as Mr. Frum relates in his privately published memoir, Collecting: A Work in Progress.
The piece that had captivated him was a wood figure, slightly less than a foot tall, dating from the Middle Kingdom. The sculpture, which had “a beautiful posture and an exquisite face,” had been found during a Met expedition to Egypt and had even been illustrated in one of the museum’s publications. That the piece was for sale in the very museum that had discovered it was a shocking indication of how lowly the Met valued African art, a point underlined by the bargain-basement price tag: $75.
It was irresistible, but Mr. Frum didn’t have enough cash, so he left the museum, borrowed the money from the local branch of his university fraternity and made “the first purchase of what was to become a collection and a life-long focus.”
That wooden sculpture is now part of the Frum collection in the Art Gallery of Ontario in a purpose-built gallery designed by the architectural team of Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe. Mr. Frum was an active AGO trustee and donor, but that’s not the primary reason he gave the gallery his beloved African treasures, according to Ms. Shim. “He could easily have given the collection to the Royal Ontario Museum, but it is not about an anthropological condition or social patterns. He considered it beautiful art,” she said.
A casual observer might dismiss Mr. Frum, who made a fortune developing suburban strip shopping malls, as a collector with a keen eye and enough money to buy whatever he wanted, but simply acquiring stuff didn’t interest him.
“Before making an acquisition, Murray would come home to his library and he would pull out his books and catalogues and look at other examples of similar pieces and work at determining if a piece was good or bad and how it would fit into the collection,” his widow, Nancy Lockhart, said in an interview. “He was a very passionate collector, but a very disciplined one as well.”
“There are very, very few people I can think of who had a finer sense of taste,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, director and CEO of the AGO. “All you had to do was walk into his house and see how he lived with his objects to know that he was very engaged by how they looked, their presence and how they felt.”
Speaking of Mr. Frum’s love of the tactile reminded Mr. Teitelbaum that he had first met Mr. Frum as a child of 8, sitting in the dentist’s chair. “He had the most beautiful hands, very controlled,” he recalled.
“I think there was something empathetic” between Mr. Frum’s work as a dentist and his love of the handmade in art, Mr. Teitelbaum said.
As a result of Mr. Frum’s sleuthing, he bought a Baroque bronze figure of a crucified Jesus, covered in black paint, several years ago. Dismissed as a 19th-century piece produced by an unnamed artist from the Italian School, the sculpture has since been authenticated as the work of the renowned 17th-century Italian artist and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It also hangs in the AGO.
Besides his business acumen and passion for collecting, Mr. Frum gave back to the cultural community. He was a calming and strategic president of the board of Saturday Night Magazine during its bankruptcy in the 1970s and of the Stratford Festival in the turbulent late 1980s when artistic directors were rotating through the theatre company like ticketholders in a turnstile, and a knowledgable, generous, strategic and long-time trustee of the AGO.
All his life he kept acquiring new friends, while retaining old ones, in an ever-expanding social circle. He also had two extremely happy marriages, first to Barbara Frum, the host of CBC shows As It Happens and The Journal, and then to Ms. Lockhart, a business executive.