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Daniel Wolf, rancher and visionary art collector, dies in Ridgway

Daniel Wolf, whose collections now are housed in such places as the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Denver Art Museum, was as at home on horseback at his Western Slope ranch as he was hobnobbing in New York.

Daniel Wolf stands with one of his oldest ranch horses, OB, at the family’s place near Ridgway in spring 2020. Wolf died at home after a heart attack at age 65 on Jan. 25. (Photo courtesy India Wolf)
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In the last few weeks, Daniel Wolf made time to help his eldest daughter with a new project.

He helped India shovel through frozen dirt buried beneath the snow, unearthing peony rhizomes and planting them in her newly built greenhouse.

It wasn’t unusual for him to take an interest in his daughters’ passions, to spend time with India and Rachel outdoors. Since the family returned to their home to ride out the pandemic, they’ve spent more time together than ever.

Though Wolf and his wife, Maya Lin, had prepared to feel like empty nesters, they experienced the opposite. Now the family is grateful for the closeness, keeping to themselves in their forest home.

This spring, India’s peonies will bloom, but Wolf won’t be there to admire them. He died Jan. 25, after a massive heart attack at his home. He was 65.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Wolf was beloved by his family and friends for being a devoted, attentive, genuine person interested in their passions as well as his own. He was more widely known for being a visionary art dealer and collector of many things – from photography to pottery and minerals – and for helping to preserve collections for posterity.

He began by selling photographs on the street outside the Metropolitan Museum, and eventually assembled collections now housed in such places as the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Denver Art Museum.

But here at his home near Ridgway, Wolf was someone who enjoyed hunting for chanterelles in the forest, horseback rides under canopies of golden aspen leaves in the fall, hikes to ice-blue alpine lakes.

He admired beauty in everything from photography and art to the natural world and appreciated the little things. “Nothing made him happier than a really good tomato,” India said. 

Wolf was known for making friends with lots of different kinds of people, everyone from ranchers to art museum curators, and was able to navigate opposite worlds. From a 4-H livestock auction to a New York City cocktail party, he was in his element, but his family said he was most at home at his beloved ranch at the base of Mount Sneffels.

He had a “galaxy of friends,” Lin said, and had a habit of keeping in touch with people from all walks of life.

Wolf had a reputation for being down-to-earth and unpretentious, and many folks who met him had no idea he was responsible for creating some of the most notable art and photography collections in the world.

Once, he was sitting on a sidewalk outside a children’s clothing store on a trip to Florida. His youngest daughter, Rachel, remembers a passerby handed her father loose change, assuming from his outfit he was homeless or down on his luck. He just put on his glasses and examined the coin, and enjoyed telling the story for years.

“He was so comfortable in himself and it was super contagious,” Rachel said.

Wolf valued his privacy, and enjoyed a simpler lifestyle where he limited his use of technology. Rachel recalls driving about 30 minutes to Colona from the house so her father’s flip phone would gain reception and he could check his messages. It was a far cry from the bustle of New York City, where he rubbed elbows with the higher echelons of social circles.

“He needed both worlds,” Rachel said. ”It was just in his blood to know how to live in both of these places.”

Local geologist Robert Stoufer met Wolf in the mid-1980s, back when he had a store across from Ouray City Hall. He carried a selection of minerals in addition to his sand art bottles, and it wasn’t long before Daniel discovered Stoufer’s collections of quartz crystals and started buying them for his collection.

Wolf became enamored, acquiring magnificent specimens from some of the most notable discoveries, including a majority of the crystals from the B.K. “Burger King” pocket discovered by Benjy Kuehling, former owner of the Columbine Mineral Shop, who also became a friend.

By 1990, Stoufer had discovered a large pocket of quartz near the amphitheater, the K.D. Pocket, and Wolf purchased much of the find. They became good friends, and Wolf accompanied Stoufer on collecting trips and eventually gave in to his suggestion to visit the Tucson gem and mineral show, which became a favorite event for Wolf to attend.

Eventually, he filled cupboards and drawers with specimens from around the world. Just last week, Wolf called Stoufer and asked if he knew of any new quartz finds. He’ll miss those phone calls.

Stoufer said he always admired the Wolf family’s dedication to keeping the land they purchased in agricultural production, preserving not only the land but also their historic purpose.

“They bought these properties but they always continued to run them as cattle ranches,” he said. “They never subdivided. We’ve been really lucky to have owners like them.”

“We have no plans for development,” said Wolf’s younger brother, Mathew. “Just to keep the beauty and keep it as it is.”

Stoufer also admired Wolf’s devotion to his family – to his wife and daughters, especially.“He really loved those girls,” he said. “And I don’t know how he managed to snare Maya, but that was a very good thing for him to do.”

The couple met at a dinner party in New York City in 1996, and married the same year after getting engaged on a pack trip in the San Juans. They survived sleet, snow, lightning, getting lost and seeking refuge in a horse trailer with only a few cheese sticks for food. Maya laughed hysterically as they stood in manure, and considered it an adventure. He proposed in the mountains and she accepted.

When the couple married, Wolf had already built a home near Ridgway, designed by Italian architect Ettore Sottsass, one of only three in the United States. The family had started acquiring properties in the area including lands formerly owned by rancher Marie Scott.

The distinctive, playful, vibrant home was something Wolf brought to their marriage, a contrast in taste to his new wife’s minimalism. The outside of the home is geometric, with sharp angles and bright colors, and was meant to give the impression of floating shapes when viewed from a distance.

Lin, who is most famous for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., tends to prefer simple, clean design. “The irony there is I’m a minimalist – he’s a maximalist,” she said.

In a 1998 interview with The New York Times, Wolf described the contrast between their tastes and styles. “I’m excessively this, and she’s excessively that,” he said. “We love each other’s that, but we’re each inherently this.”

Though the house is “the total opposite” of what she would have designed, it’s a work of art, and it’s something the family treasures now, especially, she said.“This house is Daniel.”

He embraced his roots in the West, having been born in Cheyenne to Joyce and Erving Wolf, who were art collectors and oil and gas pioneers. They started the Wolf Land Company, which later became the Inexco Oil Company.

After moving to New York City, the family regularly vacationed in Aspen until the late 1970s. On one trip, Mathew remembers walking through town with his dad when an Egg McMuffin container tumbled past them on the street.

“It’s time to get out of here,” Erv told him.

The family decided to explore other, less-spoiled areas of Colorado, and found Ridgway on the way to Telluride. After an initial ranch purchase on Specie Mesa in 1982, they continued to buy lands throughout the county, and currently the Wolf Land and Cattle Co. owns more than 14,000 acres in San Miguel and Ouray counties.

Land became another thing to collect for Wolf, something to keep safe and admire.“It was really my brother who had the passion to keep acquiring pieces of land even if they weren’t contiguous,” Mathew said. “He just saw such beauty in the area that he had to acquire it and be a part of it.”

Wolf loved Ridgway, a town that only recently received its first and only stoplight on the highway, a town where cattle drives still stop traffic in the spring and fall when ranchers move livestock to grazing in the high country or back to pasture, a town without any fast-food drive-thru restaurants. He loved the authenticity of the place, a town that hadn’t been ruined and “kind of protected its small-townness,” Lin said.

Ouray County was a place where the family could live a relaxed, normal life, where their daughter could wait tables at the local pizza joint if she wanted to, where they could ride horses in the Labor Day parade.

Before the pandemic, the family tended to use the ranch seasonally, and spent most of their time in New York City. But when it became a hotspot for COVID-19, with field hospitals bivouacked in Central Park, the family retreated to the ranch. They enjoyed each other’s company and the peace of their home in the woods, which is where Wolf was buried.

“I think it was a sort of lovely way to end his life, to be surrounded with his wife and daughters,” Mathew said. “He could have been in New York City or Panama, and he chose the ranch.”

“They all chose the ranch, which says a lot.”

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