The Beekley International Collection of Skiing Art & Literature

Mason Beekley

Article by John Fry

The Beekley International Collection of Skiing Art & Literature,  contains 200 exquisite paintings and sculptures of skiers; 600 posters, some of which now auction for as much as $10,000; magazine covers dating back to the 19th century; unique etchings and lithographs; 2,400 ski pins and stamps; and one of the world’s largest libraries of ski books.

This colorful, impressive collection was long held privately in New Hartford, Connecticut by the late Mason Beekley, a wealthy entrepreneur and founder of the International Skiing History Association. Beekley, who died in 2001 at the age of 74, painstakingly and lovingly assembled ski books and graphics over a half-century of collecting.

Beekley, who first skied when he was a youngster at boarding school in his native Connecticut, began collecting when he was a student at Princeton. He started with a book, Skiing, which he bought for 25 cents at Smith College’s book store. After graduating from Princeton in 1949, he taught and coached skiing at an Eastern prep school, then joined his inventor-father’s hospital-services business. The pay wasn’t much. But even with little money, he was able to amass a voluminous library of ski books. He found them in used book stores and by scouring auctions. “I spent an average of less than $5 a book on my first thousand books,” he said in a magazine interview.

Beekley was a gregarious and convivial man. . .  and wildly optimistic. He habitually began each day by loudly and joyously singing Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oh What a Beautiful Morning, Oh What a Beautiful Day! He also happened to possess a bulldog persistence and a curious mind. When his family’s business turned flat in the late 1970s, Beekley looked to new ventures. He came to realize that doctors and radiologists needed a more reliable way to interpret x-rays, so he began to market tiny lead-containing patches that would stick on the patient’s skin. The markers would be visible after the x-ray pictures were developed, like locators on a map. They brought an immediate improvement in mammography. Today, a couple of million “Beekley Spots” are used monthly in x-ray rooms across North America.

With the business flourishing, Beekley now had serious money to fuel his collecting passion. He turned to oil paintings, early lithographs and prints. “I have only two criteria in buying,” he once confessed. “There must be a skier in the illustration, and I must like it.”

Cartons of books and magazines arrived at The Parsonage, his rambling 150-year-old, 12-room New England home on a hill above New Hartford, Conn. So great was the influx that his wife feared the second floor of the house would collapse under the weight, so in 1993 he built a 2,200-square-foot museum next door, naming it Ski Aerie.

With a museum to fill, his collecting took on an obsessive pace. Beekley began to show up at Christie’s and Swann Galleries poster auctions in London and New York. “On nearly every lot he wanted, Beekley’s paddle remained raised, driving out the competition,” reported an antiques journal of a 1999 poster auction.

If Beekley was not going to be there in person, he placed early bids that other buyers would be unlikely to top. In scarcely a half dozen years from 1993 through 1999, he acquired more than 600 posters from 17 countries—the earliest one dating back to 1890. “Mason Beekley virtually created the market in posters,” says Nicholas Lowry, president of New York’s Swann Galleries.

Two works purchased by Beekley dramatically portray skiing’s change over a hundred years —from utilitarian winter transport to entertaining wintertime diversion. In one of the earliest known American paintings of a skier—an 1873 oil by an artist known only as JHA—a weary farmer heads homeward on skis across his snow-covered pastures. What a contrast it presents to Hot Dog!—a wild portrayal of a 1977 freestyle skier made of glass and aluminum and painted with oils, acrylics and colored pencil by Ricky Bernstein, a Massachusetts artist known for his ironic, caustic commentaries on present-day lifestyles.

Beekley turned to oil paintings, early lithographs and prints. “I have only two criteria in buying,” he once confessed. “There must be a skier in the illustration, and I must like it.” He bought works by Churchill Ettinger, Paul Sample, Sheldon Pennoyer and by the prolific sports artist Leroy Nieman. He loved the big mountain canvases of Eric Sloane, with their formidable cloud formations. A favorite Sloane subject was Tuckerman Ravine at Mt. Washington during its heyday as the Northeast’s spring skiing mecca.

Pop art was a favorite of the Connecticut collector. He acquired the original art of scantily clad pinup girls wearing ski hats or holding a pair of ski poles. A painting done for a popular science magazine depicts a skiing soldier of the future propelled across snow by a giant motorized fan attached to his back. There are ads that used skiing to sell Camel cigarettes and Edsel cars. Beekley purchased a pen-and-ink color calendar illustration by Laurent de Brunhoff of Babar, one of the most famous figures in children’s literature. The little elephant is performing a jump on skis for Queen Celeste.

Beekley began acquiring ski prints 50 years ago, and they span every variety of the printer’s art, from silk-screens to linocuts. Some 400 images by photographers include the work of Ansel Adams, Leni Riefenstahl, Ray Atkeson, Toni Frissel and Winston Pote. During a 1990 Aspen ski vacation, he met American skiing icon Dick Durrance. Both Durrance and his wife Miggs were outstanding photographers, and Beekley added their work to his collection. 

While many skiers collect pins, Beekley’s collection is staggering in size. An array of 2,400 ski pins from 52 countries are displayed in frame-mounted wall hangings, acquired from the Toronto collector Bruce Carnall. He collected ski postage stamps. He bought the collection of former SKI Magazine editor John Henry Auran, giving him 585 postage stamps from 53 countries bearing images of skiers and skiing. “To tell you the truth,” he confessed to Auran, “I’m more interested in the art on stamps than the philately.”

The Beekley library contains 2,110 books and as many booklets and periodicals, from 25 countries. There are English and Danish editions of Fridtjof Nansen’s account of his 1888 crossing of Greenland on skis, the book that first made the world aware of what had been a little known Scandinavian sport. There is a copy of Austrian Matthias Zdarsky’s 1896 Lilienfelder Skilauf-Teknik, the earliest influential book of downhill ski technique. Another, by Vivien Caulfeild – How to Ski, and How Not to, published in 1911-- is one of the first ski instruction books written in the English language. There are books by virtually all of the sport’s creators -- Arnold Lunn, Hannes Schneider, Emile Allais, Otto Lang and the legendary Otto Schniebs, author of the famous quip, “Skiing is not a sport, it is a lifestyle.”

Beekley became concerned about finding a permanent home for his collection in 1998, when he was diagnosed with cancer. He initially focused on Aspen, but the community there was not prepared to commit to the expense of creating a building to house the works, and of a curator and security needed to permit public viewing. Other resorts knew of the collection’s potential homelessness, but none was willing to make the necessary investment. Meanwhile, Beekley’s health worsened. He saw chaos lying ahead -- the dissolution of his beloved collection of art and books. In 2001, when filmmaker Warren Miller became aware of Beekley’s difficulties, he contacted Mammoth Mountain President Rusty Gregory who, with the support of the resort’s founder, Dave McCoy, acted swiftly and decisively to create a museum.

The doors to the Collection at Mammoth Lakes unfortunately closed in 2011. Presently warehoused in Denver, the Collection is seeking a new home. 

See sample images at the Beekley Collection website.