In Collection's Ashes, a Heritage's Seeds

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Every morning Peggy Cooper Cafritz steps outside and confronts the wreckage: the acrid smell of her incinerated walls and furnishings, the police tape clinging to a chain-link fence surrounding her property, the rumbling backhoe hauling away the charred remains of her longtime home.

So, when asked about her loss, Ms. Cafritz hesitates. Her $5.2 million mansion here in the Kent neighborhood of northwest Washington held one of the largest private collections of African-American and African art in the country, more than 300 sculptures, paintings, photographs and other pieces that she painstakingly accumulated over the past two decades, often from artists whose careers she had personally nurtured.

The works of 19th- and 20th-century painters like Edward Mitchell Bannister, Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden hung amid contemporary work by artists like Hank Willis Thomas, Nick Cave, Kara Walker and Kerry James Marshall. Virtually everything was destroyed in the blaze that gutted the house on July 29, while she and her son were on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard.

The destruction of the collection is being mourned in museums and galleries too, particularly among connoisseurs of contemporary African-American and African art. Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, praising Ms. Cafritz’s “unique eye and incredibly refined aesthetic,” called it “a great loss.” Jack Shainman, the New York gallery owner, lamented the destruction of “a singular vision.”

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