Renowned Conservator Leroy Graves to be Awarded the 2017 Eric M. Wunsch Award for Excellence in the American Arts

  • WILLIAMSBURG, Virginia
  • /
  • October 04, 2016

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Leroy Graves, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's conservator of upholstery. Photo: Tom Green
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Recognized world-wide as a leader in his field, Leroy Graves, the conservator of upholstery at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation whose nonintrusive techniques for restoring upholstery have been adapted by museums around the globe, will be honored as one of the two recipients of the 2017 Eric M. Wunsch Award for Excellence in the American Arts given by the Wunsch Americana Foundation. The awards will be presented at a ceremony at on January 18 at Christie’s Rockefeller Center Galleries in New York City.

The award, which was created by the Foundation to continue the legacy of renowned collector Martin Wunsch and to encourage greater scholarship and appreciation of American decorative arts, is given annually to individuals, institutions and causes in recognition of their dedication and contribution towards preserving the field. In addition to Graves, Brock Jobe, professor of American decorative arts in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, will also receive the award in 2017.

“When we meet to discuss possible honorees, the spectrum is overwhelming. Yet this year’s discussion was the briefest in five years,” said Peter Wunsch, president of the Wunsch Americana Foundation. “Leroy’s role in conservation is amazing and his story is so compelling. I believe that the people who are going to learn about this wonderful man will be amazed at where he has come from and where he is.”

While his techniques for upholstery conservation and re-creation, known as “The Graves Approach,” are well-known and were featured in the celebrated book, Early Seating Upholstery: Reading the Evidence (The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2015). Graves reached his status in the field via an uncommon path. He first joined the facilities maintenance staff of Colonial Williamsburg in 1967 and was soon thereafter recruited to be an art handler in the Department of Collections, a position he held for nearly ten years. As Ronald L. Hurst, Carlisle H. Humelsine chief curator at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, wrote of Graves in the foreword to the book:

Early Seating Upholstery: Reading the Evidence by Leroy Graves
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

His keen eye, intellectual curiosity, exceptional hand skills and intense work ethic caught the attention of the senior curatorial staff and led to an opportunity to work in the furniture conservation lab…. [There, he] began to study examples of original upholstery and to design new systems that would replicate period coverings without adding thousands of damaging tacks to fragile antique frames. In time, his minimally intrusive upholstery techniques were copied and adapted by colleagues at institutions across the country. Graves joined the Conservation Department at its inception in 1984.

As impressive as is Graves’ body of work, his reputation as a gentleman precedes him. David Blanchfield, director of conservation at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation says, “In my twenty years’ working with Leroy Graves, he has unfailingly been a beacon of collegiality and good fellowship. The fact that he retains this manner through every facet of his workday, from studying the evidence in a chair frame to creating a masterpiece of period upholstery, makes his accomplishments just that much more impressive.” 

“Based on Leroy Graves’s work on historic upholstery practices and his development of sophisticated non-intrusive techniques, he can rightfully be described as the Da Vinci of modern upholstery conservation,” said Luke Beckerdite, editor of American Furniture. “The Wunsch Award is a fitting acknowledgment of Leroy’s decades of research and hands-on conservation that have set the standard for the field. That he is as modest as he is talented makes this honor especially gratifying to all of us who have admired him for so long.” 

A partially assembled nonintrusively reupholstered sofa frame. Sofa Frame England, ca. 1760 Mahogany and beech Museum purchase, 1963-191
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

After serving the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for nearly fifty years, Graves has contemplated retirement. He told The New York Times in 2015 that those plans are on hold because “‘…wonderful stuff is still coming in’ to analyze and protect.”

About The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation preserves, restores and operates Virginia’s 18th-century capital of Williamsburg. Innovative and interactive experiences highlight the relevance of the American Revolution to contemporary life and the importance of an informed, active citizenry. The Colonial Williamsburg experience includes more than 500 restored or reconstructed original buildings, renowned museums of decorative arts and folk art, extensive educational outreach programs for students and teachers, lodging, culinary options from historic taverns to casual or elegant dining, the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club featuring 45 holes designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and his son Rees Jones, a full-service spa and fitness center managed by Trilogy Spa, pools, retail stores and gardens. Philanthropic support and revenue from admissions, products and hospitality operations sustain Colonial Williamsburg’s educational programs and preservation initiatives.


About the Wunsch Americana Collection

The Wunsch Americana Foundation (WAF) was founded in 1946. The late Martin Wunsch drove the Foundation to focus on American Decorative Arts in the 1970s. He was an accomplished mechanical engineer and inventor by profession, as well as one of the foremost collectors of American furniture and Old Masters paintings by avocation. A distinguished scholar, he inspired many like-minded collectors, dealers and curators to join him in preserving America’s art history. Now overseen by Peter, Eric and Noah Wunsch, WAF continues its investment in American antiquities through education and preservation initiatives.


The Foundation operates out of New York City, where it manages its lending, sharing and gifting relationships with a host of institutions throughout the United States. In 2012, the Foundation established the Eric M. Wunsch Award for Excellence in the American Arts, which is presented annually to individuals, institutions and causes that embrace the spirit of collegial efforts to support the field of American Decorative Arts.


The inaugural Eric M. Wunsch Award was given to Patricia E. Kane, the Friends of American Arts Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Yale University Art Gallery. Linda H. Kaufman and the late George M. Kaufman, private collectors and philanthropists, and Richard H. Jenrette of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette and his foundation, the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust were the 2014 recipients; in 2015, WAS honored the Chipstone Foundation and Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman; and in 2016, Morrison H. Heckscher and Peter M. Kenney, recognized for their contributions to the expansion and modernization of the American Wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art were the honorees.


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