Their home houses a magnificent and eclectic collection of art: Diebenkorn, Toulouse-Lautrec, Diego Giacometti, Delacroix, Picasso, Diego Rivera, pieces from the Tang and Han dynasties, and from Egypt and Japan, to name but a few.
Jean Kislak has built her own collection around a fascination with Emma Lady Hamilton, the mistress of British naval hero Admiral Lord Nelson. Paintings, letters, books, even the crib of the daughter of Emma and Lord Nelson. Jean Kislak obtained permission to have an obelisk erected in Calais, France, to memorialize Emma’s unmarked grave. Her collection was exhibited at The Grolier Club in New York.
“The crib is in storage. Even the dog wouldn’t sleep in it,” she said.
The Kislaks’ walls are lined with ample bookshelves filled with fine volumes. Jean Kislak once expressed an interest in cookbooks and one day soon afterward, “Jay said, ‘Your cookbooks are here,’ ” she recalled. There were 1,000 of them.
But most of their acquisitions have been painstakingly sought out, piece by piece.
“They work at their collecting. That’s one of the hallmarks of a connoisseur,” said Arthur Dunkelman, curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection and director of the Kislak foundation.
Kislak obtained a rare 1516 wall map, the Carta Marina, regarded as the first nautical map of the world. He acquired a 16th century manuscript sent by a Dominican priest to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, to advocate for human rights for Indians.
“When we meet on St. Augustine, he brings a depth of background and knowledge as to the historic period,” said Bob Graham, who also sits on the commission planning the city’s 450th anniversary.
With Kislak’s knowledge of collecting, President George W. Bush appointed him to the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee. But while chairing the committee from 2003 to 2008, Kislak grew frustrated and didn’t seek to stay on with the group, which deals with controversial issues of regulating the importation of cultural and historical artifacts.
Later, at a Washington, D.C., seminar in March 2011, Kislak called the advisory committee “useless.” According to a transcript, he criticized the group for holding closed meetings and fumed that its recommendations were ignored by State Department staff.
Kislak, by way of introduction, told the gathering: “I’m just a lowly mortgage peddler from Hoboken, N.J., who is trying to make his way through life.”