Late in his long and colorful career as a baseball player and manager, the always quotable Casey Stengel noted that "most of the people my age are dead."
It's a sentiment with which Jacksonville art collector and real estate developer Ira Koger, 87, can identify. "The trouble with me is I go to funerals once a week," Koger quipped during a recent interview.
The irony is that Koger, having reached an age when most of his contemporaries aren't around anymore, is deep into an ambitious new project.
Opening to the public today, The Koger Gallery & Gardens, located in the building originally built for the Jacksonville Art Museum (later the Jacksonville Museum of Contemporary Art), will house a collection of Asian art, mostly porcelain, that Koger has spent half of a century accumulating.
It began, Koger noted, "with a little sepia dish" his wife Nancy bought in Atlanta in the late 1940s. Koger, who paid several thousand dollars for the dish, was intrigued by the question "why so much money for that little cracked dish?"
A lifetime of study and acquisition later, he has assembled what guest curator John Ayers has called perhaps the finest collection of blanc de chine (white porcelain) in the United States. "It's an astonishingly rich collection," Ayers, one of the world's foremost authorities on Asian art, said during an interview last fall.
The opening of The Koger Gallery would appear to represent a comeback for Koger, for whom the 1990s were a difficult decade. His real estate company, which once controlled assets valued at $1 billion, was forced into bankruptcy. He was indicted, although never tried, on federal charges of income tax evasion -- and technically remains under indictment, according to court documents.
But Koger rejects the idea that his career as an art collector has anything to do with his business career. His decision to create a museum to house his collection of about 900 pieces "is not Ira's ego trip," he said.
It's just that after a lifetime of studying Asian art, he felt the need to share. "The Western world deserves to know something about the Eastern world," Koger said. "The Chinese have more respect for art and artists than any country in the world."
(Ironically, while Koger loves Chinese art and philosophy, he's never been to China and doesn't want to go. He said he wouldn't like the food. "I like Chinese takeout.")
Brian Shrum, curator of the new museum and a Koger employee for the past two decades, calls Koger a great collector. "He has an amazing eye for quality, which not everybody does," Shrum said. "And he knows as much as any of the dealers or most of the experts."
Of the museum, Shrum said: "It's a chance to share his love for the material and for Asian philosophies. It revalidates his whole career as a collector."
A life's passion
Although Koger appears his age when walking around the new museum, once he's sitting down and talking about the project, the years seem to disappear.
"It's kind of remarkable at his age that he's keeping going," said John Bunker, a Jacksonville artist who served as associate director and later interim director at the Jacksonville Art Museum.
"When you consider he's 87 and decides to take on this kind of challenge, well, it's a big undertaking," Shrum said. "But his mind is just as razor sharp as it's always been. He's an amazing man."
Attorney Wade Hampton, Koger's grandson, said he's not surprised. Koger's enthusiasm for the new project is exactly what Hampton has learned to expect.
"That's my grandfather," said Hampton, who goes by the nickname Wyck, to distinguish from his father, also named Wade Hampton. "He's going to survive us all. . . . This is him continuing his life's passion."
Joan Monsky said she was struck by the contrast between the broken man she had read about in accounts of Koger's legal problems during the '90s and the spirited man who spoke to potential supporters when he announced plans for the Koger Gallery last fall. …