Samuel Jones Wagstaff Jr. (4 November 1921 – 14 January 1987) was an American curator and collector as well as the artistic mentor and benefactor of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (who was also his lifetime companion) and poet-punk rocker Patti Smith.
Wagstaff is known in part for his support of Minimalism, Pop Art, Conceptual Art and Earthworks, but his aesthetic acceptance and support of photography presaged the acceptance of the medium as a serious form of fine art.
Wagstaff was the son of Samuel Jones Wagstaff Sr., a wealthy New York lawyer, and his second wife, Polish émigré Olga May Piorkowska, a fashion illustrator who had worked for Harper's Bazaar and was previously married to Arthur Paul Thomas.
After Hotchkiss School and a period as an ensign in the US Navy, where he took part in the D-day landing at Omaha Beach in World War II, Wagstaff graduated from Yale University; he then in the 50s took work in the field of advertising. He returned to school to study Renaissance art at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, however, and turned his energies to the art world.
In 1959, a David E. Finley art history fellowship took him to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. He served as curator of contemporary art at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, from 1961 to 1968, and as curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts from 1968–1971.
In addition to his curatorial work, Wagstaff was a noted collector, just like his father, who collected ephemera. fter a conflict with the DIA board of trustees over an earthwork by Michael Heizer, which had destroyed the immaculate museum lawn, he moved back to New York.
After seeing the exhibition "The Painterly Photograph, 1890-1914" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1973 and meeting Robert Mapplethorpe, Wagstaff became convinced that photographs were the most unrecognized and, possibly, the most valuable works of art. He began selling his collection of paintings, using the proceeds to buy 19th-century American, British, and French photography. Then, influenced by Mapplethorpe, Wagstaff's taste veered toward the daring, and he began to depart from established names in search of new talent. His collection was soon recognized as one of the finest private holdings in the United States. The photograph collection was sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, CA, in 1984, for a reported $5 million.
Wagstaff died of complications from AIDS on 14 January 1987, two years before Mapplethorpe.