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Tepid response to idea of museum for antiques

A membership drive for the Florida Fine Arts Museum Corp. attracts 12 people to the meeting.

By LOGAN NEILL, Times Staff Writer
Published August 21, 2007


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A newly formed foundation whose goal is to launch a museum to showcase a Tarpon Springs antiques enthusiast's collection failed to draw much public support at its inaugural meeting last week .

The membership drive and meeting of the Florida Fine Arts Museum Corp. at the Country Kitchen restaurant in Brooksville drew just 12 people, far fewer than foundation president Harcourt Syms had hoped.

"I'm a little disappointed," Syms said. "I figured we'd have 70 or 80 people wanting to join right away. The only thing to do is to keep plugging away at it."

Syms, a longtime dealer and appraiser of European fine art and antiques, has been trying to find a permanent home for his collection for nearly a decade.

The son of an artist and grandson of an art restorer, Syms describes himself as an art entrepreneur clever enough to parlay his extensive knowledge of art and antiques into one of the country's largest private collections of pre-19th century European artifacts.

Through trading and selling, Syms amassed most of his collection during the 1960s and 1970s, before collecting antiques hit its peak popularity.

One of his finest discoveries was a set of rare Wedgwood basalt china, which he bought for a few dollars at a garage sale.

According to Syms, it took 20 large trucks to haul the massive collection from Canada to his home in Tarpon Springs nearly 20 years ago. Aside from the pieces he keeps at his two houses, much of the collection has remained in storage.

What Syms doesn't have, he says, is money.

"It's all tied up in my collection," he said. As for selling off items to help fund his pet project, forget it, Syms said. "This is what I've worked all my life to obtain. What would be the point?"

In 1999, Syms appealed to the town of Safety Harbor to help him find a building in which to display the collection. He also went to the councils of Tarpon Springs and Dunedin.

In May, he went before the Brooksville City Council to seek support for his plan to purchase and renovate the old Brooksville Twin movie theater - which now houses Landmark Baptist Church - to serve as a residence as well as a workshop and museum for his artifacts.

Though he was able to secure the city's blessing, the task of raising the estimated $900,000 Syms says it will take to bring his dream to fruition has been a tougher sell.

"I want this to be a public-supported project, something that citizens will recognize as adding value to the community," Syms said, adding that the uniqueness of his collection is certain to draw antique and fine art enthusiasts from all over the country.

"We will have things that many famous museums wish they had," Syms told the small gathering Tuesday. He counted off items, including French, Dutch, Spanish, Austrian and Italian Renaissance furniture; etchings by Rembrandt, Albrecht Durer and others; rare porcelain and art glass and bronze sculpture, which he valued at more than $200-million.

Syms explained that the museum would be more than just a display building for antiques and art. The edifice would house restoration facilities and would also offer educational programs for adults and children.

Despite his fervent pitch, Syms was unable to attract even one paid membership, although several attendees indicated on a sign-up sheet that they would be willing to volunteer at the facility should it be built.

"Overall, I liked the idea," said Kathleen Wilson, chairman of the Hernando County Fine Arts Council, who attended the meeting. "Whether it will work is another story. People in our county tend to take a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to supporting the arts."

Wilson said that she doesn't doubt Syms' sincerity for the project. However, she wondered what would happen to the collection upon his death and whether the museum could even survive without his expertise and support.

Syms, who is in his 70s, said that the nonprofit's incorporation papers filed with the state show that a family trust will oversee the organization's assets and that a board of directors will deal with day-to-day operations.

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or 352 848-1435.

[Last modified August 20, 2007, 22:02:40]


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